Greg Sankey's frustration with the NCAA reaches boiling point: 'Sometimes you have to be a jerk'

DESTIN, Fla. — In a college world increasingly filled with empty suits, flapping gums and celebrity lawyers, Greg Sankey carved out some space Thursday to declare he is not a member of those distinct clubs.

The 59-year-old SEC commissioner, in his ninth year, did more than that at the conclusion of the SEC spring meetings. It was both about time and about his time.

In his own low-key way, Sankey simmered, declaring his frustration at a system he is both part of and increasingly despises. His comments came after a question at a final press conference regarding the SEC’s recent partnership with the Big Ten.

To backtrack: After January’s College Football Playoff Championship Game, Sankey flew to Phoenix for a series of NCAA meetings “where we accomplished little.” It was then he decided to call Big Ten commissioner Tony Petitti.

Afterwards traveling home, [I thought], ‘You know, we have some really big problems. It didn’t seem to me that we were working to solve some of the medium problems,'” Sankey said Thursday. “I have thought for a long period of time that if the two conferences could agree, you could fulfill a leadership responsibility. That was the genesis of the phone call.”

The two commissioners have since stressed they are not uniting to take over the world. They have decided agendas have to be set nationwide. The NCAA’s inattentiveness to, well, everything, sent the association into a legal spiral where it is currently trying to figure out the ramifications of the House settlement.

In the end, the SEC and Big Ten schools can pretty much afford the damage. But that’s not the point. The leadership void in the system is massive.

It just happened to be Sankey’s turn to fill it on Thursday.

“We need to have more conversations, not less,” Sankey said of his partnership with Petitti. “The line came to me at the end of [that] week — this was not a lightning moment — the realization you’re not going to solve the big problems in big rooms filled with people. That’s an opinion. I think that’s a shared opinion.”

So, in many ways, Sankey is flexing. And as the de facto most powerful person in college sports, he can. Maybe he should. It’s been a rough 12 months, especially. Sankey’s frustration has obviously grown since updating the NCAA Council last summer on the progress of an NIL working group. Thursday’s aha moment, the blaring signal that Sankey was pissed off, came when he was asked about his experience at the NCAA Council. 

“I decided to wait and see what people had to say,” Sankey said. “Nobody said a word. I jumped in and basically said, ‘You have to be kidding me.’ So I was a jerk. I tried not to be a jerk all the time … but sometimes you have to be a jerk.”

Sankey has become more agitated in recent months. Bringing up that memory was a trigger. And he wasn’t close to finished. Sankey is clearly frustrated at the pace of change as the NCAA now goes through the House settlement that will cost schools combined billions.

“There are times in the job when you’re a bully and times you need to be a statesman,” Sankey continued. “I try not to be a bully, really, but that day was enormously frustrating. It was for several reasons. I, as a commissioner, can go invite Oklahoma and Texas to join. I can sign media deals … but I can’t decide who’s on the women’s golf team.”

The NCAA has been so inattentive that it was forced at the point of a judge’s gavel to allow players to transfer as many times as they want. Academics now seem to be an afterthought. Administrators here were at a loss to explain the next steps in the wake of the House settlement. 

CBS Sports learned the parties in House should file a long-form agreement to the courts by late June, early July. When asked to define a long-form agreement, an exasperated Sankey said Thursday, “long.”

We are in the process of building the bridge as we cross the river and we’re writing the manual with one of our hands as we do so,” the commissioner said.

It was the most impassioned Sankey has been — at least in this setting — since his emotional reaction to SEC schools allowing alcohol sales at games. 

It was also an explanation of why Sankey, as the senior FBS commissioner, not only has massive influence, but pretty much deserves it. There is a stewardship angle to all this.

“And responsibility,” Sankey said.

Throughout his career, he has been a staunch supporter of the collegiate model. He also isn’t a bullshitter in moments like this. As co-chair of the much-hyped Transformation Committee, the experience was anything but transformational.

“We were told, ‘Blue sky thinking. Everything is on the table,'” Sankey said. “My frustration is, don’t ask me to co-chair something … if the game we’re playing is you actually don’t have responsibility to introduce big-picture thinking.”

The NCAA frequently reacts to criticism by reminding whoever will listen that the NCAA is the membership. But they’re not the ones responsible for enforcing weird rules, dragging their feet on transfer waivers, and wasting time penalizing schools for serving cream cheese with bagels at the training table. The little outlandish rule nugget was long ago rescinded, thank goodness, but the modern-era equivalent of it might be punishing, uh, mighty ole Southern Utah while turning a blind eye to the big boys. 

On a muggy, Gulf Coast afternoon, the most powerful person in college sports didn’t care who heard him inside a small basement auditorium at the Hilton Sandestin Beach Resort.

Plenty will now hear him outside of it.

Yes, Sankey makes millions. Yes, the Power Five has evolved into the Power Four, and into the Power Two as the Big Ten and SEC begin to dictate terms. In demanding 58% of revenue in the new CFP media rights deal, the conferences reminded the room their teams populated almost half of the bracket but previously got only an equal share of the revenue.

They can clearly operate outside of the NCAA. Sankey certainly didn’t have to make that clear. It’s already assumed.

Now what does the NCAA do with these turbulent times? This moment had its beginning when the Harvards and Yales of the world could tell Michigan and Texas what to do with equal voting power at the NCAA convention. It evolved in 1978 when college football separated into Division I and Division I-AA (now FCS). The epic 1984 Board of Regents case that loosened the NCAA’s monopoly on television broadcasts loosened another tranche of money.

That led to networks suddenly being able to pay millions for conference rights. The NCAA’s ancient rules couldn’t keep up with the money. That’s why we’re at this point in time on the brink of paying athletes to play sports.

It was inevitable. The only question was how messy the process was going to be.

Sankey has been more outspoken lately, taking hits for his March comments suggesting mid-majors lose their automatic bids to the NCAA Tournament. Then several SEC programs got upset by those mid-majors in the first round.

Karma, baby (just don’t expect Sankey to back down from that unpopular take). 

Part of Sankey’s credibility comes from an American dream career, climbing his way up to the top. The New York native earned his undergrad degree from the State University of New York-Cortland. He began his professional career as director of intramural sports at Utica College. He was both compliance director and golf coach at Northwestern State in Louisiana. As commissioner of the Southland Conference from 1996-2002, Sankey saw NCAA life from the bottom of the food chain.

“I’ve been on the other end of the competitive spectrum in Division I, on the other end of the financial spectrum,” he said.

“I respect and recognize the pressures and expectations on the other end of the Division I spectrum,” Sankey added. “But those have to be recognized and respected at this end as well.”

When a headhunter called in 2002, Sankey said he was “naïve” to think he could be SEC commissioner one day. After 13 years in Mike Slive’s inner circle, it happened. Sankey was named his replacement in 2015.

At a dinner saluting Slive, former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer made several toasts that night, finally stopping to recognize Sankey.

“I actually have the recording on my phone,” Sankey said. “[Roy said], ‘Greg’s going to need your support because he is going to have to navigate uncharted waters.’

“That dude nailed it.”

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