In tumultuous first year, Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren remains optimistic

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren addresses the media in March after it was announced that the conference men's basketball tournament had been canceled.

Kevin Warren will attend his first Big Ten football championship game Saturday as the conference’s commissioner, and it won’t look anything like he would have thought a year ago.

Except for a scattering of Ohio State and Northwestern players’ families, Lucas Oil Stadium will be devoid of fans.

But there will be a game, barring a last-minute cancellation. That wasn’t always a given. In August, the Big Ten postponed the football season because of COVID-19 before settling on an eight-game conference-only regular season.

Such a year would have severely challenged any commissioner, even one seasoned in college athletics. Warren, 57, came from the NFL's Minnesota Vikings. He succeeded longtime commissioner Jim Delany at the start of the year and was just settling in when the pandemic hit in March.

But he has no regrets about taking the job. He said in an interview Friday with The Dispatch that he feels honored to serve as only the sixth commissioner in a conference with roots 125 years old.

“I learned early in my life that it is probably most beneficial that there's sometimes struggle during your path,” Warren said. “That makes people better and become more prepared for future events.

“So I've embraced this year. And as I look back over this year, I'm very pleased with the way that we as the Big Ten have been able to work through some of these complicated issues that have never been faced in intercollegiate athletics, and I look forward to a bright 2021 and beyond.”

Warren’s brief tenure has been bumpy. He was criticized for the Big Ten’s early cancellation of the football season, its doubling down when he announced the decision would not be revisited and then for a schedule that started in late October with no flexibility in case of cancellations. Of 63 games, 13 have been called off, including three this weekend.

Warren said all decisions were based on the advice of medical experts. As the facts and medical outlook changed, he said, the league adapted.

“We have some of the best doctors and trainers and medical personnel in the Big Ten conference,” Warren said. “I think it's important for us, then and now, to continually listen to them and to follow their guidance.

“I was very pleased when we were able to make the determination and a decision to start our fall football season. I am confident that as a conference we are stronger today, clearly stronger today as a conference, and I look forward to working together in a collaborative manner as we go forward.”

Ohio State, along with Nebraska and Iowa, pushed the hardest to get a season off the ground. OSU officials didn’t hide their frustration during the process.

On Friday, athletic director Gene Smith voiced his support for Warren.

“It's disappointing that he's had to deal with all of these issues,” Smith said. “There's things that all of us could have done better as we've managed this environment and the decisions that were made. So it's disappointing he had to come into a leadership role when he did with the pandemic, the civil rights issues. There was no book for this stuff.”

Smith said he has a good relationship with Warren.

“He’s a really good person,” Smith said. “I think he’s learned a lot, as all of us would have done and I have done frankly, during this pandemic. I can't imagine who hasn't learned a lot. He’s growing as a commissioner. All of us in a first-time job grew.”

Then, with a laugh, Smith added, “I wish he didn't have to come into a pandemic and grow.”

COVID-19’s financial impact has been devastating to athletic departments. Ohio State earns about $50 million from football ticket sales alone. There’s no way to make up that revenue, especially since media rights income is expected to be lower this year, in part because the cost of COVID testing will be subtracted from those disbursements.

Asked what the Big Ten can do to help its members, Warren said flexibility and collaboration will be crucial.

“This is a complex time with all the issues that we have going on in the world,” he said. “Not only from a business standpoint, but a social justice standpoint, a health and wellness standpoint. But what this allows us to do is to bring out the best in people. I believe in people. I believe in the goodness of people. And I also am confident that we will continually work together in the Big Ten conference and become even stronger than we've already been.”

Warren said he begins each day with a workout and a prayer and makes sure he drinks plenty of water. He said he has an “incredible” support system, starting with his wife, Greta.

“I've been accustomed to working in demanding jobs, and I embrace the opportunity,” Warren said. “It’s been said you can't have a testimony without a test, so this year has definitely been an interesting year.”