Destin, Fla.—Starting Tuesday, the Southeastern Conference will hold its annual spring business meetings at this Florida resort. As always, there is much to discuss.
Competitively and financially, it has been another good year for the SEC. Alabama came within a heartbeat of winning another national championship in football. Men’s basketball sent three teams to the Elite Eight (Kentucky, South Carolina, Florida), and the South Carolina women’s basketball team won the national championship.
Financially, the conference is at an all-time high. Earlier this year it was announced that each conference school on average received a record-$40 million in shared revenue for the most recent fiscal year.
Among the topics to be discussed here this week is a modification in the graduate transfer rule and the recently-approved package of recruiting rules changes which includes an early signing period for football in December.
The possible change in the graduate transfer rule will be the hottest topic with the greatest sense of urgency. The current SEC rule allows schools to take players who have graduated with eligibility remaining. But if that student-athlete fails to meet certain academic benchmarks, then that school is banned from taking another grad transfer for three years. The change would lift that ban.
Other conferences do not have such a ban, which the SEC coaches feel puts them at a competitive disadvantage.
This SEC discussion is being watched with much interest nationally because of published reports saying that Malik Zaire, a graduate transfer quarterback from Notre Dame, will sign with Florida if the rule is modified. So that decision could have an immediate impact on the SEC East race for 2017.
Monday afternoon, on the eve of these meetings, I sat down with SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey to get his take on the graduate transfer rule, the new recruiting rules, and a variety of other topics, including his summer reading list:
Q. You said earlier this year that you were proud of the academic restrictions that the SEC put in place concerning the grad transfer rule. But you also said that “recruiting is a dynamic environment.” Is that ever-changing environment why a modification in the graduate transfer rule is going to be seriously discussed this week?
Sankey: If you back up and look at our conference we (first) said that you need two years of eligibility (left) to play as a transfer and for a while that was wise. You need to recruit and develop (student-athletes) and watch them graduate.
But the culture has change around us. The transfer culture is different. People are graduating at a more rapid pace and have eligibility remaining. We will see the will of this conference this week (and) whether or not the graduate transfer culture will be more standard (with other conferences).
Q. So to be clear, there could be a modification of the SEC’s graduate transfer rule by Friday when these meetings come to a close.
Sankey: Yes, there could be. I expect us to have very in-depth conversations on these issues.
Q. Earlier this year the NCAA passed a new set of football rules that included an early signing period, (Dec. 20-22), expanded periods for official expense-paid visits (April, May, June), a 10th full time assistant coach, and limitations on a school’s ability to hire an individual associated with prospect (IAWP). It looked like an omnibus bill out of Congress with a little something for everybody in order to get it passed.
Sankey: Yes. And I’m not one who thinks it should have gone as an omnibus bill. I was an advocate that every piece of this legislation should have been considered individually. There are important implications when you’re talking about camp rules and you’re talking about individuals associated with a prospect, early visits and signing limits. Those are all very different. It’s very difficult to throw them all into a package.
Q. Then let’s take them one at a time. Your coaches don’t appear very happy with expanding official recruiting visits into parts of May and June.
Sankey: We offered a modification so that the only people who could come to an expense-paid campus visit were when school is in session so they can see real campus life. I don’t view it as healthy to bring young people on expense-paid visits during the summer. Our football student-athletes coined the phrase “the fake factor.” You don’t necessarily see what you’re going to experience when you’re enrolled as a student-athlete. I don’t think we got that right.
Q. The stated purpose for the early signing period in December was to give students who knew what they wanted to do a chance to sign and get recruiting out of the way. Do you see any issues with that?
Sankey: I think the early signing period has a set of outcomes associated with it—like the pressure to recruit in the fall. There are dynamics in December, when about 20 FBS programs in the first week have championship games so they can’t recruit. And you have in the range of 15 to 18 bowl games when people are preparing in that time span. That’s about 30 teams and it puts a great deal of weight on that December period.
We’re just trading a lot of pressures for five or six weeks of recruiting. I’m concerned about that and rightfully so.
Q. Some coaches are not happy with the rule that says they cannot hire an IAWP unless it is for a full-time position on their coaching staffs. They say it limits their ability to hire and develop coaches from the high school ranks.
Sankey: We’ve had (the rule) in basketball for a number of years because there was the perception that deals were being made. I’m not convinced that it was happening in football the way it was happening in basketball. But the perception has grown. No one is going to be stopped from being employed. You just to have to employ them as a (full-time) coach—not as an analyst or behind the scenes (staff member) if you’re interested in recruiting a student-athlete (associated with them). There will be a need to be more intentional from a hiring standpoint or a recruiting standpoint. I think (the rule) has been healthy in basketball and will be healthy when it’s implemented in football. It is overly broad or not? I think that needs to be discussed.
Q. There are things in the rules packages—like the addition of a 10th assistant coach—that your coaches supported. But it seems that most of the rules they are against.
Sankey: A lot of the messaging around this package of rules from the American Football Coaches Association (AFCA) said that the coaches were unanimously in support…that was repeatedly stated. Well, as I’ve watched other conference meetings and heard the rhetoric, either that was not a fully informed statement or people weren’t voting what they really believed. There is a disconnect between those statements.
Now we’ve got a circumstance where we need to make the best of it. Hopefully those involved in implementing this will be just as engaged in reviewing its impact and prepared to make adjustments if the unintended consequences are not tolerable.
There were a lot of smart people who sat in that room and talked. I’m absolutely confident our coaches and assistant coaches will recruit aggressively and successfully. It’s not the competitive part that concerns me. It’s about the health and culture of football—not just college football but high school football.
Q. One of the next things the NCAA Football Oversight Committee says it will look at is the overall size of college football staffs. The NCAA can make rules on how many on-the-field coaches are allowed and how many coaches can go recruit. But does it have authority to limit administrative and support staffs?
Sankey: I think we have to be careful on this topic for a lot of reasons. Obviously, we want to make sure everybody has the right legal advice as they go into these discussions. I do think it is appropriate to consider a staffing management plan—roles and duties and things like that. We have to be careful in this discussion because some of the early observations may not be exercising the amount of care that I would hope for on this type of topic.
I hope the discussions in the football oversight committee will take a deep dive into what’s needed to support young people. There is a health and safety aspect. There is the relational aspect and there is the development aspect. Hopefully the conversation won’t simply be numbers-driven but need-driven.
Q. After the SEC got only three teams in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament in 2016 you brought in former Big East Commissioner Mike Tranghese as a consultant. With five teams in this year’s tournament and three to the Elite Eight, you have to be happy with the progress that has been made in men’s basketball:
Sankey: We’re going through substantial change in our office around men’s basketball. A big change (that) was happening on our campuses was a key piece of what’s taking place. Now 13 of our 14 coaches have been in the NCAA Tournament and the other who hasn’t (Alabama’s Avery Johnson) has coached in an NBA Final. So we’ve improved greatly the coaching dynamic.
Then we got five teams in the tournament. Arkansas had North Carolina in a tough spot but didn’t get finished. They (UNC) were the eventual national champion. Then the weekend in New York City was special. To have two teams (Florida, South Carolina) in Madison Square Garden was a great experience.
Q. The Florida-LSU dispute over rescheduling their football game was one of the more difficult things your office dealt with in the past year. Is now fair to say that the rules have been changed so that the commissioner is now empowered to resolve such an impasse in the future?
Sankey: Yes that is fair to say. It was an oddity of the rules that has now been corrected. And now we hope to have great weather all fall.
Q. Two very high profile junior football players—Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette—decided to sit out their bowl games rather than risk injury. Is there a concern that this might become a trend?
Sankey: I think it’s unfair and not correct to lump circumstances together. Leonard was banged up early in the season. You mentioned the Florida-LSU game. He tried to play in that game but he just couldn’t go. Then he didn’t play (in the last regular season game) against Texas A&M. He was just hurt.
But on the other side you have (Texas A&M’s) Myles Garrett. He was pretty highly-rated in the draft (No. 1 overall pick) and he did play in his bowl game. And it was clear that he was going to play in his bowl game.
Are we seeing a trend? I don’t know that people really think through the competitive culture fully when they jump on these issues. Yet it is a topic that will continue to be a part of the conversation. We’ll see as it plays out. But I don’t want to overstate or understate the circumstances.
Q. Finally, what’s on your reading list for the summer?
Sankey. I have four books with me. One of them is a Bruce Springsteen book that (Orange Bowl CEO) Eric Poms sent me and said I need to read. Another is by Jon Gordon “The Power of Positive Leadership.”
I have a Tom Clancy novel. That one’s about three weeks from being read.
Q. You’re closing out your second full year as the SEC Commissioner. I assume this has been the fastest two years of your life.
Sankey: When you’re here and now (at the SEC Spring Meetings) you realize that you’re at the end of another year. But when you’re in the moment it can go. The days go by so fast. I remember when summer used to last forever.
Tony’s note: This summer will be very short. When the Spring meetings end on Friday, it will be less than six weeks before SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Ala., which begin July 10.