Kevin Warren inherited an expansion problem. Then he was handed a pandemic problem. Now he has a unity problem.
The Big Ten Conference commissioner’s first year on the job has basically been an exercise in juggling chain saws while log rolling with a dog biting his leg. He arrived from the NFL, where almost all of the executive infighting is exactly that—kept in-house. Here, in his eighth month leading America’s oldest and wealthiest college conference, Warren has emerged from making a monumentally difficult decision to cancel fall sports, only to find that his membership has not closed ranks behind him.
The politicians fired and fell back. It’s the griping Big Ten coaches’ crabathon that continues. They were all over social media Sunday and Monday, fuming on a league Zoom call Monday night, spouting unhappy statements Tuesday … and some of them were still going Wednesday.
Nebraska has complained at top volume, popping off about trying to play football in the fall outside the Big Ten. Ohio State coach Ryan Day said Wednesday that his program is “still exploring options” to play in the fall, noting that the school is looking into the same things “Nebraska has asked about.” In response to a question about still playing this fall, Penn State coach James Franklin told ESPN Wednesday, “I have a responsibility to my players and their families to exhaust every opportunity and option that’s out there.”
Lingering anger is one thing—you can live with some short-term dissent after a bitterly disappointing decision. On Big Ten Network Tuesday, Warren didn’t even attempt to spin the membership’s response to the cancellation of fall sports as a unanimous decision—it would have been useless, given how public the lobbying had been.
Threatened mutiny (however unlikely) is something else. Especially when it involves coaches of what were supposed to be the top two teams in the conference this fall, and perhaps for the foreseeable future. And after a night to sleep off the disappointment and anger.
That’s something in need of being addressed behind the scenes.
Nebraska’s carping falls in the category of Unwarranted Entitlement. Like, who cares what Nebraska thinks? You’re unhappy making $54 million in media rights as the ninth-best football program in a 14-team conference? Please, go. Pack up your John Deere and hit the farm roads out of here.
The Cornhuskers were the first of Jim Delany’s three bad expansion grabs. Since leaving the Big 12 in a huff in 2011, feeling disrespected by domineering Texas, Nebraska has been a dud of an addition everywhere but the turnstiles.
The Huskers won a divisional title in 2012 and promptly gave up 70 points to Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game—and that was the high point of their league membership. It’s been downhill ever since. In the last five seasons, Nebraska has had four losing seasons and owns an 18–26 conference record. The school paid Scott Frost $5 million a year to rescue his alma mater, and thus far he’s 9–15, producing the first consecutive losing seasons under the same coach since 1960–61.
Adding Nebraska was like buying stock in newspapers 10 years after the Internet went mainstream. It was a backward-thinking decision, grabbing a program on the downside of a run that will be supremely difficult to approximate ever again, given the natural recruiting territory.
Delany’s two later additions have been even worse at football, of course. Rutgers is 4–40 the past five years in conference games, Maryland 10–34. There was a football probation at Rutgers and, far worse, the death of a player at Maryland. But, hey, the TV markets!
The hire of Greg Schiano may give the Scarlet Knights a chance to reach respectability. Second-year coach Mike Locksley is recruiting well for the Terrapins. Maybe the Eastern Seaboard experiment can still be salvaged.
As much as the Rutgers-Maryland expansion was panned as a departure from the Big Ten’s Midwest roots, those schools both are closer to an established conference member than Nebraska is: Rutgers is 227 miles from Penn State, and Maryland is 197 miles away; it’s 300 miles from Lincoln to Iowa City.
So this is the Big Ten that Warren walked into—weak on the Eastern and Western flanks. But that’s an inherited structural problem. What happened Tuesday and Wednesday, with the discontent that has bubbled up in the heart of the league, is a front-burner issue.
Ohio State has been the kingpin of the conference in football ever since Urban Meyer arrived, and Day has extended that reign. Heading into this season, the consensus top-three in the nation was Clemson, the Southeastern Conference champion and the Buckeyes. The closest pursuer is Penn State, coming off an 11–2 season and (pre-pandemic) looking like a potential top-five team in America.
Those aren’t really the programs a new commissioner would want publicly undermining his authority or casting a wandering eye.
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, one of the most important voices in the Big Ten, abandoned any notion Day may have of trying to go rogue and play this fall. There will be no breakaway from the Buckeyes. But he was public in his disappointment with the league’s postponement until spring, saying he would have preferred to delay that decision.
The natural question is whether some in the league are testing Warren the way they would a new teacher, just to find out where the boundaries will be. Through length of tenure, force of personality and increase of revenue, Delany had the respect of the Big Ten membership. By all accounts, he was not afraid to drop the hammer behind the scenes when he felt it was necessary.
Warren, thus far, has been athlete-focused in most of his public remarks. That’s perfectly laudable. You wonder how much he’s even had a chance to build relationships and establish respect from school administrators, given the upheaval that has gripped college sports since his third month on the job.
It might be time to play catch-up in that area, while quickly laying the groundwork for a spring football season of some sort. The Big Ten and its unlucky rookie commissioner can only move forward from the current dissension when there is a plan for how to do it.