Why Sankey has led the SEC to new heights after so long

Greg Sankey has long been the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, but his tenure has only just begun. After Sankey led his conference through the tumult that ensued the divorce of Texas A&M and…

Why Sankey has led the SEC to new heights after so long

Greg Sankey has long been the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, but his tenure has only just begun.

After Sankey led his conference through the tumult that ensued the divorce of Texas A&M and Mississippi State, the SEC also is in a position to best many of its predecessors and surpass even its current heavyweights.

Some of the SEC’s top rivals — Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan State, North Carolina and Florida State — are deep into a 10-year, $950 million contract with ESPN and have won 22 national championships since 1995. Alabama, in comparison, won three national titles in Sankey’s first six years, earning 10 SEC titles, five at the moment and in 2015. The Tide are 5-0 in the College Football Playoff semifinals during Sankey’s tenure.

In addition, Georgia and LSU became one of the most highly regarded football programs in the country in Sankey’s five years before both missed out on the playoff.

It’s a dynamic that rarely occurred in the SEC, which largely has been a one-horse show that never had much depth. Most SEC coaches operate out of the shadow of those at Alabama or LSU, and there have been plenty of coaches willing to give up those great programs for more reasonable ones.

That changing landscape is one of the factors that Sankey has worked to cultivate since he took over in 2013.

At meetings in College Station, Texas, in 2013, Sankey began to assemble a subplot, and a powerful one at that. In a crowd of 123 at a hotel outside of Dallas, Sankey asked the coaches of the so-called Power Five conferences for their endorsements in every conference office.

There were several meetings over the years in which Sankey could have railed on former Michigan coach Brady Hoke’s methods at Michigan — Sankey was hired away from Miami — and screamed at his predecessor at Missouri, Gary Pinkel, for sticking with a permissive option offense that backfired. In the end, Sankey played the game to the hilt, finding a balance between recruiting power and personnel, which created the ideal blueprint.

Missouri proved it to be a masterstroke — the Tigers have 15 FBS coaches, the most in the SEC, and placed five in the first four of the Cotton Bowl. They also have won the highest playoff-qualified total of any of those P5 conferences — 15.

Ohio State has also been on the upswing under Urban Meyer, a win away from its third consecutive national championship and a Fiesta Bowl victory this year. Joe Moorhead’s tenure at Penn State has improved by a category, and “Coach Osborne,” defensive coordinator Mike Farrell is one of the nation’s hottest coordinators after winning four of his last six games.

At the same time, Sankey has avoided firing coaches who perform poorly, and for the most part, he hasn’t hired from outside.

While some of the Power Five have tried to implement boundary markers and regulation, Sankey has governed the Big 12’s West division and sprinkled his imprint throughout. Earlier this season, Oklahoma State hired Mike Gundy away from Oklahoma — the first time Gundy has left, but nearly every other time he has been hired away — and new Missouri coach Drew Lock will get to play for Sankey.

The template is simple and has not changed under Sankey’s watch. It’s not about looking at some national championship, and saying, “Let’s go play for one.” The games are important, just as they were under former SEC commissioner Mike Slive, but Sankey has made sure his league never has acted like a factory.

The SEC has followed the best recruiting model of any conference, he argues, and that has yielded a 60-hour work week and created a pecking order from which he’s emerged as the leader. He insists, though, that the long-term goal is to become the best conference in college football, not just one of the best.

Now, it might be time to start packing up.

Leave a Comment