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June 27, 2019

New Big Ten Commissioner Brings It On The Court and In The Boardroom

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Kevin Warren

At the age of 11, Kevin Warren was riding his bike when he was struck by a car. Doctors discussed whether young Kevin would walk again, let alone play sports. Determined to get better and to get into peak athletic shape, Kevin used the money from his insurance settlement to build a pool in his backyard so he could practice aqua therapy. To his credit, Kevin Warren is now a former college basketball player, racking up an Ivy League Championship at the University of Pennsylvania (Penn) and averaging 23 points in a season for Grand Canyon University (GCU). During his senior season at GCU, he was named to the Academic All-American team. After receiving an MBA from Arizona State, he received his Juris Doctor at Notre Dame and began practicing sports law, representing Universities in NCAA Case Violations. At his firm in Kansas City, he represented Hall of Famer Will Shields and was awarded a Super Bowl Ring with the St. Louis Rams for their win in SB XXXIV (34). The head coach of that Rams team, Dick Vermeil, called Warren, “as critical and important as a part of the… Championship team as anybody in the organization.” Once he left the Rams organization, he joined an ownership group that purchased the Minnesota Vikings in 2006 for $600 million. In 2013 he was named to the NFL Committee on Workplace Diversity, of which he is still a member. This committee fosters and promotes diversity at every level of the NFL. Kevin was promoted to Chief Operating Officer (COO) in 2015 to oversee all business dealings for the Vikings franchise. He made all the moves necessary to secure both a new stadium (a 1.3 billion dollar undertaking) and temporary housing (deal with University of Minnesota football) during construction. 

Headquartered in Rosemont, Illinois, the Big Ten conference is the oldest in the country and was established a year before the NCAA was founded in 1906. It has had five commissioners since the post was opened in 1922, founded the first inter-conference bowl game in football (Rose Bowl), and now competes in 42 different sports. The conference had mild success pre-dating Jim Delany’s appointment, but under Delany made great strides in terms of gender equality, member size, and endowments, and even the number of schools (10 in 1989 to 14 in 2019). Delany is credited with leading the conference through the start of the Big Ten Network (BTN), and with the idea of full-cost-of-attendance scholarships for student-athletes. 

Warren’s track record of success convinced the Big 10 Conference to vote him acting Commissioner. In his new role, Dr. Warren will take control of a conference that in 2016 negotiated a TV-rights deal for a total of 2.64 billion dollars over six years. The conference was able to negotiate these rights due to a high level of success for its members. Schools like Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa have the most championships as members of the Big Ten. The conference as a whole brings in more than $9 billion in research grants annually. Warren will take over for the longest-tenured Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, with the former serving 30 years in office. He attributes his mindset toward promotion to Vermeil, saying, “The best way to get your next job is to do your current job better than anyone.”

Kevin’s work ethic is what he wants to be his legacy. Beyond being African American, COO, and a college basketball player, he has tenacity. He likes to begin each day by asking himself, “what can I do today,” and brings life to three main points. The points are,  be the best person you can be, work as hard as you can, and lastly, take the time to give to others. Warren knows the plights of the student-athletes of today, as he has two children, both student-athletes, one at Mississippi State (football) and the other at Occidental College (volleyball). As the seventh out of seven children himself, he was forced to learn aspects of team leadership from a young age and lists his top leadership attributes as communication, clarity, passion, hard work, integrity, vision, and strategic planning. From his time with the Vikings, the Wilf family (owners) and Warren became family, and when asked if he felt the Vikings got better or worse during his ten years with the team, he replied confidently, “better with a big B.” His priority in taking the job with the Big Ten was that he exited the Vikings “the right way,” and is taking three months to separate from the team he calls, “The Big Ten of the NFL,” before taking his seat in the Commissioner’s office. 

The transition to the Big Ten will start with a three month on-the-job mentoring from Jim Delany, who will then step down January 1st, 2020. Warren is no stranger to filling the shoes of his predecessor’s, but he recognizes the enormity of Delany’s legacy. However, his aim as the Big Ten Commissioner is not to replace that legacy but to complement it and build from it. Warren is cognizant of the fact that he is also a trailblazer, as he is the first African American Commissioner for the Big Ten and all Power 5 conferences. He wants the younger generation to look at him and see that it doesn’t matter what your background is or how big your dreams are.  You have to work hard every single day to fulfill them. 

Warren sees his time as Commissioner as one to attack the myriad issues surrounding college athletics. In the past decade, the Big Ten has dealt with, Jerry Sandusky at Penn State, DJ Durkin at Maryland, Urban Meyer/Zach Smith at Ohio State, and Larry Nassar at Michigan State. In total, 11 of 14 member institutions have had high profile alleged instances of wrongdoing since 2011. Under Dr. Warren’s tenure, he pledges, “to put the health and wellness of the student-athlete first and foremost,” and endeavors the Big Ten to be the conference that parents want their student-athletes to attend. 

Minnesota is home for the Warren family. He and his wife Greta have put down roots in the area since moving there in 2006, and have established multiple charitable endeavors: partnering with the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital to honor his sister’s legacy, provided the Lucy Craft Laney Community School with supplies, outfits, and sports uniforms, and the No Doors Closed Scholarship fund which, “aims to give four first-generation college students a better chance to succeed.” All this to say that Kevin Warren considers himself a local in the Big Ten community, and will put his maniacal drive to work for the betterment of that community.