Sankey: Mid-July period "critical" in deciding fate of 2020 season

Commissioner Greg Sankey said Tuesday that he'll hold off on making a decisioon about SEC Media Days (July 13-16) as long as he can.Vasha Hunt/USA Today

Tony Barnhart

On Thursday, March 12, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey announced in Nashville that the remaining four sessions of the conference basketball tournament would be cancelled amid concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus. 

Before the end of the day on Friday, March 13, the NCAA Tournament had been cancelled as had all spring sports, including spring football practice and potential spring games. In short, sports were shut down in the United States.

Since that day in Nashville Sankey has been on a journey that has been nothing less than “a complete disruption of what I would call our operating rhythm.

“Normally this would be our busiest time with championships and meetings, travel, and graduation,” he said.

Instead, Sankey and his fellow commissioners have been living in a virtual world where they convene on a daily basis trying to determine if there will be a college football season and, if there is, what it will look like. And if there isn’t, how to manage the financial fallout, which could be catastrophic.

“It is a fluid situation that can change daily,” Sankey said from Skaneateles, N.Y., where he spent Mother’s Day with his family. “We are living in an “IF” world in the morning. We can’t answer all those questions with a yes or no or black and white.”

Sankey and I touched on a number of topics during our conversation:

WHAT A TYPICAL DAY IS LIKE

What people forget is while there is much time being invested trying to plan for the Fall and all the questions that surround it, there is still the day-to-day work of the conference to be done. On Tuesday, Sankey was scheduled to meet electronically with his head men’s basketball coaches and his head women’s basketball coaches. Normally, these meetings take place in person during the SEC Spring Meetings in Destin, Fla., at the end of May. Those meetings were cancelled.

The conference recently named a new head of basketball officials in Mike Eades.

He has a call with his 14 directors of athletics twice a week. There is a weekly call with the presidents and chancellors.

On Wednesday there will be a video conference among the head football coaches.

“So you can say that the communication is relatively steady,” he said.

SEC MEDIA DAYS

Two of the five power conferences—the Pac-12 and the Big 12—have already announced that their football media days will be held electronically. Several Group of Five conferences have made the same decision.

SEC Media Days are set for July 13-16 in Atlanta. Sankey said Tuesday that plans continue to hold the event in Atlanta, which normally includes more than 1,000 media members, but there will also be contingency plans.

“We have a runway to make that decision and that is an asset. But we also know that every day a little bit of that asset slips away,” said Sankey.

Sankey said he had a chance to consult with a biostatistician, who analyzes data and statistics done on biological subjects.

“I came away from that meeting believing that when you have major decisions take as long as you can,” said Sankey. “Because the longer you take the better information you will have to make that decision.”

Sankey said the timing of the decision will take into account that a large number of people have to make travel arrangements to get to Atlanta on July 13.

DO THERE HAVE TO BE STUDENTS ON CAMPUS TO PLAY?

After an April 15 meeting between the College Football Playoff committee and Vice-President Mike Pence, it was almost a given that unless the students were back on campus for the Fall semester there could be no football.

"Our players are students. If we're not in college, we're not having contests," said Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, who was on the call and spoke to CBSSports.com.

NCAA President Mark Emmert is also in this camp.

But in recent days some representatives, including Bowlsby, have said that if the entire university is on-line that it would be an “acceptable” environment to play football.

This is going to be a hot debate as we get closer to a decision on the season.

As of this writing 13 of the 14 SEC schools (Vanderbilt is the exception) have announced that they intend to have students on campus for the Fall semester.

Each university will have its own plan to re-open the campus. What to do with athletics will be a part of that plan.

“The first step in this process is our universities returning to operations,” said Sankey. “We need for our universities to be up and running. But we’ve been careful (talking publicly) about what that might look like.”

MUST ALL CONFERENCES START THE SEASON TOGETHER?

Sankey made some news on April 30 when he was asked by a Jacksonville radio whether or not all the power five conference would have to open the season as one.

“There is room for different conferences to make different decisions,” he said. “If there are a couple programs that aren’t able, does that stop everyone? I don’t think it does. But the ability for us to stay connected is important.”

Sankey said that this is one of those situations where it is impossible to address all the hypotheticals, which makes it hard to answer a complex situation with just a sound bite.

“We’re all connected, certainly by schedules. And our priority is on playing (the season) as scheduled,” he said.

CONFERENCE-GAME ONLY FOOTBALL SCHEDULE?

On Monday a story broke that the Pac-12 is considering a football scheduling model for this season that would include conference games only. The Pac-12 plays nine conference games.

Could this happen in the SEC?

Sankey pointed out that all the schools in these circumstances are putting together contingency scheduling models of every kind. The hope is that you never have to use any of them except the original.

“My focus is being prepared to play the season as scheduled,” he said.

DECISION IN MID-JULY?

While Sankey wants to put off a decision on the 2020 football season as long as he can he understands “you don’t have forever.”

There are still 109 days until the start of college football season, which has a limited number of games on Aug. 29. All of the SEC teams start on Labor Day weekend

The desire is to give the players and the coaches 4-6 weeks to prepare for the first game. So do the math.

“I would think that the mid-July period would be critical,” he said.

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