“He wants to be helpful, but if you screwed up, you were going to be accountable for that,” said Greg McGarity, who was then a top official at Florida and later spent a decade as Georgia’s athletic director. “He was not a get-out-of-jail-free-type person. If you violated rules, especially intentionally, he had no patience for that.”
A Power 5 chief and an embattled watchdog
The SEC’s leaders had set a meeting in 2015 to pick Slive’s successor. And although Daniel Jones, who was then Mississippi’s chancellor, had been gravely sick for months, he resolved to be there. He wanted Sankey.
“I, a committed anti-charismatic guy, saw an impressive, committed anti-charismatic guy, and I thought he’d be just right,” Jones said.
Other SEC chiefs were making similar calculations. David Gearhart, who was the Arkansas chancellor, said Sankey was “not the flashy type, but that’s what we liked about him.”
Their vote was unanimous.
In his second year as commissioner, Sankey faced the kind of situation that, at the time, counted as a crisis. Hurricane Matthew had forced the cancellation of Louisiana State’s game at Florida and fueled a spat between two of the league’s powerhouses and their players. (An L.S.U. linebacker, for instance, accused the Gators of being “scared” to play in Baton Rouge.)
Neither school was particularly pleased with the outcome that Sankey helped devise: The universities combined to spend $2 million to cancel nonconference games so they could play each other later, and policy changes gave the SEC more power for similar situations in the future.
“A lot of people at that point were really wondering if he was going to be able to overcome it,” said Paul Finebaum, who has covered the SEC for decades, now as an ESPN host. “I thought it was a critical moment where it could have gone two different ways. He played it very cautiously, and he may have lost a headline short-term, but, ultimately, he didn’t make a grievous error.”