Former Minnesota Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren was named as the successor to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany Tuesday. When Delany retires on Jan. 1, 2020, Warren will become the first-ever African American commissioner of a Power Five conference.
Warren, 55, will begin a transition period as the incoming commissioner on Sept. 16, 2019 before taking over full-time at the start of the new year after spending the last 14 years with the Vikings.
He was named the organization’s COO in 2015, making him the first African American COO in NFL history, after originally being hired as Minnesota’s Executive Vice President of Legal Affairs and Chief Administrative Officer in 2005.
For the man who isn’t, and has never been, represented by an agent and who said he doesn’t keep a list of open jobs in the industry, unlike some of his peers, it was going to take a special opportunity for him to leave the Vikings.
“There are only a couple places that I would ever consider spending the next major portion of my life and my career, and this is No. 1 on my list,” Warren said at Tuesday’s introductory press conference.
The graduate of Grand Canyon University (undergrad), Arizona State (MBA) and Notre Dame (J.D.) will now be the face of the Big Ten, and the weight of the position and the historical significance of his hiring isn’t lost on Warren.
“I have some key pictures on my wall that I look at every single day,” he said.
Warren keeps a photo of Jackie Robinson on the front of his desk and one of Dr. Martin Luther King right behind him.
There’s one of Curt Flood, a former Major League Baseball player who played an integral role in free agency in the sport, and another of the 1966 Texas Western men’s basketball squad that became the first college team with an all-black starting lineup to win the national championship.
“Do I think about it every single day?” he asked, rhetorically. “Yes.”
“I want to make sure I send the elevator back down to give an opportunity…to open up the door for the next person regardless of their color.”
While Warren was mum on two of the most pressing questions at his introductory press conference — compensating student-athletes and potential expansion of the College Football Playoff — the foundations of his message Tuesday were inclusion, diversity, creating opportunities and the well-being of student-athletes.
“I like things that are meritocracies, where you give people a chance,” Warren said. “Some fail and some succeed…I think we’re the conference that’s in a position where we can bring thought leaders together from around the world to talk about these issues.”
So what did he say about compensation for student-athletes?
“That’s a big topic I’ve thought about,” he said, before deftly deflecting, “I would love to share my thoughts with you…this is a great time in college athletics…there are many issues, that being one of them, that we’ll need to address.”
What about the College Football Playoff?
“I think similar, this is one of those things I said earlier, one of the things I’m really excited about in the next three to four months,” Warren said. “I’m always learning and reading and talking…I want to really study and figure out what’s the best thing for this game and the best thing for this conference.”
So it still remains to be seen what impact Warren’s tenure will have on the Big Ten and potentially college athletics as a whole. Delany’s term most notably saw the creation of the Big Ten Network, a major cash cow for the conference (its long-time members received upwards of $50 million apiece in 2018), and expanding the conference’s membership from 10 schools to 14.
Warren was clear to recognize Delany and the Big Ten’s growth under his reign.
“The worst thing you can do is go and try to tear down what he’s built and what this staff has built,” said Warren.
“I know there are certain innate and fundamental characteristics that we’ll be the same on, that’s the love of this conference. I’m looking forward to taking everything this conference stands for and continuing it.”
That’s why the Kevin Warren era of the Big Ten — one he said hopes lasts 20 to 30 years — will be fascinating to watch because so much has changed in the conference and in college athletics since Delany was appointed in 1989.
Warren can continue “everything this conference stands for,” like he said, but there are also pressing issues that must be faced head-on like compensation for student-athletes, expanding the College Football Playoff, and ones related to gender, diversity and mental health that will likely require action.
In seven months, those responsibilities will shift to Warren, who seems uniquely qualified for the role of commissioner as a former student-athlete, the son of educators (his father also played professional football), the father of a current Division I student-athlete and someone with experience creating leadership and diversity initiatives.
“This is not about a job, this is about an opportunity for a legacy,” remarked Warren.
“To think, five commissioners in almost 120 years, that truly is amazing.”