ATLANTA — Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey was one proud poppa Monday night as he watched Alabama and Georgia square off to claim a guaranteed title for the league in the CFP National Championship Game.
Sankey spoke to reporters Sunday about a wide variety of topics that made for a compelling Q and A:
How proud are you about Monday night?
Very proud. In fact as you asked that question I sat up a little taller and straighter in my chair.
To be here in Atlanta, which in many ways is a home for SEC football, now that our championship game and (2018) media days will be here, it’s a very special moment. I’m hopeful of a great contest. I’m going to enjoy Monday immensely.
It must be nice to watch a game that’s a win-win for you.
It’s the third time in 10 months. The women’s basketball championship game was South Carolina and Mississippi State. The (College World Series) championship series was with LSU and Florida.
The fans of the two universities and of our conference need to understand how special this is. This isn’t easy to achieve. It’s more challenging than in 2012 (when LSU and Alabama played in the BCS championship game) because another game involved, in this case against the No. 1 (Clemson) and No. 2 (Oklahoma) teams in the country.
A lot of people credit the 2012 BCS championship game for leading to the creation of the CFP. Will this game lead to more change or expansion?
I actual go back and recall a lot of discussion after the 2004 season. You saw in that circumstance 10 years of debate and discussion of expanding the playoff. (Former SEC Commissioner) Mike Slive certainly discussed it 10 years before it occurred.
I don’t now that there is anything this year that would cause us to change the bracket. There was a set of principles that informed the decision making. I think those principles still hold.
I’m sure you’re aware of LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s new $2.5 million per year, four-year contract after Texas A&M tried to land him. Are SEC schools going after each others’ coaches a concern, as are rising salaries?
I’m always attentive to personnel moves and the nature of that. Dave remaining at LSU obviously captured a lot of attention. Dave is obviously important to LSU’s program and the leadership of that university makes a decision that it wants to keep its defensive coordinator in place. That happens all around this country.
The escalating salaries is one that is appropriately part of the conversation. I think it will continue to be part of the conversation. The reality is people can go make job inquiries of each other without limitations. Those realities combine with resources to inform the decision making on campuses.
I don’t know where the end (with salaries) is. I think there is an end. Resources and leadership drives that.
Is it important to remind the public that most of these programs don’t detract from the academic side? LSU athletics, for example, is self sufficient, and donates a minimum of $7.3 million per year to academics and has donated $48.3 million the last five years.
I’m familiar with any number of circumstances where money flows from the athletic department in different ways to campus. You go to the University of Kentucky or the University of Arkansas and you can tour science buildings that have been funded through athletics revenues. You can go to other campuses where they have a formula in place for funding that flows, or specific scholarships for the general student body. We’ve even had campus leaders make decisions about supporting some faculty salary adjustments.
The reality is there are any number of benefits to campuses from what happens in athletics. We are in a situation where we are able to fund our athletic programs from the revenue generated and that informs the decision making. We’ve seen that at Texas A&M with their hiring of Jimbo (Fisher). We’ve seen coaches in this cycle hired who make less than their predecessors. That’s not as remarkable, that’s not much of a headline, but it has happened based on media reports. We all have to keep that in balance in my view.
Has the playoff cheapened some of the bowls?
I don’t think so. I’m now in my third year (as commissioner) and we track bowl attendance, and attendance was up this year. There are challenges in the bowl structure. There are more bowl games. But I don’t think you can point to the playoff and say that is the reason something has happened in bowl games.
Has it contributed to some players, like LSU’s Leonard Fournette in 2016, choosing not to play in their bowl game?
The dynamic of individuals not playing, those decisions have been out there before. It’s just now there’s more attention.
Last year we saw Leonard Fournette, but Leonard was injured through the season and didn’t play several games. It became about what was next in his life. I’m awfully careful about try to diagnose something.
We bring our football leadership council together in February it was unanimous, that whether it’s the Independence Bowl in Shreveport or the Citrus Bowl in Florida, they want those opportunities to remain for student-athletes. I want to see those opportunities protected.
College football just had its first early signing period in December. Do there need to be adjustments?
I was clear about having feelings about it before there ever was an early signing period. I think you saw many of the concerns I identified in 2008 play out.
In a big picture way, we saw the acceleration around coach hirings. Obviously it played out on the big stage in the SEC in a meaningful way. You then have teams playing bowl games while having to make decisions about recruiting. I want to make sure we treat the current student-athletes properly. We also have 20 teams across the country playing in conference championship games during a week of needed intensity in recruiting.
I also watched a little of the Texas high school playoffs that happened after the signing date. We’re asking young people to come to a finality about their future where in some instances they’re still in the high school playoffs.
We’ve accelerated the process for young people and their families. We’ve also taken away academic information from universities who are now making almost four-year commitments because we changed the scholarship rules. We taking away seventh semester transfers. We’re also make it diff to access that December (standardized) test score. We making decisions (about recruits) with less information.
Why did the SEC vote for it then?
We opposed it very clearly. When we talk about early singing that was a commissioners vote and I was very clear about my opposition. When our representative went into the (NCAA) Management Council, we offered any number of amendments which we thought were better than what was in front of us. In the end we weren’t successful. In the end our representative, (Kentucky athletic director) Mitch Barnhart voted yes and I understand that.
Do you think the early signing period will be revisited?
The representation was that there would be a review after two years. How that manifests itself remains to be seen, but my clear expectation is that we’re engaged in a meaningful review.
Up front the representation was that we would only sign those firm commitments, those legacy commitments. My prediction was, ‘No, look at basketball. They sign about three-fourths of all basketball prospects early. I understand the numbers nationally were that some programs went to 21-22 signees (LSU signed 21).
I’ll agree to let it play out through another cycle. We’ll have a coaches meeting this spring in advance of our Destin (Spring) Meeting.
I understand why people supported the early signing period. I understand their perspective on the benefits. But I’m not sure the benefits completely justify what we’ve done.
Does college football have a ‘Cinderella’ issue in that it’s hard for a team outside the Power Five conferences to rise up?
In my view there is the ability. You have to be very intentional in how you structure your approach. I’ve used men’s basketball in our conf as an example. While we will never be a Cinderella in anything, two years ago we had two top-50 teams. We had to adjust our non-conference schedule. Now we have about eight top-50 teams.
Let’s go back to football. Two years ago, Houston beats Oklahoma in their opener in NRG (Stadium) then beats Louisville. I think they’re poised to have that opportunity. But the margin of error for all programs is very thin. There are certainly opportunities for Cinderellas, but there are only four slots. In basketball there are 68.
Do you suggest to your teams that it’s good for them to accept an offer to schedule Group of Five conference teams like UCF or others?
We’ve done that. Alabama played a Fresno State team that ended up in top 25. They played Colorado State and they were in a bowl game. Georgia played Appalachian State and that proved to be strong game. Tennessee opened a yr ago with Appalachian State and it was an incredible game. I don’t know how often we’ve played UCF, but they’ve been on our schedule.
Do Group of Five teams almost have to schedule three Power Five teams and beat them all to get in the playoff?
I don’t predict numbers. I go back to men’s basketball. We we spent a great deal of time talking about conference scheduling. The reality was a few yrs ago we weren’t gaining top-50 wins within our conference schedule. Today you can gain those wins. We had to change.
Where were you in for the CFP semifinals, the Rose Bowl or the Sugar Bowl?
The Rose Bowl. I go with our champion, which was Georgia.
Do you understand why people like to knock the SEC?
I’m a Yankees fan, so yes, I understand. You love us, you hate us, but you care about us one way or another. That’s good. I think most people have great respect for the achievements across this league. There will be detractors and naysayers, but everybody has that.