ATLANTA — Greg Sankey is limping around on a knee that is feeling the effects of 41 marathons, most of which he has run during the last 12 years when he has been working as the Southeastern Conference commissioner’s right-hand man.
A few years back, Sankey decided to run a marathon a month for a year. He ended up doing it for 15 straight months, and one month he ran two.
The 50-year-old upstate New Yorker-turned-honorary-Southerner has never shied away from taking on challenges. And he may have a big one coming up next year.
As the SEC’s executive associate commissioner and chief operating officer since March 2012, he’s been handling day-to-day operations while Commissioner Mike Slive worked on major projects such as the SEC Network and the College Football Playoff.
The 74-year-old Slive announced Tuesday he will retire in July 2015. Sankey could very well be his replacement.
“Bottom line, I think he has the potential to be one of the truly great leaders in intercollegiate athletics,” Conference USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky said.
The foundation of college sports is being threatened in the courts, and their structure is being revamped. Sankey embraces the task of plotting a course for their future.
“Part of my effort to educate myself is trying to learn history. Where we’ve been and why,” he said in a lengthy interview with the AP at the start of the football season. “One of the things you learn is it has always been a bit of a struggle, the tension between the existence of college athletics on campus.
“From a core standpoint, it exists on our campuses because it’s centered on education. Sometimes there’s stress in there. There are problematic stories. There are volumes of great stories.”
Sankey grew up in Auburn, New York, and went to college to be an engineer. That lasted about two years. He said he still remembers the spot in the garage of his childhood home where he told his father, a pipefitter, that he wanted to teach and coach basketball.
“So I became a phys. ed. major,” he said. “It’s like the most extreme transition you can make educationally.”
Intellectual curiosity and willingness to make do have guided Sankey’s career. His first leap of faith was moving to Natchitoches almost three decades ago, so he could take a job as an intern in the athletic department at Northwestern State, making “$500 dollars a month, stuffing envelopes.”
He eventually moved to the league office at the Southland Conference, working in compliance. At 31, he became commissioner.
“My dad, I took him to the Final Four when I was Southland commissioner. He said, ‘I think you made the right decision,’ ” Sankey said.
When Slive became SEC commissioner in 2002, he walked into a conference that was an NCAA compliance wreck. Nine of the 12 programs were either under investigation or on probation. Soon after he started, a 10th was being investigated.
Fixing the problem was Slive’s top priority, and he hired Sankey to help him.
“We both saw and understood the issues and what it would take to make the cultural change that we have been successful making,” Slive said.
The SEC currently has three programs on NCAA probation, but Sankey proudly notes the problems have been more isolated incidents and that schools are better equipped to root out problems.
“We have 12 compliance staff on some of our campuses now versus one or two paying attention. Our coaches know these are not just compliance issues,” he said. “These are matters that relate to institutional integrity from the public.”
Sankey’s strength is breaking down complex issues and making them more accessible, Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said.
“Anytime we’re in a meeting and the agenda comes up with NCAA issues whether it’s legislation or autonomy discussions, it’s the Greg Sankey show,” Stricklin said. “He’s the guy that walks us through things that a lot of times can be a lot of minutiae.”
Sankey has played a pivotal role behind the scenes in NCAA reform that has led to the SEC, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 being given legislative autonomy.
“He’s been tracking it. Developing it. Writing the white paper, presenting the white papers. Taking feedback. Making modifications. His value to the ongoing reform effort, it just can’t be overstated,” Banowsky said.
Having seen life from both sides of Division I, SEC and FCS, Sankey has been a bridge-builder during reform.
“He has the ability to listen and understand the important interests of others, and he has the ability to see what’s important to his constituency and move that agenda forward and then understand where there might be conflict and try to identify ways to solve the conflict,” Banowsky said.
Sankey said it’s hard to predict the future of college athletics because so much could be determined by outside pressures, specifically court cases that could require more revenues being directed toward football and men’s basketball players. He hopes autonomy creates a more nimble NCAA and a healthier version of college sports.
“I think the NCAA should exist, will exist and it has to foster those opportunities in this education environment,” he said.
Figuring out where college sports are headed is Sankey’s job.
He seems to be in it for the long run.