One night last June, a team of lawyers for the National Collegiate Athletic Association gathered in a hotel conference room in Oakland, Calif., to prepare a key witness for a trial challenging the association’s amateur model.

A few blocks away, in a federal courtroom, the plaintiffs, including Ed O’Bannon, a former basketball star at the University of California at Los Angeles, had been chipping away at the NCAA’s defense: that big-time college football and basketball players are students first, and that to pay them beyond the value of their scholarships would violate a core principle, upending college sports as we know it.

The two sides had been going at it for weeks when the NCAA brought in Greg Sankey, chief operating officer of the powerful Southeastern Conference. Mr. Sankey, a bookish athletics administrator who was tapped last month to be the SEC’s next commissioner, was a safe choice to put on the stand. Thoughtful and erudite, he had represented his conference on many of the NCAA’s most important committees, helping it to establish stricter academic requirements for athletes and to determine penalties for programs that violate its rules.

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The association needed Mr. Sankey to bolster the argument that, despite dubious academic behavior and cheating on some campuses, intercollegiate athletics has inherent educational value, providing opportunities for many students who otherwise might not have access to higher education.

If not for college sports, says Mr. Sankey, 50, he might not be where he is. As the new SEC chief, he is positioned to become the most powerful person in the game, assuming the job at a crucial point in NCAA history.

The son of a welder, he pumped gas to save money for college. He played college baseball and basketball, graduating with a degree in education from the State University of New York College at Cortland. His first job: director of intramurals at Utica College. He later took a position at Northwestern State University, in Louisiana, where his starting salary was $500 a month.

As he prepared to testify, the lawyers asked him why he had chosen the path he did. One moment stood out. While playing baseball at LeTourneau College, in Texas, one of three institutions he attended, he sat on the bench one game, and decided, as he put it, to “shut down.”

The next day the coach visited him in his dorm room.

“If we would have lost that game, I would have considered it your fault,” the coach said, according to Mr. Sankey’s testimony. Supporting his fellow players, the coach said, is as essential to the team as playing.

“That conversation with my baseball coach has been one that’s been a guiding point in my life,” Mr. Sankey testified, “and part of why I chose, quite frankly, to do what I do for a career.”

Mr. Sankey’s testimony, in which he argued against paying players, was widely praised. Two months later, however, a federal judge struck down the association’s limits on compensation to athletes, proposing a plan that would allow colleges to provide deferred payments to players for the commercial use of their images. (The NCAA has appealed; a ruling in the case is expected within weeks.)

The association faces a series of other legal challenges, including a move by players to unionize and a lawsuit calling for a free market for their services. If those efforts prevail, colleges could be forced to provide additional benefits to athletes, perhaps even salaries.

Mr. Sankey and other athletics leaders are working to prevent such possibilities, looking for ways to ensure that athletes get more time off from their sports and take their education seriously.

Mr. Sankey has lots of ideas. He wants colleges to work more closely with high schools to better prepare athletes for higher education, and he believes that players should be held more accountable both in and out of the classroom. He has plans to create more opportunities for elite athletes to be a part of decision-making in college sports.

In recent months, he has helped lead the NCAA through a restructuring of its governance system, freeing up the biggest leagues to spend more of what they want on players. As chair of the Division I Committee on Infractions, he is chief arbiter in cases of NCAA rules violations, and he is involved in discussing ways to improve the NCAA’s enforcement system.

Many observers say he has an understanding of issues and a way of dealing with people that few leaders have.

“He is really good at seeing things from others’ perspective, which is an attribute that many people in our profession don’t have,” says Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA, who worked with Mr. Sankey in the early 1990s and serves with him on the infractions committee. “Having Greg in a position of leadership, with his platform from the SEC, is going to be really impactful for all of us in college athletics and higher education.”

But critics say that Mr. Sankey’s insistence on working within the system will limit his ability to stave off the growing outside pressures.

“We can make all kinds of adjustments to the existing infrastructure, but until we recognize football and men’s basketball players as being employees, there will continue to be dysfunction,” says Ellen J. Staurowsky, a professor of sport management at Drexel University. “They need that status so they can have access to the advocacy they need to have a safe and fair workplace.”

Teaching Through Sports

Early in his career, at Utica College, Mr. Sankey devoured as much as he could about the history of intercollegiate athletics. He pored over a 1929 report by the Carnegie Foundation, which criticized the NCAA for failing to keep players safe from football injuries, and ordered a copy of the NCAA’s rule book, reading all 400-plus pages.

One season he divided an intramural volleyball league into two divisions, naming one Holyoke, for the city in Massachusetts where the sport was founded.

“My goal was always to teach something through sport,” Mr. Sankey said over dinner last week here in Birmingham, not far from the SEC’s offices. “I think that’s one of the great values of intercollegiate athletics.”

At Northwestern State, a small Division I program in the Southland Conference, he coached the men’s golf team and ran the athletics compliance office. When the commissioner’s job opened, in 1996, the league presidents hired him. He was just 31.

He keeps a performance evaluation from that job in a scrapbook in his office. The league leaders described him as a “personal, positive manager” and as someone who “does not have the answer to all issues … which is good.”

To say he prepares for meetings would be an understatement. He writes out agendas that can fill several pages, listing detailed goals. He keeps records of everything, dating to the early 1990s.

In the Southland Conference, he used to watch all nine postseason softball games every year, rolling up his sleeves to eat crawfish with colleagues between games and sticking around to hand out the trophies.

“For many of these players, the conference championship is the highlight of their careers,” Mr. Sankey says. “I want them to know I’m invested.”

On a shelf in his office are dozens of books about leadership and sports, including 21 by John Wooden, the former UCLA basketball coach. A few years ago, when Mr. Sankey was named the Southeastern Conference’s chief operating officer, he gave every staff member a copy of one of his favorite Wooden titles, Be Quick — But Don’t Hurry.

He reads all kinds of books, from self-improvement (The Life You’ve Always Wanted) to business biographies (Steve Jobs). He is in the middle of a C.S. Lewis novel and a book about how to give a TED talk.

He reads with a highlighter, marking favorite passages that he later types up. He stores his notes in a binder organized by author and subject. It’s as big as a football playbook.

He keeps a to-do list that is color-coded according to priority. Recent notes include reminders to “Email NBA on officiating” and to call a colleague about government-relations efforts. He also wrote down a few words for his staff: “What are the conversations we are not having well?”

He rubs elbows at the highest levels, but he takes pains to be accessible. Everyone around the SEC calls Michael L. Slive, the conference’s current leader, “the commissioner.” Mr. Sankey has already informed his staff: “I’m Greg.”

He answers his emails himself, often in the middle of the night. But don’t mistake his modest, reserved demeanor for a lack of intensity. A few years ago, with middle age creeping in, he decided to start running a marathon every month. He has completed 41 (best time: 3:53). After injuring an Achilles tendon, he enrolled in a strenuous fitness program called Iron Tribe.

Key Contributor

Before Mr. Sankey interviewed for the SEC commissioner’s job, he prepared a 34-page briefing book for the search committee, outlining more than three dozen ideas for the conference to consider. First on his list: Engage a consulting chief medical officer to stay ahead of concerns about players’ health and wellness. He also raised the need to discuss expectations of athletes’ conduct and to encourage national policies governing the use of nontraditional courses, ensuring “proper academic rigor while minimizing opportunities for abuse.”

In recent months, academic issues have taken center stage. Officials in the Big Ten Conference have discussed the possibility of barring freshmen from game competition. But many students come to college prepared for the academic rigors, Mr. Sankey says. For those students, a blanket policy wouldn’t be fair.

He believes that new academic standards, set to go into effect in the fall of 2016, will weed out underprepared players. But he wants the NCAA to go further, requiring prospective athletes to complete a more rigorous curriculum in their first two years of high school. (The graduation rates of SEC football and men’s basketball players have improved during his more than 12 years in the conference, but still fall short compared with the overall student body.)

Before this year, much of Mr. Sankey’s work had happened behind the scenes. But at the NCAA’s annual convention, in January, he was among the most visible leaders.

Over several hours of discussions, Mr. Sankey stood up a half-dozen times, arguing for a new concussion policy the SEC had introduced. The proposal would require colleges to have a plan ensuring that athletes are educated annually about the signs and symptoms of concussion.

When leaders from the Big 12 Conference said it didn’t do enough to protect players, Mr. Sankey dug in. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s chief medical officer, stood up to support him. Eventually the plan was adopted.

To Mr. Sankey, the convention showed the power of athletes’ own engagement. In fact, if anyone talked more than him that afternoon, it was the players in attendance.

Too often, Mr. Sankey says, athletes have been a missing voice in college sports, and he wants to change that. He has asked his staff to make sure he has regular one-on-one time with players and that the conference consults athletes on more of its decisions.

But some observers say that no matter how much more involved athletes become, they will still lack due-process protections and meaningful compensation for their participation.

Mr. Sankey is firmly against paying players. Such a change, he says, would shift conversations between recruits and colleges away from academic and athletic considerations to economic ones, with players losing their connection to education.

Ms. Staurowsky, the Drexel professor, who last month created a faculty coalition to fight for players’ rights, says that premise is misguided. “To recognize football and basketball players as employees,” she says, “does not foreclose them from receiving an education.”

In the past few weeks, Mr. Sankey has been on the road as much as possible, seeking views on how the conference can do a better job. During one 48-hour stretch, he landed in Columbia, S.C., to watch an NCAA women’s basketball tournament game, and then drove to Duluth, Ga., for the SEC women’s gymnastics championships.

Before he left, he took time to meet up with a South Carolina student who had tweeted him during his stay, hoping to say hello. The student, Austin Solheim, was headed to a sand volleyball game, and Mr. Sankey agreed to meet him there.

It was Mr. Sankey’s first time watching sand volleyball, and he stayed until the end, standing with Mr. Solheim for more than 30 minutes. Mr. Solheim, a senior business major, says he was stunned that the new commissioner took so much time with someone like him. Although the student is a sports fan, he has no formal connection to intercollegiate athletics.

The incoming commissioner offered a few bits of career advice:

Make sure you have good mentors, Mr. Sankey told him.

Also: It matters how you interact with people.

Mr. Solheim was impressed. In notes he made of their meeting, he wrote, “Would be really cool to work for.”

Brad Wolverton is a senior writer who covers college sports. Follow him on Twitter @bradwolverton.

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