INDIANAPOLIS — In 2020, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren often looked at a picture on his desk. The photo showed his parents, Morrison and Margaret, with 9-month-old Kevin in 1964.
Warren knows what mom and dad would have said to him if they had been alive last year: Two words you need to delete from your vernacular are: Fair and free.
“They told me that from as far back as I can remember,” he said. “It’s not even in my thought process that something is fair or unfair, or something is free. Sometimes situations in life, opportunities, they just [exist]. Last year was a challenge on multiple levels: personally, professionally, especially in a new environment. But as I look back, am I a better leader compared to this time last year? Absolutely. Do I have better relationships with people than a year or 18 months ago? Absolutely.
“Although painful, it was worth it.”
Warren’s first year with the Big Ten was often painful and rarely unfolded as he had envisioned. He also did not receive a free pass, despite an unprecedented situation.
The sixth commissioner of a league founded in 1896 — and the first Black person in the role — had been an out-of-the-box hire from outside college athletics, eager to build new relationships. But rather than spending time on campuses, he was stuck at home in Chicago, unable to even enter the league office. Instead of making key hires to modernize a tradition-rich conference lacking in certain infrastructure areas, Warren was consumed with navigating a global pandemic, which arrived just 71 days after his official start date, when the Big Ten canceled its men’s basketball tournament.
A strenuous spring turned into a difficult and divisive summer, culminating with the Big Ten canceling the fall athletics season Aug. 11. The decision, called responsible by some and panicky by others, resulted in a public backlash that rocked a league bound by unity and decorum. Much of the outrage and criticism went toward the rookie commissioner, who even received death threats. The #firekevinwarren hashtag was born (and still lives). Parents of Big Ten football players protested outside the league’s vacant office, and at Ohio Stadium and Michigan Stadium. Eight Nebraska parents sued the league to have the season restored.
“A stressful and emotional time,” one Big Ten athletic director said.
The Big Ten eventually reversed course and played football, and Ohio State made the national title game. But the events of 2020 and the work Warren has done since provides a backdrop for Big Ten football media days at Lucas Oil Stadium. On Thursday, Warren will open the event with remarks, one of many delayed firsts for the commissioner.
ESPN spoke to Warren and league officials, administrators, coaches and football parents to gauge the temperature of the Big Ten and its leader as a new year kicks off.
“So many times, people take conflict as something that’s negative,” Warren said. “I’ve never been like that. Respectful conflict and having to work through some really challenging issues gives people an opportunity to grow together. I feel strongly that we have grown together.”
Even before the pandemic, Warren sensed that his first year in the Big Ten would include “positive stress and progress.” College athletics had reached an inflection point, especially surrounding athlete name, image and likeness (NIL), and key lawsuits against the NCAA. College Football Playoff expansion seemed likely, too.
Warren planned to hold town hall meetings on every Big Ten campus, and to watch every league team. He only held three town halls and saw less than one-third of the teams.
“So many times, when a new leader is brought into a professional league or a collegiate conference, it’s with great opportunity and enthusiasm, and there’s something really exciting, like a new contract or a new deal right around the corner,” Big Ten deputy commissioner Diana Sabau said. “He walked right into a brick wall, and that was COVID-19.”
The book on leadership transition strategies that several people had gifted Warren — “The First 90 Days,” by Michael Watkins — suddenly was rendered useless. Warren, who loves consuming business case studies, had no reference points for what he inherited, and no one to credibly consult.
What he did know is that the health of Big Ten athletes, a core principle cited during his June 2019 introduction, needed to drive the league’s approach, especially with a new and evolving virus. That’s why even now, as Warren reflects on a messy and meandering summer — the Big Ten in July adopting a league-only schedule without consulting other conferences; the Big Ten on Aug. 5 announcing its schedule, only to cancel the season six days later; Warren saying the decision to cancel wouldn’t be revisited; the league reinstating the season weeks later, with no makeup dates and very stringent protocols — he remains “100 percent in agreement” with what guided the choices.
“On multiple levels, it may not have made sense then, it may still not make sense now, it may never make sense,” Warren said. “But I feel very confident that we did the right thing.”
The way the Big Ten reached decisions, especially the Aug. 11 cancelation, fueled discontent in many corners of the league. Coaches and athletic directors cited communication issues and a need for greater inclusion and transparency.
“Communication is critical and you can’t make assumptions,” a Big Ten athletic director said. “Your presidents and chancellors, athletic directors and, in this case, your football coaches, all have to be aligned. The challenges of COVID and people not being able to get together in person, staffs not being geographically positioned well, allowed there to be some miscommunication.”
At the crux of the internal criticism is a belief that Warren should have leaned more on the Big Ten’s veteran leaders, especially during the weekend before the cancelation, rather than communicating first with the presidents. Athletic directors and football coaches felt shut out of a monumental league decision.
“That’s the thing that was so frustrating,” one source said. “Why was it this secret meeting?”
The circumstances and environment didn’t help. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said the pandemic prevented Warren from learning “our normal meeting cadence and joint group operations.”
“No organization was what they were like before. IBM wasn’t IBM last year,” Smith said. “It’s not a fair evaluation of [Warren] or any new leader that’s stepped into a new pandemic and tried to adjust, and didn’t even have an opportunity to have the learning curve of how we operate.”
Big Ten coaches were used to Warren’s predecessor, Jim Delany, who led the league for 30 years. Delany always commanded respect and had navigated several crises, but not a pandemic.
“Things would have been a little bit different if Jim were still here,” a coach said. “We would have gotten a lot more feedback.”
Another said of Warren: “He was in way over his head, didn’t know what he was doing. In Kevin’s defense, he got thrown into the fire.”
Warren’s most significant communications — with the Big Ten presidents and chancellors in August — still remain largely a mystery. There was even cloudiness around the process to cancel the fall season. Presidents at Michigan State and Minnesota initially said there wasn’t a formal vote. Only during the Nebraska parents lawsuit did the public learn that the league board had, in fact, voted 11-3 to cancel (there were actually two votes, sources said).
Warren discussed multiple options for the season with the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents/Chancellors (COP/C): Pause and reassess, push back the start date (like the SEC did), or cancel outright. Ohio State president-elect Kristina Johnson, then-Iowa president Bruce Harreld and Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green voted against cancelation.
“I was advocating for just a pause, not a postponement or canceling,” Johnson told ESPN, “because, frankly, it could have been years before a vaccine showed up. We have to figure out how to get on [with] living, how to move forward. And I felt we could do that if we paused, get to work, which we ultimately did, and restart, which we ultimately did.
“I thought pause made sense, but it didn’t carry the day.”
Some thought Warren, after consulting with Big Ten medical experts, essentially fast-tracked the cancelation. The COP/C included two medical doctors, Michigan State’s Samuel Stanley and Michigan’s Mark Schlissel, who sources told ESPN “carried the day” during the pivotal meetings before the cancellation.
“The Council of Presidents/Chancellors is the body that makes the policy decision,” Johnson said. “Kevin is the convener, and he is the commissioner. We were all pretty serious about what we’re deciding to do. Every president was looking at thousands of students coming back. There were just a lot of moving parts at the time.”
The presidents remained largely silent about their decision in the weeks that followed. Warren took the heat, which is part of any commissioner’s job, but coaches in a league where public criticism is frowned upon continued to speak out.
“It didn’t sound like typical Big Ten responses,” said Barry Alvarez, who retired June 30 after serving as Wisconsin’s athletic director since 2004. “With new leadership in the league, that’s something that’s learned. As you continue to move forward, people gain trust in one another.”
The positive stress Warren envisioned for Year 1 turned out to be more intense, but not all negative.
“I would rather work with someone who is so passionate, where their emotions sometimes can get the best of them, than to work with someone who really is not passionate and doesn’t care,” he said. “A lot of our discussions last year — whether internally or externally, when people got emotional — showed that they’re passionate. They care about their institution and they care about the Big Ten.”
Kevin Warren tried to absorb the content of the feedback the Big Ten received in 2020, rather than how it was delivered. He didn’t take the criticism personally, nor did he feel a need to fire back or “spend wasted energy on trying to make sure that I’m winning votes.” Warren has conversations with some people, expressing that while he appreciates their views, there’s a line of professionalism and protecting the league.
But he knows 2020 won’t be the last time the Big Ten disagrees on big-ticket items.
“I always try to make sure I can be a thermostat in the room and not a thermometer,” Warren said. “I knew that our conference would come back together stronger and it would be important for me not to have any regrets on things that I said, during a very complex time, that would hold us back as we go forward.”
Warren, who thinks there’s “no such thing as over-communicating,” held daily calls with athletic directors during the pandemic. But the calls seemingly have become more constructive in recent months.
“The thing that I love about our ADs, and I love about our relationship with Kevin, is that we’re all very frank with each other, and I think that helps us get to where we need to be faster,” one athletic director said. “Nobody’s dancing around anything. Thinking about my 13 colleagues across the conference, I don’t think we’ve ever been tighter or closer.”
Athletic directors feel their normal meeting pace is back, and that Warren has settled into his role.
“Kevin is open-minded,” Alvarez said. “He’s wanted to learn. He’s getting more and more comfortable with the job and who he’s dealing with. He’s made a lot of progress. I like the direction the league’s going.”
Warren seemingly has the most to repair with the coaches. Several say 2021 has been quiet so far.
“Ohio State got what they wanted,” one coach said. “They got in [the CFP], they played. As long as they get what they wanted, then you see it calm down.”
Some are taking a wait-and-see approach with the commissioner, who must overcome a shaky first impression when he faces future dilemmas. Warren recently started to contact coaches for feedback on issues such as potential CFP expansion.
Media days marks the first event where Warren and all the coaches will be together since Delany’s departure.
“We have the best coaches in all of college football,” Warren said. “They’re skilled, they’re hardworking and they’re very knowledgeable, and their voice matters to me. I’m going to listen. We may not agree on everything, but I trust their opinion, I trust them, and I’m looking forward to working together.”
Warren also plans to engage Big Ten parents, who pushed back against the initial cancellation. Their primary beef with Warren was how he could support the Big Ten not playing football when his own son, Powers, played for a team (Mississippi State) in a league (SEC) that pushed forward with its season. They also sought greater detail about the Big Ten’s decision.
Additional information would have surfaced if the Nebraska parents’ lawsuit advanced to the discovery phase.
“We never did technically get any answers, but what we were going for was to get the season going,” said Glen Snodgrass, father of Nebraska linebacker Garrett Snodgrass and one of the parents who sued the league. “Our goal wasn’t to win some lawsuit or discovery of some documents; we didn’t care too much about that. We were happy to be done with it. But there was some curiosity among some people as to what exactly did happen.”
Randy Wade, father of former Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, organized the parent protest at Big Ten headquarters and at Ohio State. Randy doesn’t harbor bad feelings toward Warren, who approached Shaun both at the Big Ten championship and national title game to offer his support.
“I just believe he’s a really good guy,” Randy Wade said. “People are giving him a hard time for a once-in-a-lifetime thing, the coronavirus. I always respected him, and I know it’s a hard position. I understand, too, that in a position like that, you can’t listen to everybody. Even in my position, I couldn’t listen to everybody. People told me some crazy things, man.”
Like the coaches, some Big Ten parents will be closely monitoring how Warren and the league respond to the challenges ahead.
“Things have obviously calmed down, but there’s just a little bit of mistrust that’s still there,” Snodgrass said. “A normal 2021-22 football season will go a long way in getting rid of some of that.”
In March, he hired Sabau, previously Ohio State’s deputy athletic director and football administrator, as the Big Ten’s new chief sport officer. Sabau and other key hires such as chief legal officer and general counsel Erica McKinley, formerly general counsel at Ole Miss, bring valuable campus experience to senior leadership. Last week, Sabau and McKinley led a call with athletic directors, and Sabau will correspond regularly with the football coaches.
The Big Ten previously had outside general counsel, but Warren has brought the position in-house, along with other major areas such as human resources, which Omar Brown now oversees.
“[Warren] realized some of the areas that the conference needs to bolster up,” Sabau said. “They haven’t really had someone from campus, or someone that’s lived it. They haven’t had [an in-house] general counsel in the past, they haven’t had someone to do HR full-time at a conference level. That’s great self-awareness that will only make the league better and then will perform better for its membership.”
Delany was a powerful, respected, visionary leader, but the past year has spotlighted weaker areas of his organization. The Big Ten was totally unprepared for the backlash to the initial season cancelation. The league lacked a media strategy and had to bring in an outside crisis communications and marketing firm, Anachel, to assist in its response and other areas. Warren recently hired Jon Schwartz, who has had stops with NFL and NASCAR, to oversee communications and marketing.
“My focus is to make sure that we’re prepared for what happens three, five, seven, 10 years from now,” Warren said. “I wanted to make sure we built the right team. A lot of the hires that I’ve made, I planned to make in the spring and summer of my first year. Then, within 70 days, we have the pandemic.”
Warren also is planning more direct outreach with Big Ten parents, forming a working group to identify how to make them feel more included in league initiatives around athletes, especially regarding health and safety. Parents who spoke out last summer, such as Wade and Amanda Peterson Babb, mother of Ohio State wide receiver Kamryn Babb and president of the team’s football parents association, would like to see a Big Ten parents board with representation throughout the league.
“I’m not trying to influence the Big Ten decisions, but things like the pandemic come up, having that transparency about the actions is something we’re still looking for,” Babb said. “I think Kevin Warren’s motivated to do that as well, so I’m looking forward to increasing our communication back and forth, and learning about his initiatives that he wants to implement.
“Ultimately, we want the Big Ten Conference to be successful.”
Alvarez is hopeful that as greater trust builds, the Big Ten can recapture some of its traditional values, including collegiality and making unified decisions. When the league made key decisions in the past, “it was always 14-0,” Alvarez noted, even when some schools didn’t stand to benefit.
For example, Wisconsin wasn’t best served by the Big Ten’s initial football division alignment, which put the Badgers in a division opposite longtime rivals Iowa and Minnesota. But Wisconsin voted for the format because it best served the conference.
“That’s just how things have worked in this league,” Alvarez said. “I think we’re moving back in that direction and thinking that way.”
Johnson thinks the non-unanimous decision on the 2020 fall season actually could benefit how the Big Ten functions in the future. She was one of several new presidents or chancellors — her term wouldn’t begin until Aug. 24 — to participate in a historic decision. Since Warren’s hiring in June 2019, the league has had six new presidents or chancellors.
“For us new presidents, to feel comfortable and respected, that you can disagree and vote that way, is huge,” Johnson said. “That tells you everybody expects every president to stand on their own two feet, make their own decision and not be swayed by groupthink. That’s very important.
“The whole, the conference, has to be greater than the sum of the parts. But the parts and the institutions have to be better for being part of the conference. The second part is just as important.”
Like many around the Big Ten, Warren is fully focused on the 2021-22 athletic season, which he hopes unfolds as smoothly as possible. The league faces immediate challenges, including COVID-19 but also NIL, CFP expansion and more. Warren likely will make his voice heard much more in the coming months, beginning today.
Ultimately, he will be judged like most commissioners are, on top-line items such as the Big Ten’s next media rights agreement, which expires in 2023. His approach toward any difficult issue or incident also is sure to be closely watched.
But Warren, 56, feels blessed to be in the role. Another picture on his desk shows a 10-year-old in a hospital bed after a serious biking accident.
“I’m grateful every single day. My life could have ended at 10 and a half years old,” he said. “When you sit in certain seats in business, in law, in politics and especially in entertainment and sports, you’re going to have critics. You can’t take things personally. We’re back to where the Big Ten Conference was prior to the pandemic. We’ve learned a lot. That won’t be the last challenge that we’ll have as a Big Ten family. There will be other things that will arise.
“And we’ll be prepared.”