Home » Joel Klatt goes one-on-one with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on expansion

Joel Klatt goes one-on-one with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on expansion

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Joel Klatt goes one-on-one with SEC commissioner Greg Sankey on expansion

Editor’s Note: This summer, FOX Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt is interviewing the biggest names in college football as part of his new podcast series, “The Joel Klatt Show: Big Noon Conversations.” The following is an excerpt from Episode 3, featuring Greg Sankey. You can listen to Episode 1 with Deion Sanders here and Episode 2 with Nick Saban here.

Type “most influential people in sports” into an internet search and you are bound to quickly find SEC commissioner Greg Sankey.

The 59-year-old, who began his professional career as a director of intermural sports at Utica College, has since worked his way up to being one of the most well-respected leaders in college athletics. But as he sits at the forefront of an ever-evolving college football landscape, does he view himself as the most influential person in the sport?

Greg Sankey on the most influential people in college football

Joel Klatt and Greg Sankey discuss the most influential people in college football.

FOX Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt posed that very question in a recent sit-down interview with Sankey for Klatt’s summer podcast series, “The Joel Klatt Show: Big Noon Conversations.”

“No, I think I’m in a role that creates a level of influence or provides a platform,” Sankey responded. “I like to think I’ve been effective on some issues, but If I was to either accept or seek that kind of definition, it would be chasing the wrong thing.”

Klatt’s interview with the SEC commissioner, which was released Mondaydove deep into conference and College Football Playoff expansion, and ongoing challenges that the current calendar presents. Sankey, of course, knows all about crossing hurdles.

Sankey made sure college football, specifically SEC football, was played during the 2020 season, despite there being ongoing discussions surrounding canceling the season due to the COVID-19 global pandemic.

During the summer of 2020, Sankey was consistently speaking with presidents and athletic directors of the 14 SEC institutions, trying to gauge an understanding of if and when campuses were planning to reopen and what that meant for collegiate athletics.

One Saturday during the month of July, he made the decision to text six members of his staff, as well as several college football media members, which just so happened to include Klatt, asking them a question that would help recast his thinking and approach about playing college football that fall.

“I asked them to go back to this time last year, on this very Saturday, and give me the top-five reasons we were going to play college football that fall,” Sankey said. “If anybody listed money or TV as their reasons, I said I wanted them to take away those reasons and tell me why else we play college football.”

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The responses began to flow in, each one offering different perspective, but there were two overarching themes that sat with Sankey and led to him changing his course of thought.

“People spoke about connection and growth, and not just connection to fans, but connection to those campuses, those cities, those states,” Sankey said. “I really started to think, ‘If we can play 150 consecutive seasons of college football, then we don’t have to do it the way we’ve always done it.’ There were a lot of other options.”

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That’s when Sankey got to work, putting a strategic plan into motion that would allow SEC football to take place that fall. It began with starting August practices later than other conferences and moving back the opening game of the season to the last Saturday in September. The SEC would play a conference-only schedule, which would consist of 10 league games and a conference championship game.

The decision proved to be the correct one, as the first COVID-19 interruption in the SEC college football season didn’t take place until Oct. 17, when the conference had to postpone that weekend’s Missouri-Vanderbilt game. By that time, there had already been near 30 games postponed throughout other conferences across the nation.

When Nick Saban’s top-ranked Alabama team defeated Florida in the conference title game on Dec. 19, that marked the completion of the 69th SEC game played that fall, with only two cancelations taking place all season.

It was a fulfilling and rewarding result for Sankey and the SEC Conference as a total of 139 FBS games were canceled or postponed due to COVID-19 related reasons. For Sankey, the reason the SEC was able to accomplish such a feat at a time filled with doubt and uncertainty ties back to his original answer of why he doesn’t view himself as the single most influential person in college athletics.

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“I may have been effective during that period time, but my influence was based on the collaboration and communication that informed decision-making,” Sankey said.

In addition to his leadership efforts surrounding the 2020 COVID-19 season, Sankey has also been a key figure in college football expansion, as it relates to both the College Football Playoff and his own conference.

In 2021, it was announced that the boards of regents at Texas and Oklahoma unanimously voted to accept invitations to join the SEC, meaning the Longhorns and Sooners, two of the top-six winningest programs in college football history, were set to join his conference.

Then, four months later, another shockwave was sent through the college football universe, as it was announced that the College Football Playoff would triple in size, going from four teams to a new 12-team model beginning in the 2024 season.

Sankey played a pivotal role in the expansion of the College Football Playoff, serving as a leading member of the group that first revealed in June 2021 that it was proposing the 12-team format. However, despite his leading role, Sankey was content with the playoff staying at four teams with the SEC having such great success with that model, having won six of the nine national championships since the CFP began in 2014.

“The number of teams that have captured national championships out of this league is remarkable, and that is unique,” Sankey told Klatt. “That is part of what sets us apart, so we didn’t have to expand.”

However, while the number of national titles the SEC has captured during the CFP era led to Sankey being comfortable with a four-time model, he knew that expanding the playoff would provide more access to programs and conferences across the country, which was ultimately better for the sport of college football as a whole.

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Joel Klatt sat down with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey to discuss the ideal 2026 playoff structure.

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“The feeling was that we weren’t building upon the existing health of college football to the future health of college football,” Sankey said. “We want college football and high school football to be as strong as possible across the country, and that is why the access is really important, to be in the playoff.”

The number of Power 5 teams to appear in the CFP since it began nine years ago are as follows – SEC: 11, ACC: eight, Big Ten: eight; Big 12: five, Pac-12: two.

Sankey’s hope is that with expansion, more teams will be able to participate in college football’s championship event, which in return, will elevate the stature of more programs across the country.

That hope will soon turn into a reality as the final year of the four-team CFP format is set to get underway in just over two months, and then when the calendar flips to 2024, a new chapter in the ever-evolving college football landscape will be written.

But according to Sankey, to successfully grow and evolve the sport, it all begins with leadership, which is not about one individual, but rather a group of individuals, collaborating together to achieve one common goal.

“If we’re not collaborating across key points of influence, then we’re not going to be successful,” Sankey said. “Leadership is about communication, collaboration, trust, compromise, readjusting, reevaluating and then going back and starting through that process again on a daily basis. It can be lonely at times; it need not be lonely all the time.”

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