As part of his conference-wide tour, new Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey has made it a point to visit all 14 member institutions for a day, meeting with coaches, student-athletes, administrators and the like. On Tuesday, it was Mississippi State’s turn when Athletic Director Scott Stricklin picked Sankey up after a bumpy flight and brought one of the most powerful men in sports to his campus and the team meeting room for MSU’s football squad.
Inside, Dan Mullen and the football staff awaited his arrival, as did the rest of the coaches, staffs and administrators from across the department. Baseball, volleyball, track and basketball. Compliance, business, marketing and academics. Plenty more, too, were there to hear from the man at the top of the chain in which they all work and reside.
Sankey’s introductory words were lighthearted and often self-deprecating, but his presence was strong and his message serious and clear. He had a PowerPoint presentation breaking his thoughts down, but when it momentarily looked as if technical difficulties might prevent him from using a visual aid, it became clear he didn’t really need it. He knows the words by heart, and his message opened with a challenge and a reminder to the men and women representing millions upon millions of dollars worth of athletic programs sitting in front of him.
“What you actually do,” he told them, “is move people from adolescence to adulthood.”
Sankey’s general presentation consists of three keywords followed by a summary, beginning with what he considers to bethe most important category: Scholars. Beneath the title the message reads, “Graduate every student-athlete.” The idea is to prepare them for the rest of their lives, for adulthood, by ensuring they have the tools necessary to succeed.
Some, Sankey knows, will leave school early with the promise of professional careers as athletes, and good for them. But for the majority of those who will not end up on such a career path, education resulting in graduation is of the utmost importance. If someone exhausts their eligibility without graduation, “it’s your job to go get them” and make sure they find a way to finish their degree, Sankey told the room.
“We are judged now by whether we educate the young people on our rosters, and you cannot forget that,” he said.
The following two categories, the Commissioner said, are important, too, but education and graduation are the most crucial things they do.
However, those who watch and follow from the outside, he conceded, also have other goals. Namely, the title of category No. 2: Champions.
The banner below the title reads simply and directly, “Win every championship.”
“The expectation of our fans is that we win every championship, as crazy as that is,” Sankey explained. “But those are the expectations, so we may as well embrace them.”
He quickly ran down the list of NCAA championship competitions, ticking off on imaginary fingers the number of SEC teams in the running for every event from the College World Series and College Football Playoff to the NCAA Championships for golf and cross country.
Sankey recognizes the difficulty of winning even one title, let alone multiple or, in a perfect world, every championship. But he wants to try, and given the success of the conference, the expectations aren’t totally unreasonable.
However, his greatest demand is that no one in the SEC ever lose their shot at a title or have a championship trophy taken back because they couldn’t follow the rules. For the first time since 1984, he pointed out, not a single school in the SEC is currently on probation. That could change, sure, as Sankey confessed he’s “not naïve enough to think we’re perfect.”
But his goal is to foster an atmosphere of compliance, honesty and integrity, being the best in the best way possible.
The end of the second transitions nicely into the third and final category: Leaders.
“Influence our region, the nation and the world,” the sub-header reads.
The idea is simple, though the actions required to follow through can often be difficult and complex. Boiled down, Sankey was reminding some of the most influential people in the state, southeast and even the country of the responsibility that comes with their position. As championships follow education, so does leadership follow them both, the hoped-for end result of success.
“If we educate well and compete successfully, we have a leadership platform unlike any other,” he sad. “It is, really, about changing the world.”
To offer the best example he’s seen in his 13 years in the SEC, and as way of closing, Sankey told the story of swimmer from the University of Georgia, a native of South Africa who followed up her undergraduate education by pursuing the things most important in her heart.
“My goal is to take the education I received at Georgia,” Sankey recalled her saying, “and return home to take a leadership role in the government.”
That young lady, that future world leader, is the perfect example of transitioning a student-athlete from adolescence to adulthood. And, just as Sankey said, that’s what it’s all about.