Maybe you're like me. Maybe you had never heard of Kevin Warren. His name certainly wasn’t on any media short-lists that I ran across.
But know this: Kevin Warren is an outstanding choice to succeed Jim Delany as the sixth commissioner of the Big Ten. He is a home run, he checks all the boxes, he has all the tools—whatever cliche you prefer to describe an ideal selection.
There was a lot of speculation that Jim Phillips, Northwestern's exceptional athletic director, was the frontrunner. And while there's no doubt that Phillips would have been a fine choice, Warren's business and law background gives him the perfect resume for the job. Plus, in hindsight, it's not clear that Phillips even wanted a job that would require the extensive travel that has defined Delany's tenure—or a job that would take him away from what he has built at Northwestern.
Sixth Big Ten commissioner? Even though the league, which was formed in 1896, first established the position of commissioner in 1922, six commissioners in nearly 100 years is still a bogglingly small number.
I have said this before and I will say it again: What Jim Delany accomplished in 30(!) years makes him No. 1 on the all-time list of college commissioners. And puts him in the discussion for any sports commissioner’s legacy.
It’s difficult to see Warren facing the kind of monumental changes Delany did. Then again, it was difficult to see those changes coming in 1989.
We don’t know what the future holds. We do know that Warren, 55, has the resume to deal with it.
He comes to the Big Ten from the Minnesota Vikings, where he was COO and the most accomplished African-American on the business side of the NFL. A Phoenix native, Warren has an MBA from Arizona State and a law degree from Notre Dame. He played basketball at Penn and Grand Canyon.
When he was 11, his body was mangled in a bicycle accident that left him in a body cast. Taking $11,000 from the $30,000 accident settlement he received, Warren had a swimming pool built in his backyard to enable him to recuperate. Swimming was his road back.
We got to visit with Warren a bit when he and Delany joined our TMG crew and some sportswriter friends for a trip to see the Cubs at Wrigley Field.
I compared bicycle accidents with him. (Mine was not nearly as severe, but it was more recent. And at my age, any bicycle accident is not a good thing.)
While talking about a variety of subjects, we could see Warren knows he has big shoes to fill, but we could also see that this is a man who’s right to think he can fill them. He has the sports-business background and all-around skills and judgment to handle the many responsibilities involved in his new job.
I find it amusing that Warren, at his introductory media conference, needed to answer questions about the fact that his administrative experience is in professional sports, not college athletics.
In fiscal 2018, the Big Ten, the nation’s richest conference, brought in nearly $759 million, USA Today reported last month. The SEC was second at $512.9 million.
That, ladies and gentlemen, is the world of ``amateur’’ sports today.
The Big Ten has four years left on its $2.64 billion TV deal with ESPN and Fox Sports, so Warren will have plenty of time to get up to speed. And I’m going to guess that if he wants guidance at TV negotiations in a few years, Delany, who remains energized at 71, will be available to collect a consulting fee.
By all indications, Warren is well-equipped to handle the other duties of a commissioner. I can see him as an advocate who will do his homework, advising and consulting with the leaders at Big Ten schools and making the conference’s case on the national level. In the NFL, he already has demonstrated an awareness of the importance of philanthropic and diversity endeavors.
I hope that leaders like Warren will address one of the greatest crises in our country today—the outrageous cost of higher education. Not just for athletes and academic whizzes, but for everybody. We need educated people to fuel our economy and preserve our democracy.
In my most recent On Wisconsin alumni magazine, there is an article bragging that UW chancellor Rebecca Blank receives $582,617 in salary, while Donna Shalala received just $95,000 in 1988. This makes me want to cringe, not brag. How many more students’ lives could be changed if administrators dialed down their salaries? Needless to say, my meager UW donations go to the Daily Cardinal.
As we look ahead, it’s difficult to know what challenges Warren will face.
The question of expanding college football’s playoff to eight teams—and how to do that—certainly will be a hot topic.
And while it’s All Quiet on the Conference Expansion Front at the moment, I still believe the world is inching closer and closer to a four-conference, 16-school world. At some point, the symmetry and financial bonanza of a gang of 64 will become irresistible. Good luck if you’re not in that group. And that includes the increasingly unloved NCAA.
Then again, we really don’t know what the college athletics future holds.
When I think back to 1989, when Jim Delany ascended to the Big Ten throne, the changes that he oversaw are boggling.
The Big Ten, which was thriving as a 10-team circuit, quickly added Penn State, which gave it an unwieldy but visionary foothold into the future.
The dalliances with Notre Dame never worked out. (Stay tuned in the 16-school conference world.) But the Big Ten has added three more schools to become a 14-team league that stretches from the Jersey Shore to Nebraska’s Colorado border.
It has its own television network, a cash cow that (sadly) diminished the importance of my beloved newspaper sports section—as if newspapers didn’t have enough trouble.
Those are just the big things. On Delany’s watch, the Big Ten has steamrolled forward in so many important ways.
What’s next? We don’t know. But Kevin Warren looks like an outstanding choice to be the man at the tiller of the nation’s richest conference.