ST. LOUIS — Monday night’s biggest winner was determined long before the firing of the first confetti cannon.
Unlike bundled-up fans of the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide who made their way to frigid Indianapolis for college football’s national championship game, SEC commissioner Greg Sankey rolled into Lucas Oil Stadium knowing he could feel nothing but warmth.
Before kickoff, his league was guaranteed to have its fifth CFP champion in eight installments of this four-team version of the playoff. This year marked a third consecutive winner. And it was the second time in five seasons a Georgia-Alabama championship clash guaranteed in advance the arrival of an SEC victory.
“It’s pretty cool to be worrying about not offending either involved team,” Sankey joked during a Monday morning SEC Network appearance as he discussed going about picking out a team-neutral tie color.
Sankey normalizing his role as Switzerland at the biggest game of the year is just the latest item on the legal pad’s worth of reasons he has become perhaps the most powerful leader in college sports.
Too far? More like, too late.
Less than seven years ago, the professor-like Sankey made the quiet transition to commissioner after serving as the league’s executive associate commissioner and chief operating officer. The late SEC commissioner Mike Slive, as wise as he was, could not have predicted the many ways the college sports landscape would change after he retired. He would be proud of how Sankey has positioned the SEC during what have become tectonic shifts.
That would be out in front. Creating change, not reacting to it. Winning a whole lot along the way. And yes, inspiring all kinds of emotions, ranging from fear to flat out jealousy, in the competition.
Put it this way. When the other leagues form a so-called alliance against yours, your league is doing something right.
Let’s review some of Sankey’s latest great hits.
• Under his watch the SEC landed a new TV rights deal with ABC/ESPN that reportedly went for more than $350 million.
• If one person alone can be thanked for the existence of a 2020 college football season, it’s Sankey. His decision to go to a 10-game, conference-only schedule during the first season played through the pandemic, remember, came at a time when the Big Ten and Pac-12 were prepped to punt. Those decisions were reversed when the SEC planned to play. It was a case of follow the leader, and Sankey led.
• Sankey’s stealth-mode poaching of Texas and Oklahoma from the Big 12 this summer stunned the college sports world, made the SEC even stronger and put the Big 12 on death watch. Did it hurt feelings? Of course. Was it a brilliant move for the SEC? Of course.
• Sankey in August secured a contract extension that will keep him at the helm through at least 2026.
• Sankey is one of the leaders shaping the CFP expansion discussion. He has the SEC’s many critics unsure of what to do. They can’t stand All-SEC title games, but if the field expands to 12, what stops five or six SEC teams from crashing the party?
• The NCAA, perhaps in fear of Sankey one day leading a breakaway from its outdated and decaying model, has asked Sankey to help lead a committee that is working to rethink the NCAA’s highest division as calls for the end of amateurism become more popular.
So, yes, a lot of power. Increasingly so. With no end in sight — even if the NCAA will one day cease to exist.
Whether it is picking the conference to win the next football championship, or betting on which league will be in the best shape five years from now, which is your pick? Here’s a hint. It should be even easier than penciling in Alabama to win the SEC West and Georgia to take the East. Sorry, Nick Saban and Kirby Smart. The lock is Sankey.
There should be both a sense of comfort and an obvious challenge here for Missouri, and for black-and-gold fans who are tired of feeling slighted by SEC-assigned items such as kickoff times and bowl destinations.
At this time of great turbulence for college sports, the SEC is the best place to call home, especially as long as Sankey has the wheel. What Mizzou has to answer, daily, is if it’s content to just ride the wave of revenue sharing, or if it is going to stick a rudder in and chart a challenging course toward becoming a bigger player in college football’s biggest, baddest league.
The SEC will continue to get bigger, badder and better. Its commissioner is making sure of that.
Those chasing from the outside have catching up to do. Those chasing from the inside have keeping up to do.