SEC’s Sankey talks history, potential 14-week season

Matt Lowe

July 10, 2017 at 3:10 pm.

Jul 10, 2017; Hoover, AL, USA; Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey speaks during SEC media days at Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Winfrey Hotel. Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 10, 2017; Hoover, AL, USA; Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey speaks during SEC media days at Hyatt Regency Birmingham-The Winfrey Hotel. Photo Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

HOOVER — Greatness begins with a vision. It then comes to life by a plan of action.

When the SEC was created on December 9, 1932, at the Old Farragut Hotel in Downtown Knoxville, Tenn., you can rest assured that those involved had no idea what it would become. But then again, nothing of any value ever comes to life without dedication to a cause.  

SEC commissioner Greg Sankey took time to evaluate on the success of the league and how it has grown not only on the field, but off the field since its inception prior to World War II at the kickoff of SEC Media Days Monday in Hoover, Ala. He also pointed out some of the key figures who helped break the color barrier in the league in the 1960s, when America faced many social and cultural challenges, in a informational presentation to the league’s media members.

“It’s hard to believe that such a great organization came out of times when we are in a Great Depression, for example, as a country, and yet we still thrive,” Sankey said. “ It’s important because time moves so quickly that we take moments and be intentional to stop and remember both important events and special people who contributed to the fabric of the Southeastern Conference.

“Now, we like to think every year in the SEC is special and last year was no exception.  For example, the SEC won national championships in six different sports.  We saw the National Championship Finals in women’s basketball and in baseball comprised of only SEC teams.  I think maybe the most remarkable statistic, and they’re all important, is that every one of our 13 softball teams was selected to participate in the NCAA softball tournament.  In outdoor track and field, we have eight of the top men’s teams and five of the seven top women’s teams. They provided three of the Elite 8 men’s basketball including an all SEC final in Madison Square Garden between Florida and South Carolina, which produced our Final Four team this year, the University of South Carolina men’s basketball team.  And for the tenth time since 2006, an SEC team played for the College Football National Championship.

“As a reminder, SEC teams have won 8 of the last11 national championships.  Four different teams have claimed those titles, unique among the conferences. The year ahead will provide us with some opportunities to remember some special people and some special moments in this conference, beyond just 85 years of existence.  It’s about people who are more than history, but people who formed our story.

“To do this, I want to take you back to 1967.  Many of you weren’t around in 1967.  Those of you who were, that memory may be a bit hazy at this point.  So let’s share a few facts about that year.  First, Super Bowl I was played in Los Angeles.  The American Basketball Association was formed giving us multi-colored basketballs.  The Kentucky Colonels, Pittsburgh Pipers, Minnesota Muskies and the Indiana Pacers are among others that have endured.

“Senator John McCain was a naval aviator shot down over North Vietnam, and he became a prisoner of war. Thurgood Marshall appointed as the first African-American to serve on the United States Supreme Court.  Any search of history reminds us of the protests around the United States’ involvement in the Vietnam War at that time and the unrest throughout the country around race and civil rights issues.

“And on September 30th, 1967, Nate Northington, a sophomore football student athlete at the University of Kentucky ran on to the gridiron at Kentucky’s Stoll Field to play in the Southeastern Conference football game against the University of Mississippi, making him the first African-American to represent an SEC University and a varsity football contest as a varsity student athlete in the SEC.

“This September will mark the 50th anniversary of that Autumn Saturday.  If you know the story, you know there’s sadness associated with what happened that day.  The day before on Friday evening, Nate Northington learned that his roommate and Kentucky football teammate, Greg Page, had died as a result of an injury he suffered during football practice earlier that year.

“Nate learned that tragic news from his head coach the morning of September 30th, the day on which he played in that football game against Ole Miss. When the Kentucky football team reported for preseason practice in 1967, there were four young African-American men who were part of that program; Nate Northington, Greg Page, Wilbur Hackett and Houston Hogg.  Northington and Page were varsity players. Hogg and Hackett freshman recruited to join Kentucky’s team.

“These four men, one whose life was lost too soon, one who broke the color barrier in football in the southeastern conference and two others who carried forth the torch of change in Kentucky in the SEC dealt with realities most of us don’t understand, and they were not alone over the years this change took place.”

In addition to hitting on some landmark individual achievements and long-term success of the league, Sankey also talked about the potential of a 14-week season (with two open dates), instant replay calls on scoring plays, speed of the game and the continued focus on player safety. He did reiterate however that the addition of another week in the regular season is in its infancy stages.

“On the national issues in the football front, we had a conversation in Destin about our perspective on the 14-week season being consistent in college football,” Sankey said.  “So that would mean 12 regular season games and two open dates.  We have that on a bit of an ad-hoc basis depending on what the calendar permits.

“I want to be clear about the perspective that came out of those conversations.  There’s not opposition here to a 14-week season.  There’s curiosity and interest. There are two important points that were communicated; one, we don’t want to see practice begin even earlier in the summer.  It moves back this year a few days because of the health and safety changes introduced.  By the way, those health and safety changes were adopted and supported by the Southeastern Conference.

“As I understand the start dates for practice, not everybody moves back a week.  There is sensitivity to student athletes who are completing summer school and not adding further interruption to their process. There’s also an interest in keeping the number of preparatory practice opportunities.  The number is 29 right now, and we’ll do the math at the podium for you. Not all of our programs use those 29 opportunities, but all were clear that they wanted that flexibility if the situation dictated that that was appropriate to be used.

“We’re open to those ideas.  We’re open to a 14-week season, but we want to be very careful about not moving the standard for football practice even earlier into the summer.  In February, the Football Rules Committee will meet.  One of the things that we hope that they’ll do is make what is an experimental rule, that being collaborative instant replay permanent.  We think it’s appropriate.  We are pleased to see further adoption of collaborative instant replay across the country.  Some of the models vary.  We respect that. That’s part of an experiment.  We hope as we head towards the Rules Committee meeting that we see instant replay standardized.

“We think there’s some adjustments to be made in the game.  I will expect you will see a lot of conversation related to the length of game and timing of games. We’re working in different ways with our schools and our media partners to be intentional and focused around halftimes, making it as close to 20 minutes as can be managed, making sure we’re in and out of media breaks quickly.  We will have television advertising.  That’s part of our reality.  And also within the game itself, around certain plays, scoring plays come to mind quickly, that we move with, if you will, a sense of urgency to keep the game flowing as best we can.

“We hope that this will be a topic of conversation, but want to be very careful about not impacting directly the game itself.  The college game stands unique.  We think it should, but again we’re open to this conversation and look forward to it happening.  There was a survey circulated bythe Football Rules Committee, I think two issues were noteworthy there; one, their consideration of blocking below the waist and how that might manifest itself in the future from the player’s safety perspective, and the second, continuing the evaluation of how we protect players from what you call blind-side blocking. Progress was made a couple years ago.  And we think that’s important, an important focus area.

“Also, while there may be frustration from time to time over targeting calls, we’re focused on player safety.  We think we’ve made great progress.  We think part of the reason to have replay involved is it helps us officiate better.  It is a difficult rule to officiate.  Many of you have observed that, but it is about the safety of our players.”

SEC play kicks off the opening week of September.