(Photo: Nancy Kuehn, MSPBJ)

The Big Ten announced that their next commissioner will be Kevin Warren, who currently serves as the Chief Operating Officer of the Minnesota Vikings. The 55-year-old Warren is the highest ranking African-American executive within the back-office business side of all NFL teams. Now, he will become the first African-American Commissioner of a Power Five conference after current commissioner Jim Delany steps down when his contract ends in June 2020. Kevin Warren has held numerous positions in his fruitful career from sports agent to attorney to NFL executive.

Indiana University President Michael McRobbie led the executive search committee that ultimately selected Kevin Warren as the successor of Jim Delany.

I am absolutely honored to become the sixth commissioner of the Big Ten, a conference with such rich history, tradition, and respect. The opportunity is an incredible and unique blend of my lifelong passion, commitment and experience. Positively impacting the lives of young adults has always been part of the fabric of my family, and I will work tirelessly with our member schools to ensure that we are providing every possible best-in-class resource to enhance our students’ educational and athletic experience, as well as empower them for success upon graduation.”

Vikings COO, Kevin Warren

So, with Warren’s wide-ranging experience, what does this announcement mean for the future of the Big Ten?

Changing from the historic norm

During the modern era, Big Ten Commissioners secured the position after an extensive career working for the NCAA or previously holding another conference commissioner position. Wayne Duke served as assistant to the executive director of the NCAA and then was the commissioner of the Big Eight before taking over the helm of the Big Ten. Likewise, Jim Delaney was an enforcement representative for the NCAA and was the commissioner of the Ohio Valley conference prior to taking the position.

Several of the other candidates for the Commissioner position were those with similar pedigree to the previous successors, people that were small conference commissioners or athletic directors (Northwestern AD Jim Phillips was previously considered a potential favorite for the position).

Now, with Warren, the Big Ten is getting an individual that is not just familiar with the NCAA or running a conference, but rather someone with an expansive corporate and executive career.

Here is a (relatively) quick look at Warren’s resume:

  • Warren’s first legal job was not working for the NCAA but instead working as an associate at a law firm where he specialized in defending universities from NCAA violation accusations.
  • Then, Warren ran his own sports agency where he learned the complexities of player representation.
  • He was eventually hired directly by St. Louis Rams head coach Dick Vermeil in a legal/front office position where he eventually became Vice President for Player Programs/Legal Counsel for the Rams.
  • Soon he would become Senior Vice President of Business Operations and General Counsel to the Detroit Lions.
  • After a stint with Detroit, Warren began working for elite international law firm Greenberg Traurig. During his time with the firm, he represented the Wilf family and ownership group in the $600 million purchase of the Minnesota Vikings.
  • The Vikings soon named him Executive Vice President of Legal Affairs before eventually promoting him to COO.

In other words, all of this experience shows a clear divergence from the “typical” commissioner candidates. At discussions among conference leaders, the Big Ten will be putting forth a widely-experienced and atypical perspective.

Becoming more forward-thinking as a conference

Warren is well known for his attention to detail, ability to manage massive projects, and willingness to go the extra mile to ensure the best quality product. He was the main executive overseeing the Minnesota Vikings’ state-of-the-art, brand-new home U.S. Bank Stadium. The stadium is widely regarded as the most technologically savvy and environmentally friendly football stadium in the country.

While overseeing the stadium, Warren was willing to spend the extra dollars to ensure that the stadium provided the utmost fan experience. These features range from a roof made from NASA-invented materials to 1,300 Wi-Fi portals to ensure every fan in the stadium has access to the Internet. It’s also worth noting that the stadium was complete six weeks ahead of schedule. Similarly, Warren also oversaw the construction of the Vikings’ new practice facility.

Kevin Warren is no stranger to thinking outside the box and being on the cutting edge of the future. If he carries this philosophy to the Commissioner position, he likely will not stray from major overhauls needed to improve the conference.

Could that mean more technology advancements within the Big Ten? Will he be able to encourage arenas and stadiums to be upgraded with fan-oriented technologies?

Kevin is a visionary leader, an experienced, successful and highly respected executive, and a skilled communicator who is uniquely positioned to continue the traditions of excellence that have become synonymous with the Big Ten Conference.

Indiana University President Michael McRobbie at Kevin Warren’s introductory press conference

Emphasizing diversity within the Big Ten

The hire itself is a major symbolic step forward, as he becomes the first African-American Commissioner of a Power Five conference (the Sun Belt conference recently hired an African-American in March to become the first ever African-American Commissioner of a FBS conference).

Moreover, Warren himself is a major proponent of diversity. In 2013, he was named a member of the NFL Committee on Workplace Diversity, a position he still currently holds. Warren and his family have broken down several walls in the name of diversity. Warren’s brother, Morrison, was one of the first African-American scholarship student athletes at Stanford.

With his nomination, he most certainly will advocate for diversity within the league that will be championed from the very top of the leadership.

Jim Delany Leaves Storied Legacy

Jim Delany has been one of the most influential people in the world of collegiate sports. At 71 years old, he ends his three-decade tenure as the Big Ten commissioner with a long list of accomplishments under his name. Some highlights of the ways he has impacted the Big Ten conference:

  • Created the Big Ten Network, a television channel that is one of the biggest revenue drivers for the conference
  • He expanded the conference twice, once by adding Penn State and then again in 2011 with the additions of Maryland, Rutgers, and Nebraska
  • He helped drive the implementation of college football’s replay system
  • Negotiated various television contracts across all of Big Ten’s sports, resulting in Big Ten earnings of $2.64 billion over six years

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