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SEC Commissioner Sankey's connections to Utica run deep

Ben Birnell
Sports writer
email / twitter
Posted 5/11/23

The folder in Greg Sankey’s possession provides a reminder of the institution’s past and his ties to Utica.

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SEC Commissioner Sankey's connections to Utica run deep

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UTICA — The folder in Greg Sankey’s possession provides a reminder of the institution’s past and his ties to the Mohawk Valley.

Near the top of the blue folder reads “Utica College” with a seal in the middle that includes a reference to Syracuse University – an acknowledgement of a time when the two institutions were intertwined before Utica became independent nearly 30 years ago. 

It was at Utica College – now known as Utica University – that the Auburn, New York, native and SUNY Cortland graduate started a career that has propelled him to be one of the top leaders in all of college athletics as the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference (SEC). 

The time in Utica was “life-changing,” he said. 

He took a role on the Burrstone Road campus for two years in the late 1980s as the school’s intramural director after being hired by then-athletic director Jim Spartano. 

The job also allowed him to pursue his master’s degree via Syracuse University on remitted tuition, though he intended to take a year before starting the program.

“He said, ‘if you don’t start now, you never will,’” Sankey said in an interview with the Daily Sentinel on Thursday afternoon. “That was was likely the best possible career advice.” 

That role included getting to know coach Larry Costello, who was recently inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, and working with the women’s basketball team among other opportunities. 

“As intramural director, I’d show up at about 10 in the morning and leave about 11 at night. And, I was pursuing a master’s degree. So I think that was my social life,” Sankey said. “The biggest thing for me was the opportunity both to start a career and pursue a graduate degree.”

In addition, Utica helped drive his passion for running. He’s been a participant of the Boilermaker Road Race over the years. 

Sankey’s ties to Utica and Central New York remain, including returning each summer to the region with his wife, Cathy. The Sankeys were married in November 1988 before leaving Utica for another role. 

Greg and Cathy returned to Utica again Thursday. This time, Greg provided a passionate commencement address to Utica University’s Class of 2023 undergraduates at the Adirondack Bank Center. He also received an honorary degree from the school. 

During his nearly 16-minute address Thursday that mixed humor, sports and life advice, he mentioned getting to know a school facilities manager named Dan Mrzlikar – “Utica through-and-through” – and buying his golf clubs, Sankey said. Sankey, displaying a golf club Thursday, said he would remember Mrzlikar and the school for decades while playing golf. 

Sankey’s story was meant to illustrate how graduates could be affected by someone at Utica University and the importance of “meaningful relationships.”

Then, in a surprise: Sankey provided his SEC email address, asking the new graduates to send him stories about someone from Utica they will remember “next week, next year and next decade.” 

Bonding over Utica 

The city also provided a basis for a friendship with the late Mike Slive, the former SEC commissioner who was born in Utica. 

In the mid-90s, while working as the commissioner of the Southland Conference, Sankey met Slive, who was the commissioner for Conference USA. Through the course of getting to know each other, the pair noted their shared time in Utica.

It was then that Slive mentioned his affinity for Pellettieri Joe's in Utica. In 1999, Sankey made a visit to the restaurant and helped the pair bond. 

“Somebody said that might have been the most important decision of my career,” Sankey said Thursday. “It was about building a relationship. It wasn’t about networking or some cliché.” 

The pair ended up working together in the SEC for 13 years. 

“I think the friendship word is the key,” Sankey said. “When I was hired by Mike (at the SEC), I said 'Mike, you and I were friends before you became the boss. I want to make sure if we work together, we remain friends after.’” 

Changes for Utica

Sankey worked at the Clark Athletic Center at Utica and noted some things that have remained the same there. He noted changes, though, such as the on-campus dome, the recently constructed athletic field with a track as well as various academic buildings.

He also took a tour of the Aud before Thursday’s ceremony and was impressed by the suites that were part of a multi-million dollar construction and expansion project in 2017. He noted the school having the naming rights for the $64 millon Utica University Nexus Center next to the Aud.

“I think that can be undervalued,” he said of the naming rights. “Simply because you’re trying to help young people think about college early on and you want to create a college-going culture. I think sporting activities are uniquely positioned to do so.” 

Sankey said it has been “interesting to see the city grow.”

“It is still an incredibly beautiful area,” he said. “And probably something that’s not appreciated if you’ve not spent time here – particularly between May and November.” 

Spending time in CNY

The Sankeys live in Alabama now, but get the opportunity to spend summers in the region after the SEC sports season quiets down. They have a home in Skaneateles, his parents still live in the same house he grew up in and some family still lives in the area.

“There’s also a reality – and my wife can verify – my pulse rate is reduced and my blood pressure is lowered when I drive into Skaneateles,” he said. “It is just the chance to get away and refresh.” 

The Boilermaker Road Race is also something that he enjoys. He ran the race in the two years he lived in Utica as well a few other times, including last summer. He said he’s “bumped into people from that SEC” who have recognized him while participating in the race. 

Despite having knee surgery recently, he’s planning to be in the field again Sunday, July 9. He says he's competition with himself during the race. 

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed it.” 

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