Kevin Warren checks few boxes to be new Big Ten commissioner, which may be a good thing
Jim Delany was about innovation, and his replacement shows the Big Ten is open to more change
Kevin Warren checks few of the boxes to be the next Big Ten commissioner.
He comes from an NFL front office … with no collegiate administrative experience. His relationship to Big Ten athletics consists of ... living in the same city as the University of Minnesota for the last 15 years. He's never negotiated a $1 billion TV contract. He doesn't look like anyone who has ever held a job like this before.
Maybe, then, the time has come to find a new set of boxes.
Once the considerable shock over the hiring of Warren, 55, wore off Tuesday, it was time to take stock of the changing face of college's power brokers.
Within the last month, FBS football has gone from zero African-American commissioners to a pair. Keith Gill was named as the successor to Sun Belt commissioner Karl Benson in March, and Warren was named the first minority Power Five commissioner on Tuesday.
The Minnesota Vikings COO embraced that milestone at his introductory press conference. Now, it's time for Warren to do the near-impossible -- as it would have been for whoever got the job -- and replace Jim Delany.
The league's outgoing commissioner will be replaced in September and resign on Jan. 1, 2020, at the top of his game. Delany, 71, created the Big Ten Network and instant replay, and he practically made the BCS (and College Football Playoff) possible.
Where would the national championship game era be without the Rose Bowl's participation? Delany was key to convincing the game's leaders to give up some of their exclusivity and still retain their granddaddy status in the BCS.
Warren may ultimately be in a no-win situation. Delany remains one of the most powerful persons in college athletics. Warren must find his way. If the tectonic plates of college athletics shift again, will the Big Ten be positioned properly?
"This not only talks to people of color," Warren said of his hiring, "this talks to America."
Warren will have to win the trust of the Big Ten's presidents and athletic directors first. The Big Ten used Korn Ferry as its search firm.
Warren's collegiate experience consists of playing basketball at Penn and Grand Canyon University. He'll get his first at-bat soon. The Big Ten's lucrative media rights deal expires in three years. With each school pulling down $50 million-plus annually from that deal, those negotiations might be hard to screw up.
Warren complimented the Wilf family, which owns the Vikings, for trusting "a black man with a multi-billion dollar business to take care of them. If you call them and asked them, 'When Kevin started with you in 2005 compared to 2019, did he make it worse, the same or better?' I am confident they will tell you, 'He made it better with a big B.'"
The favorite for the Big Ten job was Northwestern AD Jim Phillips. The veteran administrator has been chair of the NCAA Council and is a member of the Division I men's basketball committee. Earlier this year, Phillips was honored by the NCAA as a champion of inclusion.
"Shock" over Warren's hiring is not too strong a term when considering how those in power around the country reacted on Tuesday.
"Very much a surprise," one Power Five administrator said.
All any of them can do is give Warren a chance. He leaves the Vikings as the highest-ranking African-American NFL executive working on the business side. On his desk are pictures of Jackie Robinson, free-agency pioneer Curt Flood, Texas Western's 1966 basketball national champions and a letter written by Martin Luther King.
Warren once made a run to be the Oakland Raiders president. He made a similar go at being the Fiesta Bowl executive director after John Junker was fired amid scandal in 2011. Warren was a member of the Fiesta Bowl's board of directors.
"I'm excited about it. I don't know about you or how the industry feels," former Fiesta Bowl president Alan Young told CBS Sports. "The guy is incredibly sharp and devoted."
It's not exactly a good-old-boy's club Warren is joining. The sitting Power Five commissioners are a fairly accomplished bunch. The Big 12's Bob Bowlsby rose to power as an AD at Iowa and Stanford. Greg Sankey of the SEC, a former Ohio Valley Conference commissioner, was groomed by Mike Slive. John Swofford is completing 23rd year as ACC commissioner and is guiding the league toward record revenue with the launch of the ACC Network in August. Larry Scott remains the outlier at the underachieving Pac-12. Like Warren, he also came from the business side of a pro sport as CEO of the Women's Tennis Association.
"This is not something I read about in a textbook. I've lived it," Warren said.
In his new job, he will have to innovate. Delany steered the Big Ten masterfully through conference realignment.
Warren will have to navigate through controversies he can't possibly imagine: NCAA investigations, officiating snafus, player compensation, the future of the NCAA itself.
Warren was short on answers for the coming name, image and likeness battle on the horizon. That hinted of an accomplished NFL executive perhaps having to learn on the job. That lack of campus experience is what has hurt the credibility of the Pac-12's Scott.
But Warren helped direct the construction of the Vikings' new $1 billion stadium. We're told he helped lift the franchise from the bottom five in NFL revenue to the top quarter.
His personal story is a good one. He got emotional Tuesday speaking of his mentor, Slive. Warren worked for a short time in the early 1990s for the trouble-shooting law firm led by Slive and Mike Glazier, one that helped schools work their way through NCAA investigations.
Perhaps Warren's biggest accomplishment during that time was meeting and marrying the daughter of Kansas City barbeque magnate Hayward Spears.
Warren told a heart-rending story of being run over by a car as an 11-year-old. Doctors told him he might not walk again if he even made it out of the hospital.
What, he asked the docs, would it take to speed his recovery? Swimming, they told him. Young Kevin had the idea of using the money from the family accident settlement ($30,000) to build a pool. His parents went with Warren's idea. Swimming helped shape the man you see today.
"I'm one of those individuals who has been there as a person who had to endure many, many painful nights in hospital beds," Warren said. "Pressure puts people in positions where the real person comes out."
When Warren gets the chance, he'd like to ask Delany, "Where did you get the idea for the Big Ten Network?" BTN remains the core property of a conference whose footprint includes a quarter of the nation's population.
The formation of the network is fairly common knowledge in the industry. At the expiration of a media rights contract in the mid-2000s, former ESPN executive Mark Shapiro basically gave Delany a take-it-or-leave-it offer of $100 million for the next deal. Delany left it on the table because he thought the Big Ten was worth more. Sure, it was a gamble to turn down ESPN, but it was one of Delany's boldest strokes to found the Big Ten Network in 2007.
Big Ten schools are now swimming in media rights cash. The conference has lapped the mighty SEC. Given that foresight alone, it may be possible no one measures up to Delany.
We do know Warren is being given one heck of a chance.
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