COVID, cancellations, calls for social justice: Kevin Warren's early experiences as Big Ten commish went beyond sports

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It only took 17 months for Kevin Warren to become one of the longest tenured power five conference commissioners. That’s how much turnover there has been in that position of late.

They were 17 months that felt like 17 years, though.

On March 12, 2020, just 71 days after he officially became commissioner of the Big Ten Conference, Warren had to sit in front of a group of reporters gathered at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to cover the Big Ten men’s basketball championship and declare that the event had been called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Soon after came the cancellation of all Big Ten spring sports.

“That was painful,” Warren told The Sporting News.

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And then, nearly five months to the day after so deftly handling the basketball announcement, he was compelled to appear on live television — on the Big Ten Network — and defend the decision driven by the league’s presidents to push all fall sports competition into the spring. Including football, obviously.

“I think what it’s taught me about the job is just the importance of communication, collaboration, alignment,” Warren told TSN. “I know from a conference standpoint, I feel strongly that we work well together. Some of the challenges we faced in 2020 — we worked through them. I’m proud that we worked through them. We have an incredible set of chancellors and presidents and athletic directors, our senior women’s administrators, our faculty athletic reps and coaches, fans, and most of all our student-athletes and their families.

“This has been a challenging time for people in the world, but especially young people that are on college campuses, seeking to earn an undergraduate or graduate degree while they participate in intercollegiate athletics. It’s a challenge. But our student-athletes have stood tall, worked hard, remained positive and done an incredible job.”

Since Warren was named in June 2019 to succeeded the wildly successful Jim Delany as Big Ten Commissioner, the commissioner positions of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Pacific-12 Conference have opened and been filled. Warren remains the only African-American ever to hold such a position.

The Sporting News spoke with Warren in a wide-ranging 50-minute interview, in advance of a Big Ten Tournament and March Madness that, with adjustments, were able to be completed almost in their entirety in the city of Indianapolis.

We discussed a variety of topics about his job and the progress of the league and college sports.

TSN: What were your priorities when you initially accepted the job, given that the league was left to you in excellent condition?

Warren: My overarching priorities were to respect the tradition of the conference and do everything we could to make sure we build upon the 125-year history, of all the people who sacrificed to make the Big Ten Conference an absolutely spectacular conference. We live in new times, and new times create new opportunities.

I wanted to make sure we put our student-athletes at the center of all our decisions. I believe we clearly showed that from a health and safety standpoint. We’ve focused on mental health and wellness. We were able to launch a mental health coalition, which has done incredible work. We have provided the “Calm” app to all of our Big Ten student-athletes and coaches and other Big Ten constituents, and we’ve had over 250,000 downloads of the app within the last year. I think we’ve created an environment where people in the Big Ten are comfortable talking about mental health and wellness and why it’s so important.

The other focus of mine was to make sure we were able to address social justice issues, and this was before some of the traumatic social justice issues we’ve had to face this year. We formed anti-hate, anti-racism coalitions that morphed into what we call now the Equality Coalition. We were able to activate a voter registration initiative.

We did all of that during the pandemic.

One thing that’s been a challenge: I love people, interacting with people, and any time you’re a new leader building a team, it’s important you have a chance to coalesce around issues and address issues — so I had a little more than 70 days on the job …

We had planned to see all 350 of our teams last year. I got a chance to see 105 in 72 days. I made a plan to have 14 “town hall” meetings. I had the opportunity to conduct three: Indiana, Iowa and Minnesota.

From a leadership standpoint, it has presented some great challenges, but it also presented some great opportunities to pull together.

TSN: What’s your sense of when college athletics will return to normalcy?

Warren: It seems like we’re getting closer to some sense of normalcy every single day. Last year was an important year for this country, for this world, for a lot of different reasons. Because it has forced us now to be able to communicate about issues, whether it’s about health care, whether it’s about social justice issues.

But it’s also challenged us as a people to really dig deep and be creative and think outside the box. Now that we’re getting individuals vaccinated, we’re getting some sense of normalcy.

I’ve seen it in my travel. I had certain elements of running this very complex business — we span over 11 states from Nebraska to New Jersey, we have 10,000 student athletes, approximately 350 head coaches and 1,100 assistant coaches, 6.3 million alumni across the world — so I had to continue to travel.

It seems like every time I travel, I’m seeing more people. Because there were many times that I was on a flight with less than five people. That was shocking for me. I remember vividly going into some very normally crowded airports and no matter how far I looked around, I couldn’t see more than four or five people.

When you see that and consider what it was doing to our travel industry, that was concerning. That really woke me up. It’s good when I travel I’m seeing more individuals moving around.

I’m hopeful that as we continually are smart and make the right decisions you’ll see us continually increase … and I’m hopeful by the fall we have made progress as far as fans being able to enjoy live sports.

One thing we learned during this whole pandemic: People love live sports. It’s special.

TSN: You’re an African-American man in a position of significant leadership, and what happened last summer, starting with George Floyd’s death and the reaction to that — what did that mean to you relative to the position you hold, and what did you hope to do with that leadership given the climate of the country?

Warren: I’m an individual that always tries to look for the positive elements of life, sometimes even when it may be in a complex situation. People lost their lives last year not only with the global pandemic, but also with issues with law enforcement.

There have been probably, I would say, two years since I’ve been born that have been critical inflection points in my life: 1974, when I was hit by a car, and then 2020. Those are the years that I’ll look back on … as far as really changing the trajectory of how I look at life, especially as a Black man in America.

Me always looking for the positive: What’s the positive takeaway from complicated situations? And one of them is I feel now, we’re finally willing as a people to talk about issues — that we’ve been talking about for many years in our family rooms and living rooms, the country clubs, on vacation and around our dinner table, in churches and synagogues and some of our private areas — but now, 2020 forced us as a people, as a country, as a world to start dealing with these issues.

Because of my background, having a grandmother who’s from Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico, and having my parents being from African-American descent — my family looks like the United Nations. I was raised in a manner where race was very important, but it should not be the relevant factor about decision-making. Yeah, I’m a Black man, but I was raised in a manner to believe a meritocracy in life does exist, and that’s one of the reasons I love sports.

But last year, I think, for the first time I feel we as a people, we as a country were able to deal with some of these issues that, as a Black man, I’ve been aware of. I was born in the early, ’60s, so I grew up and my parents talked to me about the Holocaust, my parents talked to me about slavery, my parents talked to me about civil rights issues. I’ve always been aware of it. Now, the conversations I’ve had with some of my friends, Black and white, they’re willing and able to ask questions about race — to ask what we can do better? What should we be doing as a people?

When you hear those conversations, it gives me great encouragement we’re on the right track as a country.

TSN: Watching college sports, one can see racial justice messages on uniforms or playing surfaces. Is college athletics, in general, doing enough to address this?

Warren: We can always do more, especially when it’s done for the right reasons. I think college athletics did a good job in 2020 to address some of these race-related issues and really served as an impetus to make change across America.

I think we all feel, whether it’s personally or collectively, that we can do more. But I think you’re seeing people come together to do more. We’ve made progress, but there’s many miles to go.

TSN: In doing a story about the diverse Tampa Bay Bucs coaching staff in advance of the Super Bowl, I spoke with assistant coach Larry Foote about how having Mike Tomlin as head coach with the Steelers helped him picture a career in coaching. Do you hold your position now as that sort of example for young administrators?

Warren: Absolutely. That’s something that is at the top of my mind every single day. Every day I wake up, I am reminded this conference is 125 years old, and there’s only been five other men who held the position as commissioner. I can’t tell you the number of … young Black men and women who aspire to get into college athletics who have written me letters, who have sent me emails, text messages, called me, who have said that they never even — that being a commissioner was not on their radar. They never had thought about it.

These aren’t jobs anymore; they’re platforms or movements to make the world a better place. But also to have an opportunity to perform a job that will hopefully open doors for individuals in the future.

I just know in life it is so much easier to accomplish a goal when you’ve seen someone else do it. Being the first is a challenge, but it’s also a great opportunity. Anyone who is the first, they have a fiduciary responsibility to perform at the highest level. So when others do come behind, when we do send the elevator back down to pick up other people, the table has been set for them to perform.

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TSN: Transitioning to more on-the-field stuff, is Ohio State’s success — one program winning at the level that the current Big Ten football champion has achieved — is that good for the league? Indifferent? Bad?

Warren: I think what’s good for the league is for our institutions to provide a platform for our student-athletes to get a world-class education, and to be able to participate at the highest level of athletic competition in a manner that’s fair and equitable.

The more teams we can have that are successful, the better for us as a conference. We’ve been fortunate to have some incredibly successful teams in different sports at different times. So that’s why I look forward to the time period when we can get back to some sense that we can call a new normal. Especially with this football season, I look forward to getting back to some normalcy.

TSN: Where do you stand on the possibility of expanding the College Football Playoff?

Warren: There’s a whole list of items that has been on my desk. That’s one of them, because it’s been discussed.

People are already talking about it, and we’ll have to address those issues. I look forward to the day when we can have those discussions.

As I look at it right now, I think the system that we’re operating under has worked. … Any system you have, there’s always going to be that next iteration of “who didn’t get in.” Whatever decisions we make, we’re going to have to be very thoughtful about it. It’s really important for me, back to always looking out for the health and safety of the student-athlete, that the decisions are made in a thoughtful manner.

If we make adjustments, what does it actually mean? Again, our student-athletes are not professionals. They’re incredibly talented amateurs, but they’re at the time in their life to be able to focus on getting an education and having a chance to be a college student, having a chance to be a young person.

I just want to make sure that whatever decisions we make, we take the time to really evaluate what’s in the best interests of all of our constituents.

TSN: From your standpoint, what can the Big Ten do to broaden the audience for women’s sports?

Warren: I really believe in our women’s basketball programs. You’ll see this will be a focus of mine. I’ll do everything I can to continue to strengthen our women’s basketball programs. We have so many talented coaches in our women’s basketball programs, and our players are incredibly talented.

It will be an area I will lean into to make sure we’re supporting in the proper manner. You’ll be able to see that.

It’s similar to hockey. Hockey was a priority of mine when I came in last year, and then we hired Red Berensen, the former iconic coach at Michigan, and people now recognize that we take hockey seriously. Women’s basketball is an area, very similar to women’s volleyball, very similar to wrestling, that when you focus on doing all that you can to create a platform for the student-athletes and the coaches to succeed, you’ll see it.

TSN: How are you different — in terms of your experience and skill set — than when you accepted the job in June of 2019?

Warren: My view of the world has expanded. There are only a few individuals who are commissioners, either in pro sports or college sports. And I just think the mindset of a commissioner, how it differs from the mindset of an athletic director or chief operating officer or president of a professional sports club — it’s much more broad-based.

When you’re an athletic director, when you wake up, you focus on your campus — your student-athletes, your coaches, your fans, your partners. And some of the conference you operate in. But your focus is your campus. If you’re a senior executive like I was in professional sports — I was focused on our team.

As a conference commissioner, when I wake up every morning, now my focus goes from Nebraska to New Jersey … and then the interplay between our institutions, and then the other A-5 conferences, the NCAA, college athletics. It’s different. It’s much more expansive. I’ve watched hundreds of games. I’m constantly watching our sporting events, trying to get feedback, trying to figure out what we can do better collectively as a conference. And this is in a COVID year.

But then next year, as we are back to play more, we’ll expand to our institutions. What is the gameday experience like? What do we do to grow with our partners? What can we do to do a better job as a conference office, to make us a stronger conference overall?

When you work in an environment like this, it will quite naturally stretch your creativity and your grit. I’ve really tried to focus to make sure our conference office is really run, operationally, like a strong business — that we put in certain protocols, to be disciplined.

I really have enjoyed the time here, and really have enjoyed working through all these issues.

TSN: If you’d stayed with the Vikings, you certainly, in this environment, would have faced great challenges. But it would have been a fairly narrow focused set of challenges. You’ve had to deal with issues on so many fronts, in such difficult circumstances. Are you glad you took the job?

Warren: Yes. I am glad. You only get one life to live, and I’m a big believer that one person can make a major difference. I take this opportunity incredibly seriously. I’m very pleased with the progress we’ve made, even in a complicated time.

I’m proud that we took a leadership role in having a group of all Black referees, male and female, referee our game, Minnesota and Michigan, and then what proceeded from that. You see other leagues and other sports doing that. Not that we want any credit, it’s just bringing awareness to it.

We’ve been put in a position to deal with very important issues. It’s an honor.

TSN: If you were giving a “State of the Union” address regarding the Big Ten, would you say that the state of the union is strong?

Warren: Yes, I would say that. Absolutely. We’ve proven that. There’s talented individuals in this conference. We’re strong financially. We have great network partners. And now there are a lot of issues from social justice to mental health and wellness that we’re able to communicate about. We have a strong voice.

I just think as a conference we need to stay focused on the items that are really important. There are so many things you can get distracted with in today’s environment. But to stay focused, and continually make sure we remember the cornerstone and the values, values of what makes the Big Ten the Big Ten — I feel like we’re in a very strong position.

That being said, there are some key decisions we’ll be making in the next 12 to 24 to 36 months that will continually propel this conference forward.

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