DESTIN, Fla. -- When he was 11 years old Greg Sankey won a contest for having the neatest desk in the sixth grade.
His prize? A book entitled "They Call Me Coach" by the legendary John Wooden. He's read it "dozens of times." The book meant so much to Sankey that he gave it to his future wife, Cathy, when they first started dating.
There is one quote from the book that has stayed with Sankey from the sixth grade until now. It is the only quote on his personal Facebook page:
"I will prepare myself then, perhaps, my chance will come."
After a lifetime of preparation, the past 13 years as Mike Slive's right hand man at the Southeastern Conference, Greg Sankey's big chance came last March. He was in Nashville attending a series of conference meetings surrounding the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament. At the end of a long interview process he entered a room with several conference presidents and was offered the job of replacing Slive as SEC Commissioner.
When Sankey accepted, a quick press release put out the news.
"Everything for a while after that was pretty much a blur," said Sankey, 50, who takes over when Slive retires on July 31. "I called my wife and my kids (he has two grown daughters)."
He went back to his room where he would have a couple of hours to let the news sink in. He checked his cell phone.
"There were about 300 text messages and 400 emails. I saw some things on Twitter that coaches and others had said that were very gratifying. It was really a special time. But there is a lot I still don't remember."
Over two months have passed since Sankey was named the commissioner in waiting. Life for native of Auburn, N.Y. (that's right, New York) has still been pretty much a blur as he makes the transition from trusted lieutenant to the man in charge. A big part of that transition begins at this week's SEC Spring Meetings, which conclude on Friday. This is the first time he has seen every coach, every athletics director, and every president since getting the job.
"I've always been involved in the content of these meetings so that doesn't change," said Sankey. "But I drove down here by myself in order to expand my thinking a bit. Mike is still the commissioner so you walk that line a little bit. But next year is coming at us. Mike has a line that I've adopted: 'There is no today. There is only tomorrow.'"
Sankey, you should know, is a fitness buff who has run 41 marathons. But the professional and personal marathon he has been running since March has been like no other, filled with fun memories and some real-world issues that he will face moving forward. Here are some of the highlights from our meeting earlier this week:
**--Sankey has always traveled a lot but the past few months have been ridiculous. I asked him, without looking at this calendar, to tell me everywhere he has traveled since being named SEC Commissioner in March. He didn't blink:
"Denver, Charlotte, Columbia, S.C., Chicago, Cleveland, Greensboro, Indianapolis, Tampa, back to Indianapolis, College Station, Augusta, Charlotte, home (Birmingham) three days for the (SEC) women's golf tournament, Dallas, Jacksonville, Los Angeles, back home for the baseball tournament and then here.
"I'm sure I've missed one." Whew!
**--Sankey did get a day off to see his oldest daughter, Hannah, graduate from Mississippi State. Hannah Strong has taken her mother's maiden name as she begins her professional career as an on-camera meteorologist at WANE in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
"Our last name is kind of distinctive and she wanted to do it on her own, not because of who her dad was. She wanted to stand on her own two feet," said Sankey. "She still wanted her name to be connected to the family. Besides, Hannah Storm was taken."
**--Sankey is a voracious reader. Every year he takes a week to go to the beach with a bag full of books-many with some pretty meaty topics. His schedule and his increasing work load have slowed down his ability to consume books the way the rest of us consume the morning news.
"Yeah, my reading list has been hurt," said Sankey. "I started a book on C.S. Lewis the week of the (College Football) playoff and it took me until the last Friday in April to finish it."
Sankey is about halfway through "The First 90 Days: Critical Success Strategies for New Leaders At All Levels," from the Harvard Business Review. Seems like a useful topic.
After the SEC Spring Meetings end on Friday Sankey has set aside Saturday to catch up on his reading and to decompress. He plans to get away the week of July 4. SEC football Media Days start on Monday, July 13.
**--It may seem like a no-brainer now, but leaving the Southland Conference, where he was commissioner, for the SEC 13 years ago was not an easy decision. Slive had interviewed Sankey in 2000 when Slive was the commissioner of Conference USA. Sankey turned that job down because he didn't want to move to Chicago, where C-USA was located.
"I told Cathy that if it was the SEC I would do that," said Sankey. "I would take that opportunity."
Fast forward to 2002. Slive had taken the job at the SEC and Sankey was being interviewed to replace him at Conference USA. He talked to Slive, who mentioned that he REALLY needed someone on his SEC staff to help with rules compliance.
"I was 38 years old with a fourth grader and a sixth grader," said Sankey. "We loved living in Dallas."
The only person on his Southland staff he told about the SEC opportunity was Lynda Tealer, who is now an administrator at Florida.
"I was concerned about dealing with compliance and enforcement issues again," said Sankey. "I was concerned that I didn't want to do laps in life and I was getting close to that."
Tealer told him to take the job at the SEC.
"She said 'Look, if you stay here in five years you will wonder. But if you take this leap and in five years, if you're not happy, you can come back. But you'll know,'" Sankey said.
He took the job.
**--"The day I became Forest Gump": On April 11 Sankey was sitting on the 18th green at Augusta National for Saturday's third round of The Masters. Jordan Spieth, the eventual champion, needed an up and down to save par. As the boom camera zeroed in it captured a close-up of Sankey in sunglasses and hat with the SEC logo perfectly displayed. It was, said Sankey, a "Forest Gump" moment.
Sankey's cell phone blew up.
"It was like I been named commissioner all over again," said Sankey. "When I got back I told our folks that we needed to have a bigger logo on our hats."
**--His anonymity is gone: Sankey is a very early riser. When he's at home, Sankey gets up about 4:30 a.m. for a workout. By 6:30 a.m. he's at his favorite Starbucks where he quietly maps out what needs to be done that day.
"It's the most productive part of the day," said Sankey.
For many years no one knew him at Starbucks. Now that has changed.
"Commissioner Slive started joining me a couple of years ago and of course everybody knew him," said Sankey. "But then people started to figure things out after I got the job. Then they wanted to take pictures. People are very nice."
**--Sankey is inheriting a conference with a completely different set of issues than the one Slive inherited from Roy Kramer in 2002.
"We recently had a gathering down in the Jacksonville area of all the athletics directors that had worked under Commissioner Slive," said Sankey. "(Former Commissioner) Roy Kramer gave a toast and said: 'Your job is going to be a lot less fun than my job was. You're going to have a whole different set of issues.'"
That's because college athletics-particularly college football-is exponentially more popular and more financially lucrative than it was just 13 years ago.
"The pace is quicker. The visibility is quicker. The finances are greater. External issues are much more front page," said Sankey. "Both of them (Kramer and Slive) took a conference that was regional in nature and made it into a national entity. That brings a whole set of issues into play."
**--A lot of those external issues-satellite football camps, full cost of attendance stipends, graduate transfer rules-are being debated this week in Destin. The landscape of college athletics has already started to change in ways that are making the traditionalists a bit nervous.
Take the issue of satellite camps. SEC coaches are not allowed to participate in summer camps more than 50 miles away from campus. Other conferences don't have that rule and can visit camps in the SEC footprint. It's about recruiting.
Sankey and Slive made it clear this week that the SEC will try to get national legislation passed to make the practice against the rules. Success on that issue seems unlikely and Slive said Wednesday that the conference will allow the practice in 2016 if the legislation doesn't get passed.
"It's not about camps. It's about recruiting events in the summer," said Sankey. "So we have two choices: eliminate our rule or support an NCAA rule that prohibits it. But there is mounting frustration that if everybody is going to do it....we have to unleash the hounds. This is not about going around the Southeast. We'll go in all the states where we have a recruiting interest."
My translation: If the SEC has to get into the satellite camp business it is going to go big.
Sankey's job-the one he's been preparing for his entire life-is to lead the SEC through the upcoming change. It's not going to be easy. The challenge will be doing it while keeping in place the core principles established under Slive in place.
"If you go back and look at what they (Kramer and Slive) did it was to make sure this conference was going to be as strong as it could be," said Sankey. "You do that by facing issues head on.
"My focus is on excellence because that is the expectation. I think excellence is attractive."
**--Finally, here is an item that tells you everything you need to know about the new commissioner: Last year Greg and Cathy Sankey celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary by raising the funds to build a clean water drinking well for a village in India. He did it again when he turned 50 years old.
"Greg is the right man to lead us at this point in the history of the conference," said Slive. "His skills perfectly match the times. He's a leader. We are in very good hands."