Big Ten media day address another delayed first for commissioner Kevin Warren

Big Ten media day, and the Big Ten football media day, officially kicked off this weekend. Another delay in the start of the season for Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren. The Big Ten Board officially started their meetings today, but the media day was delayed due to the death of Warren’s son. Not only that, but Warren ended up postponing his Big Ten media day address. That’s the latest delay in the start of the Big Ten football season.

On April 1, the Big Ten announced they will make their game broadcast contract with ESPN and ABC official in February 2013, which means fans will not get to see the league’s new TV deal in action on ESPN or ABC until the 2013 season.

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIA — Kevin Warren, the commissioner of the Big Ten Conference in 2020, often glanced at a photograph on his desk. Morrison and Margaret were seen with their 9-month-old son Kevin in 1964.

If Warren’s parents had been living last year, he knows what they would have told him: Fair and free are two terms you should eliminate from your vocabulary.

“They’ve been telling me that for as long as I can remember,” he added. “I don’t even consider if anything is fair or unjust, or whether it is free.” Situations, possibilities, and opportunities in life [simply exist] at times. Last year was a test on many levels: emotionally, professionally, and particularly in a new setting. But, in retrospect, am I a better leader than I was this time last year? Absolutely. Do I have better interpersonal connections now than I had a year or 18 months ago? Absolutely.

“It was well worth it, despite the discomfort.”

Warren’s first year with the Big Ten was frequently a struggle, and things seldom went as planned. Despite the fact that he was in an unusual position, he did not get a free pass.

The league’s sixth commissioner, and the first Black person in the position, was an out-of-the-box choice from outside collegiate sports, eager to forge new connections. He was trapped at home in Chicago, unable to even visit the league headquarters, rather than spending time on campuses. Warren was preoccupied 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. Instead of making key hires to modernize a tradition-rich conference lacking in certain infrastructure areas, Warren was preoccupied 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.

On March 8, 2020, new commissioner Kevin Warren presented Maryland’s Brenda Frese with the Big Ten tournament title trophy. Three days later, the sports world started to shut down because of the epidemic, with the men’s tournament being canceled. Getty Images/Maryland Terrapins/G Fiume

A tough and contentious spring gave way to a difficult and divisive summer, ending in the Big Ten canceling the fall sports season on August 11th. The decision, which was hailed as prudent by some and panicked by others, sparked a public outcry that shook a league that prided itself on its unity and civility. The rookie commissioner was the target of most of the anger and criticism, and he even got death threats. The hashtag #firekevinwarren was created (and still lives). Parents of Big Ten football players protested outside Ohio Stadium and Michigan Stadium, as well as outside the league’s empty headquarters. Eight Nebraska parents filed a lawsuit against the league, requesting that the season be reinstated.

One Big Ten athletic director described the situation as “stressful and emotional.”

The Big Ten ultimately changed its tune and began playing football, with Ohio State reaching the national championship game. However, the events of 2020, as well as Warren’s subsequent work, serve as a background for Big Ten football media days at Lucas Oil Stadium. Warren will deliver comments at the occasion on Thursday, one of several long-awaited firsts for the commissioner.

As the new year begins, ESPN talked with Warren as well as league executives, administrators, coaches, and football parents to get a sense of the Big Ten and its leader.

“Conflict is often misunderstood as a negative,” Warren said. “That has never been my personality. Respectful disagreement and the need to work through some very difficult problems allow people to develop together. We have clearly matured together, in my opinion.”

Warren felt his first year in the Big Ten would involve “good stress and growth” even before the epidemic. The NCAA’s name, image, and likeness (NIL) policy and major litigation against the NCAA had reached a tipping point in college sports. Expansion of the College Football Playoff seemed to be a foregone conclusion.

Warren intended to conduct town hall meetings on every Big Ten campus as well as attend games for every team in the conference. He only conducted three town hall meetings and only visited about a third of the teams.

“So often, when a new leader is introduced into a professional league or a college conference, it’s with tremendous potential and excitement, and there’s something very exciting around the horizon, like a new contract or a new agreement,” Big Ten deputy commissioner Diana Sabau said. “He walked into a brick wall, and that was COVID-19,” says the narrator.

“The First 90 Days,” by Michael Watkins, a book on leadership transition techniques that many individuals had given Warren was suddenly made worthless. Warren, who enjoys reading business case studies, had no way of knowing what he’d inherited or who he could trust.

What he did know was that, particularly with a new and changing virus, the health of Big Ten athletes, a key value stated during his June 2019 presentation, needed to guide the league’s response. That’s why, even as Warren reflects on a tumultuous summer — the Big Ten adopting a league-only schedule without consulting other conferences in July; the Big Ten announcing its schedule on Aug. 5, only to cancel the season six days later; Warren stating that the decision to cancel wouldn’t be revisited; the league reinstating the season weeks later, with no makeup dates and very strict rules —

“It may not have made sense at the time, it may not make sense now, and it may never make sense,” Warren added. “However, I am sure that we made the correct decision.”

The Big Ten’s decision-making process, particularly the Aug. 11 cancellation, sparked outrage throughout the league. Communication problems, as well as a desire for more inclusiveness and openness, were mentioned by coaches and athletic directors.

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A Big Ten athletic director stated, “Communication is essential, and you can’t make assumptions.” “All of your presidents and chancellors, as well as athletic directors and, in this instance, football coaches, must be on the same page. COVID’s difficulties, such as individuals not being able to meet in person and personnel not being well-positioned geographically, resulted in some misunderstanding.”

Internal criticism centers on Warren’s view that, rather than speaking with the presidents first, she should have relied more on the Big Ten’s experienced leaders, particularly over the weekend before the cancellation. Athletic directors and football coaches felt like they were left out of a major league decision.

“That’s what was so aggravating,” one insider said. “What was the purpose of this covert meeting?”

The conditions and atmosphere were not conducive to success. Warren was unable to learn “our regular meeting cadence and combined group procedures” because to the pandemic, according to Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith.

“There was no longer any organization that resembled the one that existed before. Last year, IBM was not IBM “Smith stated his opinion. “It’s not a fair assessment of [Warren] or any other leader who has come into a new epidemic and attempted to adapt without even having the chance to understand how we function.”

Coaches in the Big Ten were used to Warren’s predecessor, Jim Delany, who served as the league’s president for 30 years. Delany had always been respected and had dealt with a number of emergencies, but not a pandemic.

“Things might have been different if Jim had stayed,” a coach speculated. “We would have received a lot more input if we had done it this way.”

Warren, according to another, is: “He was completely out of his depth and had no idea what he was doing. Kevin’s argument is that he was tossed into the flames.”

Warren’s most important conversations, which took place in August with the Big Ten presidents and chancellors, are still widely unknown. There was also some ambiguity around the decision to discontinue the autumn season. Initially, the presidents of Michigan State and Minnesota said there had been no official vote. The public learned that the league board had decided 11-3 to cancel the game only during the Nebraska parents’ lawsuit (there were actually two votes, sources said).

With the Big Ten’s Council of Presidents/Chancellors (COP/C), Warren considered several possibilities for the season: pause and review, push back the start date (like the SEC did), or cancel altogether. The cancellation was opposed by Ohio State president-elect Kristina Johnson, then-Iowa president Bruce Harreld, and Nebraska chancellor Ronnie Green.

“I was pushing for simply a pause, not a delay or cancellation,” Johnson told ESPN, “because, honestly, a vaccination might have taken years.” We must find out how to go on with our lives and move ahead. And I believed we could do this if we took a break, got to work, and then restarted, which we did.

“I thought pausing was a good idea, but it didn’t work.”

Some speculated that Warren had basically expedited the cancellation after speaking with Big Ten medical specialists. Two medical physicians, Michigan State’s Samuel Stanley and Michigan’s Mark Schlissel, were among the COP/C members, according to ESPN sources, who “carried the day” at the crucial meetings before to the cancellation.

“Policy decisions are made by the Council of Presidents/Chancellors,” Johnson said. “Kevin is the commissioner as well as the convener. We were all very serious about what we were going to accomplish. Thousands of students were returning, and every president was gazing at them. At the time, there were just too many moving pieces.”

In the weeks that followed, the presidents kept mostly quiet about their choice. Warren absorbed the fire, as any commissioner should, but in a league where public criticism is frowned upon, coaches continued to speak out.

“It didn’t seem like normal Big Ten answers,” said Barry Alvarez, who had been Wisconsin’s athletic director since 2004 and resigned on June 30. “That’s something the league’s new leadership has learnt. People become more trusting of one another as time goes on.”

Warren’s anticipated positive stress for Year 1 turned out to be more severe, but not entirely negative.

“I’d rather work with someone who is really passionate, even if their emotions occasionally get the better of them, than with someone who is truly unpassionate and unconcerned,” he added. “Last year, several of our debates — whether internal or external, when individuals became emotional — demonstrated that they are passionate. They care about their university and the Big Ten as a whole.”


YET ANOTHER TEACHING OBJECTIVE Morrison and Margaret Warren trained their youngest kid to pay attention to what others say rather than how they say it.

Kevin Warren focused on the substance of the Big Ten’s 2020 input rather than the manner in which it was given. He didn’t take the criticism personally, and he didn’t feel compelled to retaliate or “squander useless energy on ensuring that I get votes.” Warren has had discussions with certain individuals, expressing his appreciation for their viewpoints but also stating that there is a boundary between professionalism and safeguarding the league.

But he understands that 2020 won’t be the last time the Big Ten splits on major issues.

“I want to make sure I’m a thermostat in the room rather than a thermometer,” Warren said. “I knew our conference would come back stronger, and it would be critical for me not to have any regrets about anything I said at a really difficult period, because it would hold us back as we moved ahead.”

During the epidemic, Warren, who believes there is no such thing as too much communication, conducted daily conversations with sports directors. However, in recent months, the calls seem to have grown more productive.

“What I like about our ADs, and what I like about our connection with Kevin, is that we’re all extremely honest with each other, and I believe that helps us get to where we need to be quicker,” said one athletic director. “Nothing is being danced around. I don’t believe my 13 colleagues from around the conference have ever been tighter or closer.”

Athletic directors believe their meeting pace has returned to normal, and Warren has adjusted into his new position.

Kevin is “open-minded,” according to Alvarez. “He had a desire to study. He’s becoming more at ease with the work and the people he’s interacting with. He’s come a long way in a short time. I like where the league is heading.”

Warren seems to have the most work to do on the coaching. According to some, the year 2021 has been rather calm so far.

One coach remarked, “Ohio State got what they wanted.” “They were accepted into [the CFP], and they competed. As long as they receive what they want, everything seems to be OK.”

Some are waiting to see what happens with the commissioner, who will have to overcome a poor initial impression when faced with subsequent challenges. Warren has lately begun contacting coaches for input on topics like as the possibility of expanding the CFP.

Warren and all of the coaches will be together for the first time since Delany’s departure during Media Days.

Warren said, “We have the greatest coaches in all of college football.” “They’re intelligent, industrious, and well-informed, and their opinions matter to me. I’m going to pay attention. We may not always agree on everything, but I trust their judgment and look forward to working with them.”

Warren also intends to reach out to Big Ten parents, who were outspoken in their opposition to the cancellation. Their main issue with Warren was how he could support the Big Ten not playing football while his own son, Powers, was a member of a team (Mississippi State) in a league (SEC) that did. They also wanted more information regarding the Big Ten’s decision.

If the Nebraska parents’ case had progressed to the discovery phase, more information would have emerged.

Glen Snodgrass, father of Nebraska linebacker Garrett Snodgrass and one of the parents who sued the league, stated, “We never did officially receive any answers, but what we were looking for was to get the season starting.” “Our objective wasn’t to win a case or get document discovery; we didn’t care about that. We were relieved to be through with it. However, other individuals were interested in learning more about what had occurred.”

When the Big Ten announced the cancellation of the 2020 season, Randy Wade, father of Ohio State football player Shaun Wade, joined a gathering of protesting parents in Columbus, Ohio. Kyle Robertson/USA TODAY NETWORK/COLUMBIA DISTRICT

The parent protest was coordinated by Randy Wade, father of former Ohio State cornerback Shaun Wade, outside Big Ten offices and at Ohio State. Warren contacted Shaun both during the Big Ten championship and the national title game to give his support, and Randy has no grudges against him.

Randy Wade stated, “I simply think he’s a very nice person.” “People are slamming him over a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, the coronavirus. I’ve always admired him, and I understand how difficult his situation is. I also realize that in that position, you can’t listen to everyone. Even in my position, I couldn’t possibly pay attention to everyone. Man, some people told me some weird stuff.”

Some Big Ten parents, like the coaches, will be watching Warren and the league’s response to the difficulties ahead.

“Things have clearly cooled down,” Snodgrass remarked, “but there’s still a little amount of distrust.” “A regular football season in 2021-22 will go a long way toward removing some of it.”


Warren’s plan has been delayed by the pandemonium, and he is still trying to shake off the shadow of last summer. However, in recent months, he has begun to make some significant movements.

He appointed Sabau as the Big Ten’s new chief sport officer in March, after he served as Ohio State’s deputy athletic director and football administrator. Sabau, as well as other important appointments like Erica McKinley, who was formerly the general counsel at Ole Miss, offer essential campus experience to senior leadership. Sabau and McKinley conducted a teleconference with athletic directors last week, and Sabau will communicate with football coaches on a regular basis.

The Big Ten formerly employed an outside general counsel, but Warren has moved the job in-house, along with other key functions like as human resources, which are now overseen by Omar Brown.

“[Warren] recognized some of the areas where the conference might improve,” Sabau stated. “They haven’t had anybody from campus or who has lived through it. In the past, they didn’t have [an in-house] general counsel, and they didn’t have someone to handle HR full-time at the conference level. That kind of self-awareness can only help the league improve and, as a result, perform better for its members.”

At the 2019 Big Ten media day, outgoing commissioner Jim Delany delivered his last comments before stepping down after 30 years at the leadership. USA TODAY Sports/Jim Young

Delany was a strong, well-liked, and visionary leader, but the last year has brought to light some of his organization’s flaws. The Big Ten was completely unprepared for the reaction after the cancellation of the first season. Because the league lacked a media plan, it was forced to hire Anachel, a crisis communications and marketing company, to help with its reaction and other matters. Jon Schwartz, who has worked with the NFL and NASCAR, was recently recruited by Warren to manage communications and marketing.

“My main goal is to make sure we’re ready for whatever occurs in three, five, seven, or ten years,” Warren added. “I wanted to make certain that we had the best staff possible. I intended to make a lot of the hiring I’ve made in the spring and summer of my first year. Then, within 70 days, the pandemic strikes.”

Warren also intends to reach out to Big Ten parents directly, establishing a working group to figure out how to make them feel more involved in league efforts involving players, particularly in terms of health and safety. Wade and Amanda Peterson Babb, the mother of Ohio State wide receiver Kamryn Babb and head of the team’s football parents organization, came out last summer in favor of a Big Ten parents board with representation from throughout the league.

“I’m not trying to sway Big Ten choices,” Babb said, “but when things like the pandemic come up, openness about the measures is something we’re still searching for.” “I believe Kevin Warren is driven to accomplish that as well, so I’m looking forward to expanding our back-and-forth contact and learning about his efforts.”

“At the end of the day, we want the Big Ten Conference to succeed.”

Alvarez believes that when trust grows, the Big Ten will be able to reclaim some of its historic traditions, such as collegiality and making decisions as a group. “It was always 14-0,” Alvarez said, when the league made important choices in the past, even though some institutions didn’t stand to gain.

Wisconsin, for example, was not well served by the Big Ten’s original football division structure, which pitted the Badgers against longstanding rivals Iowa and Minnesota. Wisconsin, on the other hand, voted in favor of the structure because it best suited the league.

“That’s how it’s always been in this league,” Alvarez said. “I believe we’re returning to that path and thinking in that manner.”

Johnson believes that the Big Ten’s non-unanimous vote on the 2020 autumn season will actually help the conference’s future operations. She was one of many new presidents or chancellors to take part in a historic decision, despite the fact that her tenure didn’t start until August 24. The league has had six new presidents or chancellors since Warren’s appointment in June 2019.

“It’s important for us new presidents to feel at ease and respected, to know that we may disagree and vote that way,” Johnson added. “That tells you that everyone expects each president to stand on his or her own two feet, make his or her own decisions, and not be influenced by groupthink.” That is very essential.

“The conference as a whole must be larger than the sum of its parts. However, the components and institutions must improve in order to participate in the conference. The second section is equally essential.”

Warren, like many others in the Big Ten, is completely focused on the 2021-22 athletic season, which he hopes runs well. COVID-19, as well as NIL, CFP expansion, and other issues, confront the league right now. Warren is expected to raise his profile significantly in the coming months, starting today.

In the end, he’ll be evaluated on top-line issues like the Big Ten’s next media rights deal, which ends in 2023, just like the rest of the commissioners. His response to any tough problem or event will undoubtedly be scrutinized.

Warren, 56, considers himself fortunate to be in the position. A photo on his desk depicts a 10-year-old in a hospital bed after a severe bike accident.

“Every day, I am thankful.” “I might have died at the age of ten and a half,” he added. “There will be detractors when you sit in particular seats in business, law, politics, and especially in entertainment and sports. It’s impossible to take things personally. The Big Ten Conference is back to where it was before the epidemic. We’ve gained a lot of knowledge. As a Big Ten family, we’ll face more challenges in the future. There will be additional issues to deal with.

“And we’ll be ready for anything.”

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