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December 6, 2019

Greg Sankey

Atlanta, Georgia

THE MODERATOR: We're now joined by Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey. Commissioner Sankey will make an opening comment, and then we'll take questions for the commissioner.

GREG SANKEY: Good afternoon, everyone. I notice everyone filing out quickly after the coaches, so I'll try to keep it interesting for those of you who remained.

28th opportunity for the SEC to have a Football Championship Game, third year here in Mercedes Benz Stadium. We add in that fourth National Championship Game with our two teams, and it's becoming a new home for us.

I think also the fourth time these two teams have met, and a good time to reflect that last year we had a TV rating that indicates the national significance of this game every year, a TV rating that exceeded those of the College Football Playoff semifinals.

We're also accustomed -- and I think we're going to see it tomorrow. We're accustomed to our teams being in the middle of the playoff hunt, and being the rankings with two of the top four, that opportunity is there for both.

Another exciting year. We have nine -- actually, ten Bowl eligible teams. Missouri obviously faced a disappointing outcome last week from the NCAA's infractions appeals committee. I'll talk about that in just a moment. We had five teams in the top 10, top 12 through the season, highly competitive. At dinner last night, I said, if you go from stadium to stadium on a weekly basis, I'm of the opinion that we have the most intense competition of any level of sport in America on a consistent basis, particularly starting, myself, with what happened on CBS, beginning with Auburn's game at LSU and every week thereafter, the last seven weeks of the season, were almost like playoff games on our campuses.

Yesterday we saw the news related to the ongoing debate about name, image, and likeness with a bipartisan working group being formed at the congressional level in the senate. The last time we as a conference met with our membership was our mid-October meeting of presidents and chancellors, and one of their clear messages is the recognition that the things are changing around us, but also the openness to this conference. We're ready and willing to engage. In fact, at a leadership level, we've talked about what the future may look like for the next couple of years. We're obviously in litigation, so we've always been intentional and careful about how we communicate around these messages.

One of the clear messages we've heard is a patchwork of state laws across the country simply don't work to support national competition, and as states consider bills, once we turn the calendar in the new legislative session, I think one of the things that California did that was wise was provide a 2023 effective date. So there was some time to engage to be thoughtful in what the future may look like and would hope that same intentional approach about allowing time for thought, discussion, and debate will take place. That's part of the encouraging element from yesterday's bipartisan announcement at the federal level.

It's given the direction, it seems, that congress is going to be involved as we look towards what the future collegiate model may represent.

I also think it's really important to understand there's not another sports endeavor that provides the level of opportunity, the education, the growth. We had a career tour here. I talked to student-athletes who are at the end of their collegiate career, football players, basketball players, swimmers and divers, cross country runners, and we are outstanding at moving young people from adolescence to adulthood, opening up opportunities for them. We're certainly not perfect as an enterprise, but I think we do things incredibly well at the collegiate level, particularly around intercollegiate athletics.

I referenced Missouri sanctions. We're obviously disappointed, and I communicated about our disappointment and its appeal to be denied, particularly after four months of waiting, to have the same sanctions in place was an additional part of a bitter pill. It was a part-time academic tutor involved, 12 student-athletes. I was also disappointed candidly and think the NCAA membership deserves better, but the NCAA's account in response to Missouri last week almost shamed them to say the NCAA membership's responsible for these rules.

I think it's clear that we understand the penalty matrix, the expansion of the committee on infractions. Those are not the traditional membership votes. Those are products of working groups. Those are products of task forces that go into the board of directors. I have served on some of those working groups, where you are clearly messaged that, hey, we've set an expectation from another working group or task force. This needs to move forward.

That is not the kind of membership vote that is contemplated by that tweet, and I want to make sure that people understand. In fact, I think the tweet suggested that Missouri was somehow complicit in setting these policies, and that's not an accurate representation. Again, candidly, I think we deserve more as membership than what that tweet from the NCAA national office provided.

The disappointment's real, and I think the observations about consistency and change in the process that Missouri has made are valid and need to guide us as we move forward. For example, there's one softball student-athlete, as I understand, involved with this part-time tutor. The softball team now faces a postseason ban, and I've been in those committee on infractions rooms, and I know that there are dedicated people. Those are tough issues. But we also have to make sure in a big picture at the national level we handle these issues with the right kind of sense and the right kind of commonsense frankly.

At the beginning of our season, I talked a lot about officiating, feel the need to talk as much about officiating. You know that, when we get through the season, we go through a wholesale evaluation of our program. I think that helped us improve last year. For instance, we added preseason camps where each of our crews were on each of our campuses. They're obviously split in different directions for two-day camps during preseason practice.

You saw the monitor on a stick on the sideline. We added the input of the on field referee in communication and collaboration with the video center and the in-stadium replay official, the in-stadium replay official being the individual ultimately responsible for the decision in the evaluations which then go through January. We go through a wholesale personnel evaluation, led by Steve Shaw, our coordinator of officials, and our 20-plus officials involved in in-game and video evaluations.

So we look forward to a great game tomorrow. Despite some of the challenges in front of us, I'm convinced, as I said years ago, our best days are ahead, and I'm proud of us as a conference that have achieved the kind of success represented in the Arkansas women's cross country team's national championship and the opportunity to be showcased tomorrow on the football field in front of a national audience via CBS.

So I'll stop and see what may be on your mind in addition to my opening comments.

Q. I'm just wondering what you think, I guess, the level of urgency is going to be going into the NCAA convention to discuss name, image, and likeness, and do you expect it to be immediately productive or kind of maybe where we are on the timeline for the NCAA membership to be handling this?
GREG SANKEY: The NCAA has clearly set a timeline. In some meetings earlier this week, Pat, I made the observation that I have certain duties every day that are apparent, and I think name, image, and likeness for all of us in college athletics will be a daily thought exercise, if not a contemplating the future type of exercise. That's reality. That's a different timeline than just the kind of bureaucratic approach.

As we see state legislative initiatives play out, that may affect even what the NCAA has said. I'm one who thinks we need to be thoughtful in considering what the model looks like. I don't think the California state legislation is a destination that's the most effective, but they've obviously set a marker that has created a greater sense of urgency.

As we think through these opportunities and have discussions with legislators, there needs to be a bit of time to allow for effective decision-making. Whether it's the NCAA's timeline or others, that remains to still be written. But for all of us involved, it will be on the timeline on a daily basis at this point.

Q. Commissioner, this is a question we'll ask you every year, but we're halfway through the 12-year contract for the four-team playoff. In your conversations with your presidents and your athletics directors, are they still happy with the four-team model, or is that something that's going to be discussed?
GREG SANKEY: They are happy with the four-team model. Last March I engaged our athletics directors and our presidents and chancellors in an intentional conversation about our view of the playoff, which provides that validation. The four-team playoff has worked, is working, and can continue to work.

But you remember, out of Santa Clara last year and some of the comments post-selection about expansion, the board of managers made a statement that we have an obligation to undertake a regular review of the playoff. We are supportive of that. So that's the second element of our presidents and chancellors observation.

Then the third is really a listing, an inventory of items that must be considered before a launch into this playoff format conversation. Obviously, the impact of players has to be foremost on our mind, the impact on our programs, our coaches, our administrators, fans' interest level. What does it mean for the regular season? Where do things fit? That may produce an answer that four is the right number. We're supportive of that review but think there are key elements that must be reviewed within that review.

I should say should be considered within that review as opposed to reviewed in that review. That would be a more precise way to communicate.

Q. A couple of quick questions for you. If you could, just speak to what this SEC Championship means in terms of showcasing your conference -- two great teams, the millions that watch. And second, it's not official yet, but it certainly appears like Joe Burrow has got a very good shot of winning the Heisman Trophy. What does the Heisman Trophy winner mean for the conference? You've seen a few of them.
GREG SANKEY: Is Ross Dellinger in here now? One of my memories from the season, given what we can achieve -- it probably just feeds the ego that I ask if he's here -- was a conversation where Joe Burrow was explaining in July eating an apple every day in the morning because it provided natural caffeine. Part of the fun of the job is you come to know people differently than just these folks on a TV screen, and it's been fun to watch him play.

Jim Schaus, the new commissioner of the Southern Conference, and I had a cup of coffee. Jim was the AD at Ohio. He said, I watched Joe shoot hoops when he was 8 or 9 years old because his dad was on Frank Solich's staff. Fun to see this young man develop. We do as we do in moving young men from adolescence to adulthood, you get to watch young men grow up.

I was not at the Texas A&M-LSU game, a member of my staff was. We've been to any number of games in Death Valley, and he said that was the loudest noise he heard when Joe ran out of that tunnel to be celebrated. Those are the great things that happen. Good for Joe and good for his family.

From a meaning standpoint, I'm probably prohibited from saying this, it just means more as we talk about this because we've written that one. I think it's always meaningful when you have two teams who are literally in the middle of the College Football Playoff hunt. It just elevates the interest. We know there's national interest in what we do even without regard to those rankings, but that magnifies the game. To be in a stadium that's one of the best stadiums in the world, the national broadcast audience watching, it's an important part of what we do.

As we talked about these hypotheticals around College Football Playoffs, I've said very clearly our conference championship game is ultimately of the utmost importance to this league. It's how we determine a champion. It's a cultural event. It's one that our fans want to be a part of on a regular basis, whether their team is present and participating or not. It's an incredibly special weekend for us.

Q. I wanted to ask you about the destiny of the two teams currently playing in the SEC Championship and that you could have two teams in the playoffs once again. What does it say about the gap between some of the top tier schools in the SEC, and not just on the lower end of the conference, but also the rest of the country, in that it's so much of the football power seems to be concentrated here and not elsewhere?
GREG SANKEY: The fact that we're successful at the highest levels is a tribute to this conference, about the support for the coaching, for the fans, for the young people that choose to be a part of it ultimately. The young people on our teams provide that success.

Within the conference, you have two teams at LSU and at Georgia who made coaching changes in the relatively not too distant past. We've got three coaching vacancies open now, and I've watched programs -- there's a movement up and down over time, and I'm certain that our programs are working today, if they're not playing in this game, to achieve this level of success.

So when there is a variance -- we're always going to have top teams. We happen to have six, I think, really good teams -- five really good teams from the national ranking standpoint, excuse me. I think we have a continuum through another level of our Bowl eligible teams, 6-6 or better. They're not National Championship at this point, but they're building. And then you have some change that's taking place, just like what happened at LSU or at Georgia a few years ago, as intended to move those programs forward.

From a national standpoint, I think one of the realities, we don't want to apologize for our success. We're rather proud of it. I do think we provide a challenge that other people want to meet as well. That's the great thing about competition is others have the opportunity to access these playoff opportunities just as we have.

Q. Greg, probably college football fans are universal in not wanting to see the season end, people want to see the games end at some point. They keep trending longer and longer. There's been talk at times about the length of games. Is there anything concrete going forward that you see? Not just for the SEC, but for college football, to try to shorten the halftime, the way the clock is managed, that sort of thing?
GREG SANKEY: Why don't you ask our band members the question about shortening halftime? Our band members and our band alums, since they asked me if that's happening, and I said, that's not actually on my agenda. Because those are important elements. If you've been to College Station, Texas, that's an incredibly important part of their tradition. That's not alone in this league. Our marching bands are part of what happens at halftime.

We, this year, our average game time for all games is 3 hours and 20 minutes. Last year it was 3 hours and 20 minutes. The year prior, it was 3:19. So we made some adjustments a few years ago internally that saved us some time. We've not contemplated shortening halftime. We're continually moving more quickly in replay even though, when the play is stopped, it may not seem that, but our replay times are down below the national average in this conference, which I think is a tribute to the methodology that we use. I think they're 2.1, 2.2 average stops per game, which we're talking about two minutes there.

I have had less commentary from our fans about the length of games. They varied under three hours. I think our shortest game, our most quickly played game was about 2:55. I think you center around that 3:15, and then we add some anomalies. I think that Iron Bowl got up to 3 hours and 50 minutes. No one said to me, wow, that game went too long. Everyone said, wow, what an incredible afternoon for college football.

I don't think the way the rules are written narrows everything to that three-hour time frame like the NFL has. As long as we can keep it in that 3:20 range, I think that's a healthy destination, and I'd like to narrow some of the variants, and I want to make sure we have some of the coaching tactics play out that we've seen, some of the ability to catch back up late in the game that we've seen. And 3:20, particularly when you're traveling to a game, doesn't seem like too long to stay in a stadium and engage in one of your favorite activities.

Q. Greg, so Texas A&M and Georgia played for the first time as football conference teams this year. Georgia doesn't go to Texas A&M for the first time until 2024. Is there any traction for -- I won't ask a nine-game schedule question, but is there any traction for changing the schedule apparatus or even getting rid of divisions so that there will be more familiarity between a lot of these teams?
GREG SANKEY: I'll answer the nine-game question you didn't ask. That's okay. I'm a friendly sort of guy a lot of times. Nine games really hasn't gotten much traction in our athletics directors conversations. Not to imply that there aren't those who think above eight, but the vast majority think that eight works.

We have had very internal conversations, and I expect those will continue, about ten quality games. You've seen scheduling adjustments among our member institutions where you're now playing outside the conference, which I think is really healthy for college football -- so this year, South Carolina opening with North Carolina and playing Clemson at the end, the Miami and Florida State games for Florida, Notre Dame and Georgia Tech from the University of Georgia. And others thinking about those issues, and it gives some flexibility on how they play those out.

Last year A&M played Clemson at home and then had UAB, who's a top 25 program. I consider that a high quality game. It's not an Autonomy Five game, if you will, but that's been a much more intentional conversation.

Then you get to elements of the schedule -- and I'll say it again -- not just to be repetitive, but to be intentional. Every year we go through a wholesale look at scheduling, and you say publicly there are those who advocate for a different model. That's not been the majority. But we have a responsibility to make sure we're looking at options and what our future may look like beyond just the traditional divisional model.

Right now I don't think we're at an inflection point for that change, but we'll be intentional as we go into January with two days of athletics directors meetings, and we'll give full attention to every scheduling option. We've actually done that for a number of years, and it hasn't produced change, so I don't want to overpredict it. But I do want to be transparent and open. We go through this type of analysis on an annual basis.

Q. Greg, I wonder how the SEC officiating Twitter handle held up this year and just what you think of the whole more, I guess, discussion of officiating and how it went?
GREG SANKEY: It held up. It's still functioning. It hasn't been banned by Twitter. I wondered. We didn't shut down the comments. But my Twitters on my Twitter line can be raw. I'm very good at looking away and doing that on my Twitter account. You probably are too. I do want to follow up on, I think your father-in-law's participation in the Thanksgiving day game, to make sure he's healthy, speaking of Twitter.

Let's go back to July. I said we want to educate and inform. We're not going to engage in debate. So that's what we did. We educated and informed. We didn't touch every questionable or controversial call. We did explain context for many calls.

We tried to -- in fact, I just saw we put out maybe today or yesterday Roger Redding's instructional video. I think we have to get better at the use of video and informing people about how the game is actually applied to situations because much of the commentary comes from misunderstanding around the rules or in officiating. Once you're in the social media sphere, no one is going to break through logic quickly, so how do we get ahead of those issues in education and information?

We said we'd go through it this year. We'd take a step back and see how it worked and how it may work in the future. Keep in mind, we also added Matt Austin. That was a post-media day activity. Matt was in our SEC Network studio available for any ESPN game, and Matt could say we were right or wrong like that. There's not another conference. So as people talk about officiating transparency, this is the way we approach this.

There's not another conference I've seen on its conference network that has an official saying, hey, right or wrong. They got that one, or they missed that. I think that's part of our new responsibility as people are looking for information in real time. And sometimes we disagreed with Matt's perspective, but he's an independent worker, contracted with ESPN. We don't control him, but we do try to inform his perspective.

Gene Steratore, is added to CBS, the same sort of thing. Gene's worked NCAA Basketball Tournament games. He's never worked a game as a football official in the SEC, and I thought that provided an important context.

All of these were connected to just try to communicate effectively about what happens in officiating because, to the last part of your question, I think there's probably too much focus. I wrote a tweet in the middle of the season that says we want to be perfect, yet we won't. We're acquiring officials who are high integrity, highly dedicated people to make instantaneous decisions with the information available in front of them, and all of us in this room have an opportunity to have better information 30 seconds later, and that's not a fair way to judge performance.

I think our officials perform at the highest level among college football officiating, and it shows, and our coaches tell us that. They're not perfect, and we need to keep getting better, and we're going to try to communicate even more effectively in the future.

Q. Commissioner, this year Georgia had a schedule where during a six-game stretch, I think five of their opponents had a bye week. Can you review the process and the fluidity of how you put the league schedule together. I know that each school submits some sort of request as to what they would prefer. How does it work when you patch that together?
GREG SANKEY: I want to be clear. We have a policy within the conference schedule no more than three byes with conference opponents. So the notion of six -- if there are nonconference games where there were byes, those are nonconference scheduling issues not related to the conference. At least one of those open dates would have been a mutual open date with the University of Florida, so now you're down to two conference circumstances, if that's correct. I haven't looked at their schedule from that lens recently. I don't have them all memorized, believe it or not.

It would have been open dates for an opponent. They're 11-1, so they performed quite well, it appears, through that. You also have different opponents in a prior week. You may have a bigger score. There's a lot of variables.

If you've seen, our member institutions are out into the early '30s scheduling nonconference games, and we've allowed that to happen, and that requires some placement of games, and I think we do that fairly within parameters, one of which is no more than three of those circumstances, those open circumstances within the conference schedule, but it does create that variance. That's just reality.

And also keep in mind, we had a conference versus conference game, not to launch a network, but to open the season between Georgia and Vanderbilt first week. I think we had two games in week 2, and I think we had three conference versus four conference games in week 3. That was in a 14-week season. That means you're going to have to place games, nonconference games later in the year.

Our philosophy has been people want to see SEC versus SEC competition as quickly as they can in the season. That's worked well for that, but that produces some of those -- produces that jigsaw puzzle that Mark Womack is responsible for fitting within the parameters. One of those parameters is one I just described, no more than three open dates. I think you guys can double-check me on that policy.

Q. (No microphone)?
GREG SANKEY: It seems to me, if they're both open the Saturday before they play, that's as equitable as I can get. In fact, even more equitable than playing different opponents the week before and one traveling. There's a lot into the schedule. I think the schedule works fairly well from a fairness standpoint. You will have variances in the number of home games. That's something to which we are attentive.

Q. What does it do for the conference to have a fresh team like LSU, who hasn't been in in eight years, and a team that's kind of captured the nation's attention?
GREG SANKEY: I'm always careful to say I love all 14 teams, so whoever's here is here. I remember my first ever SEC Championship Game in 2002. That was Arkansas and Georgia. The next year was LSU and Georgia, I think. I think LSU was in 2003. Somebody check me. The hotel lobby in the Hyatt tonight will be like nothing else. The LSU fans will bring a special energy late at night around Atlanta, and it's a tribute to what that has done in a relatively short period of time. I think it magnifies excitement.

You're going to have a rotation of teams. Georgia is on a three-year streak being here. I think each of our coaches know you never expect that it just happens. You have to work towards that. It's a recognition of hard work for both teams, particularly to have LSU back in the game for the first time since 2011. It's good to have the Tigers back.

Q. Back to the name and image, why do you also wait for the California bill? Some of the conversations we were having before with the rest of the NCAA before the California bill. Why was that the moment that kind of spurred you all to action?
GREG SANKEY: It's not the moment. It was a moment. Remember we've been in litigation since 2009 or '10 around this concept. So we've been active for a decade, but also recognizing different legal realities. Now, when you have state legislation, that obviously serves as an additional motivator within the context of existing dialogue. So that was a moment of change more than something from which we are waiting to be motivated to pursue.

Q. You had mentioned LSU kind of being a fresh team, but Georgia being three years in a row, is that good for the conference, or do you all look at it as wanting more diversity?
GREG SANKEY: I actually don't look at either. That's competition. We start at the beginning of the year, and this drama plays out week by week. We're now in week 16. Remember we had week 0, and then we had 14 weeks of the regular season, and here we are in week 16. That's the beauty of college football, I think, is you don't know when you start, and the journey goes through the season, and the reward is to be here. So that's a credit to Georgia and LSU, and it doesn't seem that anyone is tired at this point, at least on the Georgia side.

Q. You have a few states in the SEC that are going to have image and likeness bills. How much do you see the SEC taking a role in lobbying those legislatures, or do you see the schools kind of on the front lines of a response there?
GREG SANKEY: We have outstanding government relations staffs on each of our campus that's have and maintain relationships in their state houses and at the federal level in D.C.? Our staff, particularly William King, our associate commissioner for legal affairs, has been active since he started back in 2015.

One of the things I said to our presidents the first time I met with them as commissioner in October of 2015 is we're going to be -- we're going to have to be more active from a governmental standpoint. If you look at what's playing out, it's kind of the answer we've been working on different issues and thinking about different things over time.

We rely heavily on those campus resources. I think that's the right way, particularly at the state level to engage, rather than try to have all of that communication from our office. We will be, I expect, in communication with each of our campus government relations staffs and even with different legislators in each of our 11 states on these issues, particularly as they request information.

Q. Some of those passionate LSU fans you spoke of would like to see the championship in New Orleans one day, but it seems like, talking to Herb and everybody, I know you've got long contracts with 2024, 2026.
GREG SANKEY: Well beyond that, actually. I think it has extensions. We'll blame it on Herb. (Laughter).

Q. So this is just a natural, great place, and you don't ever see it leaving?
GREG SANKEY: Yeah, this is an important marketplace for us, both historically, the second ever meeting of the Southeastern Conference was held down the street, really the formative meeting when our membership came together in 1933. You're in a state of the art facility here. We do have a long-term contract with extensions to remain, and our membership has been supportive. We've had different winners and losers, but without regard to proximity to this location.

We're accustomed, just like our baseball teams talking about Hoover as a goal, playing in Atlanta as a goal for each of our teams, and everyone wants to be part of this event.

THE MODERATOR: Thank you, Commissioner, for your time.

GREG SANKEY: Thank you.

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