Greg Sankey's Long and Winding Journey to Sept. 26

Tony Barnhart

It was Tuesday, March 10. Greg Sankey, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, was working his cell phone while his wife, Cathy, was driving to Nashville. The SEC men’s basketball tournament would start on Wednesday.

It was, Sankey said, “My last normal day.”

Wednesday’s two games at Bridgestone Arena were played as scheduled and the two winners—Georgia and Arkansas—would advance to Thursday’s second round.

But there would be no second round.

Thursday at 11:47 a.m., just before the first game between Tennessee and Alabama, the SEC office announced that the rest of the conference basketball tournament had been cancelled “based on latest developments and the continued spread of the coronavirus.”

Later in the day the NCAA announced that the men’s and women’s basketball tournament, set to begin the following week, had been cancelled. To put it more bluntly, sports in the United States had been shut down and no one knew when it would return.

And thus began a journey for Sankey unlike any of his predecessors ever had to face.

The weeks and months since March 12 have been a blur of ZOOM calls, phone calls, texts and every other communications method in the world as Sankey, the SEC’s athletics directors and presidents have enlisted the smartest people they could find, hoping to chart a path to safely restart sports in the conference before the start of football season.

That path, while it has been bumpy at times, still leads to this Saturday, Sept. 26, as the SEC is scheduled to open the 2020 football season with seven conference games. The SEC’s 14 teams will play a 10-game conference-only schedule.

It is a schedule like no other for a season that promises to be like no other.

When I spoke to Sankey on Tuesday his only wish was to get safely to Saturday with all seven games left intact.

“There aren’t going to be many restful nights this week,” said Sankey, who replaced the late Mike Slive as commissioner in 2015. “But I’ve felt that if we could just get to Sept. 26 and get started we would have a chance to finish.”

It has been quite a journey.

THE JOURNEY BEGINS

On Sunday, March 8 Sankey was in Greenville, S.C., for the championship game of the SEC women’s basketball tournament. After presenting the winner’s trophy to No. 1 South Carolina, Sankey drove back to Birmingham. He would spend Monday at home before heading to Nashville on Tuesday.

At this point the COVID-19 virus is in the public consciousness but on a very low level. Example: On Saturday, March 7, Duke and North Carolina played their traditional regular season ending game. When it was over the two coaches—Mike Kryzewski and Roy Williams—gave each other a fist bump instead of a handshake.

But on that Tuesday, the Ivy League cancelled its men’s and women’s basketball tournaments due to concerns about the virus.

On the trip to Nashville Sankey is trying to get as much information as possible on the where the virus was headed.

Sankey tells Associate Commissioner Herb Vincent to begin drafting press releases that range from the tournament going on as scheduled to complete cancellation.

“I just wanted to be prepared no matter what happened,” said Sankey.

On Wednesday, March 11 the SEC had its regularly-scheduled athletics directors meeting at the site of the conference tournament. It would be the same day that Dr. Anthony Fauci, who would soon become a household name, testified before Congress on the state of the virus. That got everyone’s attention.

“We started our (athletics directors) meeting talking about COVID,” said Sankey. “We tried to move on to other topics but we weren’t getting anything done.”

The athletics directors reconvened about 2 p.m. at Bridgestone Arena. Wednesday’s first game was set to begin at 6 p.m. local time. The arena was equipped with hand sanitizing stations and information posters on how to protect one’s self from the virus. Knowing that the arena would only be half full, Sankey decided to let the fans in as planned and then regroup later that night to decide next steps.

The decision was made that Thursday’s four games would be played in front of essential staff, family members, and credentialed media only. It was a plan similar to what the SEC used when the tournament had to be moved to Georgia Tech when a tornado hit the Georgia Dome in 2008.

But during the course of the evening word came that an NBA game between Oklahoma City and Utah had been postponed before tipoff after a Jazz player, Rudy Gobert, had tested positive for COVID-19.

“Rudy Gobert altered our entire view,” said Sankey, who got back to his hotel room at 1 a.m.

SHUTTING DOWN THE SEC TOURNAMENT

Sankey could not sleep. At 5:30 a.m. he headed to the arena.

“I tried to find some space for myself to think,” Sankey said. “This was one of those times that you feel things right in the gut.”

He remembered a conversation he had earlier in the week with Ray Tanner, the athletics director at South Carolina.

“I told him I had Hurricane stomach,” said Sankey. “It’s that feeling you get when a Hurricane is bearing down on one of your schools.”

By 9 a.m. some presidents and faculty reps had arrived at Bridgestone Arena for their scheduled meetings. Sankey took a call from NCAA President Mark Emmert updating him on several issues related to the virus.

At 10:30 a.m. Sankey made his recommendation to cancel the rest of the tournament. The SEC made the official announcement at 11:47 a.m. on Twitter.

Sankey said he was beyond disappointed for the players.

“It was really an emotional feeling that I didn’t see coming,” said Sankey. “I looked back at the Hurricane tournament (won by Georgia in 2008). I will never forget the Georgia player who called it the best day of his life. We had worked together to give him that opportunity.”

As soon as the decision was announced Sankey walked through the arena because he wanted to talk to the players and coaches from Alabama and Tennessee. But they were gone. He spent the rest of the day calling his coaches.

Later in the day Emmert announced that the NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournament had been cancelled.

Friday, March 13 Sankey remained in Nashville. His time was spent shutting down all athletic activity in the SEC, including spring football practice. The day ended with Sankey in his Nashville hotel room eating pizza and reading a book: “Just Mercy: A story of Justice and Redemption.”

On Saturday morning, March 14, Sankey drove back to Birmingham. He said he will never forget the lobby of the Omni Hotel, which earlier in the week had been bustling with people excited about the tournament. Now it was empty.

“It was amazing how quickly things had changed,” said Sankey.

THE MEETING THAT WOULD CHANGE EVERYTHING

On April 14 Sankey had a long conversation with Stella Self, a biostatistician at the University of South Carolina.

A biostatistician takes data from sources like the coronavirus and determines how it will impact individuals or groups.

Her primary advice to Sankey was to be patient with the virus and to put off major decisions for as long as possible.

“She emphasized that this was a new virus and that we would be getting new data every day,” said Sankey. “And the longer that major decisions are put off the better data that we would have to make that decision. That became an anchor point for me.

“She said to think about what you have learned in the last 30 days. Then think about how much you’ll know 30 days from now. And just start multiplying that.”

The input from Self played a big role in the SEC’s ultimate decision to set its football start date at Sept. 26, later than any other conference. Sankey felt it gives the SEC the best chance to finish the season.

“Bob Caslen, the president of South Carolina, said it best. He said ‘Let’s go slow so that we can go fast.’ And that’s what we have tried to do.”

SATURDAY MORNING WITH MARTY AND McGEE

But there have been some difficult moments along the way. When July rolled around the COVID-19 numbers were spiking in Georgia, Florida, and Texas. The issue of mask wearing and social distancing had become politicized. There were photos of crowded beaches and bars in the South. And the same people who were crowding those beaches and bars were asking Sankey if there was going to be SEC football in 2020.

And the commissioner had had just about enough of it.

“That morning brought a lot of things to a head for me,” said Sankey.

“That morning” was Saturday, July 11 when Sankey appeared on the Marty (Smith) and (Ryan) McGee Show on the SEC Network.

As soon as Sankey went on the air, McGee knew something was wrong.

“The Commissioner is always so cool and calm and collected,” said McGee. “He is always the most level-headed guy in the room.

“But he was genuinely angry and worried.”

McGee and Smith asked Sankey point-blank about his level of concern about the 2020 season.

“High to very high……We’re running out of time to correct and get things right.”

It was the first time Sankey had publicly expressed this level of frustration.

“After the interview ended and we went to commercial break there was total silence in the studio,” said McGee. “We all just looked around at each other thinking ‘did he just say what I thought he said.?”

McGee’s ESPN email box blew up and so did his Facebook page.

“It was a combination of personal and business,” said McGee. “But that is where the reality of it and the gravity of it hit us.”

After the show, Sankey wrote this on Twitter, basically calling out fans who were not doing the basics to prevent the spread of the virus:

“The direct reality is not good. I want to provide an opportunity for college athletics to be a part of the Fall but we need to all consider our behavior to make possible what right now appears to be very difficult.”

COMING DOWN THE HOME STRETCH

So much more would happen, such as the Big Ten’s decision on Aug. 11 to shut down football operations and hope to play the following spring. As expected, the Pac-12 joined the Big Ten.

As fate would have it, Sankey had his annual physical on that day. Down 30 pounds from an early morning running regimen, he passed with flying colors.

“My blood pressure was great that morning,” said Sankey. “We knew all eyes would be on us. But we were moving forward.”

There is no question that the Big Ten made its decision believing that the other Power Five conferences, including the SEC, would follow. And in many quarters it was said and written that the shutting down of college football for 2020 was imminent.

But Sankey had mapped out his plan to start the football season long ago. And when the Big Ten pulled its power play Sankey had already made his calls to his presidents and built a consensus to remain calm and continue to execute the plan. The ACC and the Big 12 sided with the SEC and college football for 2020 stayed alive.

Meanwhile the Big Ten, under first-year commissioner Kevin Warren, was having nothing short of a total revolt from players, coaches, parents, and fans because of the shutdown. On Sept. 15 the Big Ten announced that it would resume practice and start its season on Oct. 23-24.

In a time when college football is trying to survive and get through a season unlike any other, Sankey has emerged as the calm, unquestioned leader of the sport. If there ever is an overall commissioner of college football, the conversation will start with Greg Sankey.

Sankey said he’ll spend Saturday at his home office or his downtown office. Maybe both.

“I probably won’t sleep Friday night,” he said.

That’s because games continue to be postponed because of positive tests and contact tracing.

On Tuesday Notre Dame’s game at Wake Forest schedule for this Saturday was postponed due to COVID-19. It is the fourth ACC game to be postponed. Last week a game between North Carolina and Charlotte was postponed less than 48 hours before kickoff. A game between Baylor and Houston was postponed less than 24 hours before kickoff.

“If we get seven completed games on Saturday night that will be a success,” he said.

And it will complete a very significant leg on the journey that began way back in March.

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Tony Barnhart

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