- Heather Dinich, ESPN Staff Writer
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On the evening of March 12, following a hectic, historic day in which he was named the next commissioner of the SEC, Greg Sankey was finally alone with his wife, Cathy, and it was quiet.
"It worked," he said.
"She said, 'What worked?'" Sankey recalled. "I said just all of it. There was no grand plan. I don't think you can scheme your way to this type of role, but you make decisions along the way."
The biggest decision of his career, though, was one he didn't make.
That was in the hands of the SEC presidents and chancellors who, after an international search, named Sankey the eighth commissioner of one of the wealthiest, most powerful conferences in college athletics, effective when Mike Slive officially retires on July 31. As executive associate commissioner and chief operating officer for the SEC since 2012 -- and Slive's right-hand man -- Sankey was a natural choice to succeed Slive. The conference athletic directors were unanimous in their support for him.
"We certainly hoped for it," Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart said.
And yet there were no guarantees.
"It wasn't just given to him," Slive said.
Sankey knows this better than anyone.
"There were a couple of times in the search when the weight of it, the not knowing, really got me," Sankey said. "Obviously it had been on my mind since mid-October, when Mike's retirement announcement was made. It really became pretty much a focus of my life from January to mid-March, preparing and thinking. There were a couple of late nights where I was like, 'What am I doing?' but that was small. You're always going to have that. Since the announcement, it's been really kind of freeing because I don't have to wonder. I can think about what's really out there. Mike has been great as we look to transition."
Sankey has continued to work alongside Slive, 74, who has maintained his lead role in spite of radiation and chemotherapy treatment for prostate cancer. The duo represented the league together last month at the Associated Press Sports Editors' Southeast Region meeting in Birmingham, Alabama. They were together at the recent College Football Playoff spring meetings in Irving, Texas. They will again be the faces of the conference at the SEC's spring meetings next week in Destin, Florida.
When the SEC holds its popular media days in July, though, Sankey will be the one on the official interview rotation.
"Mike Slive, if he's in a room, he's usually the smartest person in the room -- unless Greg Sankey is also in the room," Mississippi State athletic director Scott Stricklin said. "Then it's a tie. ... They're like great chess players in that they don't just see the next move, they see three or four moves ahead. I don't know what that looks like, but I have confidence that Greg does. I have confidence that he can see down the board and know how to position our league and our schools to make sure we're going to be in good shape."
For the past 13 years, Sankey has been quietly working in Slive's shadow -- until now.
There's no hiding from SEC fans in Birmingham, the home of the league offices and the heart of the conference.
That's where Sankey lives.
For more than 12 years, he has visited the same Starbucks in his hometown almost every morning. It's part of his ritual. He wakes up at 4:30 a.m., gets his Iron Tribe workout in at 5:15, and is in Starbucks to "read and reset" around 6:30.
Nobody ever really gave him a second glance -- until he was named the next SEC commissioner. Strangers have since approached to congratulate him. Sankey went out to dinner with his two daughters, his wife and his parents after the announcement, and he was amused to learn SEC fans wanted to get their pictures taken with him.
"You quickly understand the prestige of the position," he said, "the level of interest."
Even his daughters have taken a new interest -- in his wardrobe.
"Mike Slive, if he's in a room, he's usually the smartest person in the room -- unless Greg Sankey is also in the room. Then it's a tie."Mississippi State AD Scott Stricklin
Sankey's oldest daughter, Hannah, recently graduated from Mississippi State, and has been hired as an on-air meteorologist. When Sankey came back from the basketball tournament the week his promotion was announced, she said, "Dad, what are you wearing tomorrow for this press conference? You're going to be on TV."
"My daughters have never taken an interest in my apparel," he deadpanned. "I think I dress myself fine. Others may disagree."
Sankey's Twitter bio (@gscantweet) perfectly captures his personality and priorities: Husband. Dad of two daughters. Thoughts are my own...but have become more interesting of late. And, yes, I work for the SEC.
(He's a bit understated.)
His workouts, however, are not. Sankey has run 41 marathons (that's 1,074.2 marathon miles -- about the equivalent of a round-trip from Gainesville to Knoxville). In 2009, Sankey ran one marathon every month -- for the whole year.
"That was my midlife crisis experience," he explained.
Sankey has since retired from running marathons -- at least in the literal sense.
"That's who Greg is: one foot in front of the other and he'll keep pressing forward until he accomplishes his goal," Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley said. "That's what he'll do as commissioner."
Since 2006, the SEC has had a national champion in 17 of its 21 sports. The SEC has won 14 national championships in football, basketball and baseball during that span. And the league has won seven of the past nine football national titles.
Last year's 309.6 million revenue was the highest in SEC history -- and following the first season of the SEC Network, that payoff should be surpassed when the more recent number is revealed this week in Destin.
"I have the luxury that I don't have to do major renovations," Sankey said.
Instead, Sankey will enter the job focused on national issues like conference autonomy, freshmen eligibility, transfer rules, APR and ongoing litigation involving player compensation and more.
"We are in good shape, but you never get to a level spot," Stricklin said. "You're either going forward or backward. Greg's got to take us forward, whatever that means. Obviously, we have some challenges currently going on with litigation. We have some opportunities with the autonomy and what that presents to us. We need to be smart and strategic with how we use those opportunities."
Foley, the longest-tenured athletic director in the conference, said it's nothing Sankey can't handle.
"I think the issues he's going to have to tackle as commissioner play into his strengths," Foley said. "Obviously, the college landscape is undergoing significant changes with the autonomy and the five larger conferences now having the ability to navigate some of their own rule changes such as the cost of attendance. There's no better rules guy for understanding the rules culture. He's not an enforcement-type person where he's always looking at rules, but he understands rules and he explains them. He gets it. Obviously there are some legal challenges out there that may or may not change how we're doing business. To me, he's the perfect guy to help us navigate through stuff like that."
"He is the right guy for the right time in our conference," he said.
The bigger challenge might just be replacing Slive, who is like the Bobby Bowden of commissioners, managing to entertain and engage fans, coaches and media while at the same time conquering a culture of profit and winning. Slive is closing in on 80 national titles during his tenure, but there is also a level of excellence to maintain within the classroom.
"To be able to stay at that high level you've got to continue to push," Barnhart said. "That will be a challenge. It won't be easy to continue to accomplish the things this league has been so good at. It will take great effort, and he's the guy capable of that kind of effort."
He's also had the benefit of time well-spent with Slive.
"I don't think it's a question of giving advice; it's a question of doing what I do, and him watching what I do," Slive said. "If you ask him, he's probably learned something from watching me work. It's more about walking the walk than talking the talk."
Sankey has met with the SEC athletic directors as a group, and he has also started to make his way to every campus in the conference. He stood barefoot in the sand volleyball pit at South Carolina and spoke at a lecture series at Texas A&M. He's made an effort to interact with the students and athletes at each school -- much like Slive has a reputation for doing.
Slive said he hasn't truly had time to reflect on his tenure as SEC commisioner, but he's ready to move on.
"I've enjoyed it, I'm proud of what we've done, and I think Greg is particularly well-suited for the kinds of issues in terms of the autonomy issues, and the governance issues," Slive said. "He's played a big part in all of that development. I think we're all well-served by him coming on board. I've had a good run. I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world, but I'm ready to let somebody else do it and sit back and spend more time with my 3-year-old granddaughter."
Slive and Sankey are at different points in their lives and their careers, but they've enjoyed this time of overlap as commissioner and commissioner-select.
The decisions Sankey has made in the past helped him get here, but it's the choices he'll make for the conference in the future that will truly define his career in the SEC.
In a little more than two months, Greg Sankey will follow Mike Slive as SEC commissioner. What makes him the right man for the job?