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November 30, 2018

Greg Sankey

Atlanta, Georgia

GREG SANKEY: Obviously, a significant weekend for us. I think it's only proper to honor Turner Cockrell. I was at dinner last weekend, and I received news of his really untimely passing. We are saddened along with the Vanderbilt community but also as a conference as a whole. I've been to a number of memorials for student-athletes, and every time it's one of those sad moments but also an opportunity for all of us to care. So our prayers and our best wishes are to he and his family but also to the Vanderbilt community, particularly Derek and his football team.

This is our, hard to believe, 25th SEC Championship football game in Atlanta, Georgia. Obviously, the last two years, last year and this year in Mercedes Benz Stadium, we walk into this game after a season of incredible competition. I've obviously had the chance to view that from the commissioner's seat, but to watch the College Football Playoff rankings show on Tuesday evening and see eight of our teams populating the top 25 is a national acknowledgement of the strength that we've had, and it reflects back on my observations around scheduling with the unique rigor that's present in our schedule.

Just a couple of things about this game, thanks to Chuck Dunlap, this is the first time -- the first top five matchup in this game since 2013. That was Auburn-Missouri that year, first time in the college football rankings era that's happened. Last time these teams played, it was that really close game down to about the 4 yard line, decided by less than a touchdown in 2012. There have been 12 times prior to 2018 an undefeated team from the conference has entered this game, and those teams are 8-4 in the conference championship.

We have 15 student-athletes that will have the graduate patch on their uniforms tomorrow between the two teams. We know that number will increase between now and our Bowl competition as graduation ceremonies take place. Part of our tradition is we just had a coaches luncheon. Probably one of the more entertaining conversations between the two coaches that we've seen in some time, and obviously Kirby and Nick have a long history together given their work.

We also will take some time this evening to honor legends at our Legends dinner, people as young as Zac Stacy, who played from '09 to '12, met him this morning. And Ronnie Estay, from LSU, who played from '68 to '71, between ages 4 and 7 personally at the time Ronnie was playing.

Also going to take a moment to honor Archie Manning. Archie has obviously established himself as a leader in college football. He's a hero to many. He grew up in my generation and saw him playing in the NFL, playing in pro bowls. Many in this region know his history from Ole Miss, but also what he's given to the game personally. Obviously, he's had two sons who have had incredible careers in the Southeastern Conference. His work for the National Football Foundation as an advocate for college football, his work with the media. I think that's incredibly important.

The intensity of the year reminds us of the continuing need to update the game, and many of you have opined about certain aspects that I think we need to engage in a deep conversation regarding as we move through this season and looking to next season.

Targeting rule is one of those and the penalty that's applied. I want to be abundantly clear that I completely understand and fully support the basis for player health and safety being at the center of this rule, yet we know from experience it is a rule that is well intended. It is a rule that has changed behavior. It is a rule that is sometimes difficult to explain, and even when officiated properly, which is what frequently occurs, is the center of controversy.

If you ask, well, how do we change behavior if we're still seeing targeting calls? Week in and week out, you see young men adjust in how they might deliver a hit, whether it's moving their head to the side, lowering their target. We know in the game that it is a dynamic game and these calls are going to be made.

Just to suggest a few questions that we should all be asking. One is is the penalty applied appropriate in every circumstance, particularly the half game suspension? I think there's wisdom in examining that and digging deeply into whether or not it is. This is not particularly predicting an outcome, but the rule's been in place now for a decade, and I think it's appropriate and timely that we engage in this type of review.

We need to change the terminology around the review process, and the targeting implies something bold and, I think, intentional and blatant, yet the rule's written to pick up more. It picks up either blows delivered or blows received at the head level, and is there a better way to communicate around the terminology of the rule?

The use of replay has changed, obviously, over the last three years with collaborative replay. There are some directives. What is forgotten in the rule is the rule says, when in doubt, it is a foul. That is a clear part of the rule and really non-debatable. So when you have those who do debate the merits of a call, and it's 50-50, by rule that's a targeting penalty. That's part of the difficulty we have in communication. Can replay assumptions help clear that up, and is there a way to make it more understandable?

I think and advocate, if we stay with the same nomenclature, the same rule, the same penalties, we in the college football community have a responsibility to more effectively communicate about this rule. It's not a marketing plan. It's a communication plan to help people understand and clarify some of the controversies that have arisen, and through the season to re-emphasize that player safety is central to this rule's existence.

Last week we had a seven-overtime game that raises the question of do we need to go that long? In a way, we were fortunate that the seven-overtime game came on a week when neither team played, but playing essentially an additional half hour of football in an incredibly strenuous environment should cause us to ask questions about are there better ways to administer ties at the end of regulation? If that game had occurred at a different time of year -- let's say we're playing in the heat and humidity in September -- the physical part of that game is even greater than we saw naturally occurring on a much cooler night.

Is it about placement of the ball? Is it about going for two right away? Did the ball go back farther than the 25 to begin? Do we require two-point conversions on every attempt? Should there be a limit? We haven't talked about ties in a while, and yet we still have them in our record books. Are there certain points we say a tie is a sufficient stopping point for this game rather than extending so long?

Certainly, when we've had games in this league that have gone five, six, seven overtimes, those become memorable moments, but it's worth asking the questions yet again.

I think there are other aspects of the game. I'm not going to bore you with technical pieces of football rules that we'll talk about. I do want to be intentional about communicating about officiating in the Southeastern Conference. I want to be absolutely clear. I have great confidence and great appreciation for the people who officiate the game of college football, both nationally and in the Southeastern Conference, and I have great confidence and great respect in the leadership and work performed by Steve Shaw as our coordinator of officials.

I referenced a moment ago that football is an incredibly dynamic game. People are reacting instantaneously. Opinions are sometimes formed days or weeks down the road, and our officials don't have that luxury.

We began in our office a discussion very early in the season related to what I think is a change in culture around officiating. So if we rewind the tape just a few years, you didn't have commentators embedded in game broadcasts sharing their opinions about officiating decisions and outcomes. We have that now. We have traditionally pivoted to say very little about officiating. We're exploring how that might change moving forward because the reality is in the vast, vast majority of the circumstances, our officials are correct, and rather than simply engage in the debate when there might be an error or a debate about a call, we should also emphasize the success that is achieved in properly officiating a football game.

Steve and I and members of our staff, and even engaging officials, will take a deep dive into our officiating program and look at every aspect to make sure we meet the right standards and practices. We also spend time with our athletics directors at an annual meeting. Again, I referenced this in the summertime as we look at scheduling. We obviously hear from them on a regular basis, but to go beyond just the feelings and questions after a game to look at how we support the best college football officiating program in the country. As I said at the beginning, I have great confidence, and I have the belief that we do already.

On the scheduling front, just to reinforce, in case you haven't heard, we play an eight-game conference schedule. One of the things I wish I had said when we were just down the street in July is this. There is a unique rigor present in the SEC eight-game conference schedule, and I think unique compared to our colleagues, whether they play eight or nine games. There's probably no better evidence and no better year not to talk about it in July, but to talk about it in December when you see that 8 of the top 25 are SEC teams, and to look at our nonconference success.

Again, as I said in July, we spend time reviewing our scheduling approach. There's always going to be discussion. There will always be opinions. There will always be information available, and we want to be attentive to those issues and that information. But as I said in July and I'll say again today, I don't predict a change any time soon.

With that, I'll be happy to engage in whatever conversation you choose to explore.

Q. Greg, rivalry week included a few altercations with some of your teams. You released a statement about Ole Miss and Mississippi State. The post-game scuffle after LSU and Texas A&M, just wondering about your comments on that.
GREG SANKEY: Obviously, very disappointed in what transpired after the game, and I have been in conversation with the athletics director subsequent to that game, and I've made clear that that type of behavior is unacceptable.

I'm also confident from my conversations and my expectations about how the individuals involved be managed, that both will take the appropriate disciplinary actions regarding each individual's participation, and that's my statement on that issue.

Q. Commissioner, to follow up on that, have we gotten to the point now where you would consider sort of a conference-wide summit where you sit down and say, hey, folks, this is totally unacceptable?
GREG SANKEY: I already have, Tony. Our athletics director meeting in January, where, as I said, we talk with a very specific focus on football, will include that type of conversation. And that expectation was set actually from the right kind of dialogue by individual athletic directors through the year well before rivalry week about, hey, with all the transition we've had in coaches and athletics director's role, how do we provide the proper leadership at the athletics director's level so everything is not to the conference office, but also a discussion about where should the conference office engage and engage in an intentional manner?

I wouldn't foreclose even future conversations about that issue in broader categories, so you can understand reporting forward from athletic directors' meetings with discussions and actions.

Q. How can you make officiating more transparent as far as the (indiscernible) of an official in the SEC? What is requirement to release how they're rated? Just the whole process. I know you can't give away everything, but it seems like there's this shroud of mystery over officiating that people don't get.
GREG SANKEY: So let's just back up a minute. Let him keep the microphone in case I weave and dodge, and I'll give you permission to ask. I think there are aspects of that we could be more transparent, so if it's about qualifications and backgrounds of officials, I think a conversation after the season with Herb and Steve on that topic. We're not going to go through everyone's resumes, but can share with you the experience there, the intentional effort to identify and recruit officials, what happens in the spring with respected officials to bring them into training programs, and how those folks may even be brought in or monitored, our working relationship with The Sunbelt Conference, which provides developmental opportunities for both.

So there's a mouthful in that. And I think we've been transparent in Referee magazine, which you probably don't read with great frequency. They printed our entire -- we've got a poster sized description of on the front our officiating program over a year's time and on the back what happens day to day through game week. That's one.

The second point you raised was about ratings. I'm not ready to go into we're going to publish ratings. I do think what I said earlier is responsive, that in this environment we have to communicate differently, and how that manifests itself, I don't know. I think I have answers, you can see in the NBA and the NFL, their officiating communication realtime so people can better understand how decisions are made. That has meaning, but we actually have communications meetings next week looking ahead to next season to see how we might be more transparent. Maybe not every piece of information you're asking, but that's that discussion in our office that goes back a couple of months.

Q. Will you all ever go back to -- I know you all did it a couple of times on the mike where you announced the crew had been suspended. Will you ever go back to that? Or is that something that's an experiment and you all kind of revoked it?
GREG SANKEY: I've not engaged in that. I think we hold officials accountable. We share that information internally. It doesn't have to happen very frequently. In fact, I think the times it has occurred, I think people have found out. Could there be a time where there's simply a public announcement of the removal of an assignment? Certainly, there could be.

I think we have to be careful about that because you can go back and look at those announcements and see that there's a spillover -- one of those was a 2008 public announcement. Good officiating crew, good referee, and we'll hear noise about that. So there's some unhealthy aspects of just issuing those types of suspensions. So I would not expect it would great frequency.

Q. One last thing, going back to the whole Mississippi State thing, how do you change a culture that's been there for 80 or 90 years? We're talking about with the fans, and it's an everyday thing. It's not like you think, because you can talk to ADs and you can talk to players, it's going to stop fights. They had fights 20 years ago. They're going to fight 40 years from now. I mean, what do you hope to accomplish with this? Because it seems like when you said that, Mike went, okay, what's he going to do? Is he going to come and get the whole state together and have peace talks?
GREG SANKEY: There are harder things, perhaps, in the world, but I'll let you fill in. No, I think I have a responsibility to start maybe a conversation anew, and it may not be anew because I know there's a great deal of history there. Do I think everyone will get along? Do I think my Twitter feed changes? Do I think opinions change? Not necessarily. I do think those of us leading our athletics programs have a responsibility. The last two years, we've seen incidents that need not be part of college football. The games should be intense. The passions should be focused on the competition, but there are limits, and I think that's the starting place for the conversation.

I don't expect to solve every concern, every issue, to remedy every either real or perceived issue, but I do believe there's a responsibility for a start of a conversation.

Q. Just to give you a chance maybe to do some preemptive lobbying, speculation in Saturday's game, if Alabama lost and you ended up with two one-loss teams again, could the SEC land two teams in the playoff again? Obviously, you've talked about the strength of the conference this year. Do you think that's a feasible thing? Obviously, it would be upsetting to folks, say, in Ohio and Oklahoma if they won on Saturday.
GREG SANKEY: The responsibility to the College Football Playoff Selection Committee is to select the four best teams. Based on the current body of work, they have said University and Alabama and University of Georgia football programs are two of the top four teams. I don't know what will happen tomorrow. If Alabama wins, obviously, they've been in a position so long that they're going to remain in that position, one would assume. I actually still think there's an argument that Georgia is still one of the four best teams, even with two losses, when I go back to that unique rigor of our schedule. And I know that the committee has indicated deep respect for the competition in this conference. They still merit consideration.

If the outcome is different, I certainly think the committee will be challenged in their evaluation. The SEC Champion will clearly be one of the four teams, and I think if there are two 13-1 teams -- excuse me. Let me go back. 12-1 teams. I got ahead of myself there -- in this league, then it is clear that you can justify both being two of the top four teams.

I think, without listing their resume, their play and evaluation of the football prowess of their teams is an indication that they rank at that level.

Q. Do you think too just the fact that a couple times when Alabama got in without winning the SEC and then won national titles under the old system and even in the current playoff system last year plays into that? Or do you think the committee just worries about that year to year?
GREG SANKEY: My experience is the committee evaluates each year. I think they probably communicated that. Just because of my workday, I've seen the show one time, so I don't know all of the talking points that are present. But I think in this year, from an evaluation of the two SEC teams currently ranked in the top four, the committee has spoken once, and I think, depending on the outcomes, could again see the clarity that those are the four best teams.

So what happened before in the BCS era is a different criteria. What happens now is the committee is charged with picking the four best teams. We have seen on multiple occasions, actually, teams that are not conference champions selected. Last year it was Alabama. This year it could be a runner-up perhaps on either side of tomorrow's game.

Q. With regard to targeting or I guess anything that happens on the field that there's a carryover suspension. I know you all said we don't have the power to overturn it on appeal or whatever, but should that be under discussion to give you that power?
GREG SANKEY: Let me be clear. It's not that we said we don't have the power. It's that the rules say we don't have that authority, and that was one of the perhaps confusing aspects of, what, mid-October of this season. The rule does have a paragraph about post-game review, but that's when video review is not part of the officiating in that game.

I think that's a question one could put on this list. I don't have a position on that right now. I actually think a trend -- and I would suggest the answer is no because there was a time when Monday reviews of potential targeting calls occurred in conference offices, and that was not the best way to manage that rule. We've since added video review. We've added collaborative review. And we have a great history of officiating the rule properly without the debate of whether it is or not. I think we have correct outcomes.

I think we need to look more substantively at the rule as opposed to creating another set of questions that have to be answered in game mode.

Q. Going back to what you were saying about two SEC teams being able to get in, perhaps even the loser Georgia with two losses. Do you think this puts at risk the current model for conference championship games, making them somewhat irrelevant? There's speculation this could open the door ultimately to an eight-team playoff being more beneficial than a conference championship model the first week of December with the evidence that you've presented of the SEC?
GREG SANKEY: Well, the great thing is there's a lot of talk around college football related to the playoffs, so we've accomplished something. Based on our sample of 27 to beat SEC Championship games, I don't think there's any diminishment of interest, whether it's coaches, participants, or student-athletes in earning a Southeastern Conference Championship, meaning there's still interest in these championship games.

I spoke on the Dan Patrick Show earlier this week to say, whereas people talk about let's do this and let's do that as far as a bracket size, you have to remember a few things. One, this is year 5, and I think the first four years have worked remarkably well. I've been more a fan of the even numbered years if you check the outcomes in those seasons. So we'll see where we head in this next one.

But it is built, from my perspective, in college football. I've lived through bracket expansion in another football playoff, and I'm not sure it's achieved that type of objective. I think four is healthy. I think the debate is healthy. And I think the debate is an important part for all of us who are thoughtful looking at our future, without any prediction of outcomes.

Q. To just kind of piggy-back on that, if it were to go to eight, I think SEC has a 9 and 10 team right now, do you think SEC would be the main beneficiary of that expansion? You might have half the bracket there.
GREG SANKEY: We have to adjust our goals, right? One could just look back through the College Football Playoff Selection Committee's work and make a determination of who in that particular year benefits. Would it benefit us? This is a year for us that's been different as far as the high end success and then the depth of success. I think it looks to the future in a way that creates expectations for this to repeat, but I don't know that that means we'd be 1, 4, 6. The history indicates there's others who have a little bit more access than we might in a larger bracket. But I haven't looked at it that way.

Q. Is there anything in the SEC bylaw that says the commissioner can prevent a school from hiring a coach if he's been involved in NCAA probation or other indiscretions. Is there something in the by laws that gives you that power? How long does a coach, I guess, stay in the doghouse?
GREG SANKEY: Our institutions make hiring decisions. There's no bylaw that precludes hiring through the commissioner's office. We did adopt, invest in in 2017, an updated bylaw that requires an institution to check with our office when they're contemplating hires to determine if there's -- if the individual has been involved in unethical conduct or level 1, level 2 major infractions case. And if the institution makes the decision to hire, before that hire's made, the university president or chancellor has to confer with the commissioner, which is generally about an oversight plan to help prevent those problems from occurring again.

Q. Commissioner, are you in favor of scheduling to not have the FCS games against the SEC and just playing major schools?
GREG SANKEY: It's my athletic heritage, having worked at the FCS level causes me to say no. There are realities in the way we schedule that provide the need for games like that. We begin playing conference games -- I think next year or perhaps the following, we have conference games as early as week 1, always in week 2 with multiple games. That means you're going to have open weeks as opposed to some who essentially play the last eight or nine weeks.

If you look at our requirement for the ninth autonomy five game, those are generally played in the first three weeks. Now the requirement for the institution and even for the conference is pretty challenging because you have to place institutions in there. I think even those who have suggested that they won't play those games have found that reality to be true, that some of those have a proper place.

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