Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren Q&A: An Unusual First Year on the Job

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MIAMI — Kevin Warren slides into a chair at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach wearing a gray sweatsuit and a serene countenance. If anyone should be happy to see the calendar flip to 2021, it’s the Big Ten commissioner, whose first year on the job was unlike any year we’ve ever had. There were trials by fire and fury—and he says he’s glad to have had them.

“It brought all the positive juice out of me,” Warren says. “It was good. My New Year’s resolution going into the year was to grow in my prayer life. Well, it happened. I prayed without ceasing for Godly wisdom and discernment.”

Having endured the blowback that came from a postponed season, then a return to competition, then a perilous sprint through a seven-week season, the first Black commissioner of a Power 5 conference is now here to see Big Ten representative Ohio State play Alabama on Monday night for the national championship. Warren has listened, learned and landed on his feet. The 57-year-old is undeterred going forward.

Warren sat down with Sports Illustrated on Saturday for a wide-ranging interview. The commissioner talks about death threats, the historical weight of his position, the future of the College Football Playoff and more (lightly edited for brevity):

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren introduces the Ohio State Buckeyes after their victory over the Northwestern Wildcats at conference championship.

SI: How would you characterize the journey from March 12, when you called off the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament, to here?

Warren: We’ve had to persevere. We needed agility, being nimble, persevering, and also being thoughtful. Our postponement of the season was a thoughtful decision. People can judge right or wrong, but it was a thoughtful decision. I said in my first press conference, I will always put the health and safety of our student-athletes first.

When I compare our testing procedures from when we could have started the season (in September) to what they actually were, they improved. The time helped. It’s not the fault of anyone. This is a year when every day mattered, getting new information. We knew much more and were more prepared to play when we returned. One of the things I will continue to do is to follow the advice of our medical personnel.

When I take a step back here on Jan. 9 and see the number of teams that ended up in the Top 25 in college football, to have our teams perform very well in bowl games, to have Ohio State with an opportunity to play for a national championship—combined with the success of our men’s and women’s basketball teams and the quiet return to hockey—we’re in a good place.

If anyone is looking for perfection in 2020, it doesn’t exist. Real leadership is shown by being agile, flexible, nimble and thoughtful.

SI: Did it disappoint you that there was as much blowback as there was?

Warren: Disappointment isn’t the word. I knew when I accepted this job, and we had an iconic leader like Jim (Delany) who was in that position for 31 years—I was handed the baton on Jan. 2. On March 11, we had a pandemic. In any profession, to be 70 days into a new job [before the pandemic shut down sports], this was going to be demanding.

There are still some staff people that I haven’t seen in person—some people we hired in February that were supposed to start in March. There are other staff people I work with every single day, who have a critical position in our organization, that I hadn’t seen until the (Big Ten) championship game. There are other people who haven’t been in our office since March 11.

I had a running joke with Sid Hartman (the columnist at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune who died in 2020 at the age of 100) that he’s the only person older than the National Football League. But even Sid Hartman, God rest his soul, had never seen college sports played in a global pandemic. (America’s Spanish Flu epidemic was in 1918.) If that person did exist, I would have called them and met them. This epitomized what we call a case of first impression. (Warren has a law degree from Notre Dame and practiced law for a while.)

But I actually embraced it. This was a great year because it allowed me, in this short year, to get about 10 years worth of learning—internally and externally. It also allowed us to face issues we were already on the path to having to deal with, it sped up the timeline. I’ve always said I like to take a road less traveled and the more demanding road. I’m a big believer in healthy tension, which we definitely had. When you have that, you really do grow.

If we had had a quote-unquote normal year, I would not have had these opportunities to learn. Was it demanding? Absolutely. It caused me to reach deep in every single area of my life. But when I look at it, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. People may judge the process, but at the end of the day I’m proud of the issues we worked through in our conference.

SI: Was it a good idea to have played college football?

Warren: Yes. There are concerns I had, about myocarditis. Being a father of two in their early 20s, including one who is a student-athlete (Powers Warren played at Mississippi State, graduated in 3 1/2 years and is now in the transfer portal), I want all our young people safe and healthy. But our young people are tough. I knew student-athletes were special in the Big Ten, but to see them perform the way they did academically and athletically, and to navigate social justice issues and not have enjoyed their normal routines, to go out and compete? They were great.

Yeah, it was the right thing to do. I feel better that we took our time. Us pausing the season was not easy—the easy thing would have been to just go forward and kind of hope it worked out. We had the strength to pause and improve our testing methods and operations, and to really listen to our medical subcommittee and our leaders.

Was it painful? Oh yeah, it was painful. But I think that healthy tension made us better as a conference. I can look any parent in the eye and tell them we paused for the right reasons and did the best job we could to keep their student-athletes healthy and safe.

Every conference has to make their own decision. I say this seriously: I was cheering for all our schools, every school. I wasn’t competing with the other A5 (autonomous five conferences: the Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Southeastern), I was cheering for all of them. I’ve gotten a chance to know (SEC commissioner) Greg Sankey and (Pac-12’s) Larry Scott, (ACC’s) John Swofford and (Big 12’s) Bob Bowlsby, and I know that when you’re in these seats, you understand the thought process that goes into these decisions—and it’s not easy. Every time I saw our A5 be able to play a game and stay healthy, it’s a success.

Big Ten Conference commissioner Kevin Warren visits with fans in the stands before the start of the Big Ten Championship game between Ohio State and Northwestern at Lucas Oil Stadium.

SI: Has going through the past year changed you?

Warren: I’ve had to display grace to myself and others. Things that were said or written—I don’t take stuff personally. I really don’t. People who know me, who talked to me a year ago or five years ago, would say, ‘Kevin hasn’t changed.’ I’m the same person, same wife, same kids. (Laughs.) I try to focus on being a thermostat, not a thermometer, and set the tone. Remain calm, remain thoughtful. If you’re looking to win a popularity contest, you’ll be frustrated.

I prayed constantly for Godly wisdom and discernment. I listened to our medical people. As a parent of a student-athlete, I tried to put myself in those shoes. This is just a reminder in life to just stay the course.

There were things said that were personal. There were death threats. If I took some of those things personally, you’d be an angry person. I heard my parents in my head, God rest their souls, talking to me so much during this past year. My dad would have told me, ‘Do the right thing based upon the right information. It’s not going to be perfect. Life’s not perfect.’

Some of the things I’m most grateful for now were based on decisions my parents or other people in positions of authority made that I was absolutely against. We moved from a neighborhood I grew up in (in South Phoenix) because it had gotten rough. Moving from South Phoenix to Tempe was really unpopular in my house, and my dad was like, ‘I know this does not make sense, but one day it will.’ Now I look back and say, ‘Thank God they made those decisions.’

When I look back over my life, I’ll say I grew in 2020.

SI: How bad was the email?

Warren: The email, the voice mail—fortunately, my executive assistant, Mai Davis, has been with me 30 years. We’ve worked together through five different jobs. She’s strong and she’s calm. She handled what came in and got it to the right people.

SI: You mean the police?

Warren: Yeah, a lot of that. Mai knows me well enough—it wasn’t like she shielded it from me, she’d just say, ‘We need to deal with this.’ I’m grateful that we have passionate fans, passionate families, passionate student-athletes, passionate alumni. That’s what makes the Big Ten the Big Ten.

SI: Do you think race factored into some of the vitriol you received?

Warren: I don’t want to believe it did. But I do recognize that no other person of color has held the position I’m in. When you’re the commissioner of an A5 conference, you’re in a position of extreme influence.

We found the portraits of the five commissioners of the Big Ten and put them in my office: John Griffin, Tug Wilson, William Reed, Wayne Duke and Jim Delany. Those are the five faces I see when I come in my office. I wanted those hung there out of respect for the history and tradition of the conference—the first meeting took place in 1895. You think about how short a distance that was from the Emancipation Proclamation, that was 1863.

Since 1895, I’m the sixth person to sit in this seat. And the five before me were white men. I understand the position I’m in. I love history, and if you think of this from a historical standpoint—I see our history every morning. That’s just a reminder to me that those five men paved the way for me, and also that it’s only been five, and none of them look like me. I have a legacy and an opportunity.

I look forward to the day in the Big Ten Conference that one of those pictures on the wall, after me, is a woman.

SI: The hope is that 2021 will be fairly normal. What is your outlook for this year?

Warren: We’ve got to address Name, Image and Likeness. We’ve got to continue to promote diversity and inclusion on every level. In the Big Ten we’re going to launch a Big Ten Foundation to focus on the community. We want to expand our mental health and wellness initiatives for our athletes. We want to expand our equality coalition that we did with voter registration, to include other issues. We’re working on a financial literacy program.

We want to take a look at the future of the media, how people consume content, analytics, the fan experience. And collectively, from a financial standpoint, is the model we’re operating under going to have longterm sustainability?

I’ll focus on doing the things I was hired to do. We’ve got a lot of things to look at.

The great thing, 2020 has allowed us the comfort to talk about issues that were a long time coming: race, social justice, implicit bias. These are things that now are all on the table and we’ve got to talk about them. I’m grateful to be part of the conversation.

SI: Football question—do you like a four-team playoff or do you want to see something different?

Warren: Where I am right now, before any decisions are made about expansion, we have to be thoughtful about what’s in the best interest of our student-athletes. Talk to people who have played in the CFP. How was it? How did you feel physically? How did it impact you academically, your final exams? How did your grades compare? Did you have more soft-tissue injuries? Did the number of injuries the following year increase or decrease?

Study it. Unpack this. Get the right people in the room. Talk to the coaches. Talk to the families of the student-athletes. Our doctors, trainers, faculty athletic reps. Ask players who went through the CFP and then turned around and played a full NFL season the next year. There may be some who say, ‘We’re 21 or 22 years old, we’re fine.’ I don’t know the answer.

I’m a believer that more is not always better and increasing is not always better. What is the right number of games for a college football team to be able to handle? Eight teams, I’m not there yet. If I had to vote today, I’d say no (to expansion). I need a lot more information before I can say what I think it should be. Once we have all the information, the answer will be clear.