Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
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Kevin Warren's departure from Big Ten commissioner to president/CEO of the Chicago Bears comes at a critical juncture -- not just for the Big Ten, but college athletics as a whole. Last year, the Big Ten announced it was adding USC and UCLA as full members beginning in 2024, signaling the latest seismic realignment move as power conferences bid for the highest media rights dollar and long-term security. College athletics is also undergoing a significant change with mass player transfers through the portal and several name, image and likeness (NIL) dollars starting to resemble pro contracts. 

Warren, 59, was hired by the conference in 2020 after long-time commissioner Jim Delany retired from a role he served in since 1989. His departure means that a conference that was incredibly stable throughout Delaney's tenure will be on the hunt for a new leader for the second time in slightly less than four years. 

Warren negotiated a new seven-year media rights deal with CBS, Fox and NBC that is valued at approximately $1.2 billion annually, so the new commissioner won't have to worry about that immediately upon taking control. Still, this is a high-profile job with high-profile demands. 

Who will follow Warren in the Big Ten? Here are some top options.

Jim Phillips, ACC commissioner: Phillips was hired as the commissioner of the ACC in 2021, which, on the surface, makes him seem like an unlikely candidate. Don't be so sure of that. Phillips was the clubhouse leader last time until the Big Ten presidents made a left turn and picked Warren. The Big Ten is a better job with more resource and a more promising future, and it isn't stuck in the mud with a long-term, ESPN-friendly media rights deal. Additionally, Phillips has ties to the Big Ten and Midwest region. He was the athletic director at Northwestern from 2008-21 and at Northern Illinois from 2004-08.

Burke Magnus, ESPN television executive: Magnus is the president of programming and original content of ESPN, where one of his duties centers on rights acquisition and scheduling. He has worked in conjunction with the network through multiple media rights deals, including the recent Big Ten contract that also includes CBS. Magnus also worked with multiple professional leagues on cross-platform programming, which includes linear television, streaming content, digital content and social media strategies. 

Mark Silverman, Fox television executive: Silverman is the president and chief operating officer of Fox Sports. He is responsible for live event, studio programming, production and marketing for content across all of Fox's networks. One of those is the Big Ten Network, an outlet that is partially owned by the conference. Silverman played an integral role in incorporating sports gambling into Fox's college football strategy. More and more states, including Ohio, have embraced gambling in recent years, and there will be more to come in the immediate future. 

Gene Smith, Ohio State athletic director: Smith, 66, has been with the Buckeyes since 2005, but he's held AD positions at various schools since 1986. His long tenure with Ohio State makes him a natural fit since he is intimately familiar with the successes and failures of the conference's previous to commissioners. Plus, his experience with college football's growth into a big business has to be attractive to a conference that has been at the forefront of the shift into the era of super conferences. 

Kerry Kenny, Big Ten executive: Kenny serves as the senior vice president of television, media analytics and emerging platforms of the Big Ten. He has been with the conference with 15 years and a big part of the conference's rise to prominence. He, like many other candidates, has been at the forefront of the Big Ten's media and content strategy during the rapidly changing media landscape. Many of the Big Ten's candidates are tied to television and media rights strategies. Kenny's experience with those strategies, coupled with the conference's familiarity with him as an employee, would make him an attractive option.