Big Ten's 'legacy' opportunity excites Warren

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- When Kevin Warren stepped to the lectern Tuesday, he understood the magnitude of the moment.

Only five men before him had served as commissioner of the Big Ten Conference since the league's founding in 1896, and no African American had ever led a major college athletic conference before.

Warren, who has served as chief operating officer for the Minnesota Vikings, will officially take over the role on Sept. 16, replacing Jim Delany, who will remain with the Big Ten in a transition period until Jan. 1, 2020.

Delany, who announced in March that he would step down, has served as Big Ten commissioner since 1989.

"There are only a couple places that I would ever consider spending the next major portion of my life and my career," Warren, 55, said during a news conference at Big Ten headquarters. "This is No. 1 on my list. So this is not about a job. This is really about an opportunity for a legacy.

"This is what I call one of those legacy opportunities. That's why I'm humbled and I'm honored and I'm just excited to go to work."

The Big Ten presidents and chancellors finalized Warren's hiring Sunday at their annual meeting. Indiana president Michael McRobbie said the league's leaders received more than 60 nominations for Delany's successor but unanimously approved Warren, who has spent the past 14 seasons with the Vikings and 21 total seasons in the NFL.

Warren's selection came as a surprise because he has few direct ties to the Big Ten or to college athletics, although the league presidents didn't prioritize candidates with those connections.

The Phoenix native played basketball at Penn and at Grand Canyon University, and his older brother played football at Stanford in the 1960s. Both of his children became college athletes: daughter Peri played volleyball at Occidental, and son Powers is a tight end at Mississippi State.

Warren also worked at a law firm alongside Mike Slive, the SEC commissioner, and specialized in representing universities facing NCAA violations. He began his NFL career in 1997 under then-St. Louis Rams coach Dick Vermeil.

Warren became emotional when discussing Slive, whom he considers "a second father" and who died in 2018.

"Mike Slive would tell me, early on, these commissioner jobs were really an extension of athletics," Warren said. "Now they're a multi-international conglomerate. Yes, still at its core, the student-athlete is and has to be at the core of it. That's the focus, but now there's so many other things associated with it: television and digital issues, and data analytics, and the game-day experience, and the fan experience and sponsors, and rules and regulations, and the future, and the health and wellness, and the constituents and partners.

"All these different things come together. This is a different time."

Warren doesn't know Delany as well, but he repeatedly praised the longtime commissioner, calling him a "legend" in college athletics.

Delany didn't attend Tuesday's announcement -- he was in Las Vegas to announce the Big Ten's new partnership with the Las Vegas Bowl -- but will assist Warren from Sept. 16 until the end of the year.

McRobbie said Delany had "no role" in selecting Warren or in consulting the board during the search.

"So many times when you're dealing with a legend, or you're dealing with what I call a history lesson, you're reading about it in a book or you're watching it on TV or watching a movie," Warren said. "Very rarely do you get a chance to get oral history. To have a chance to work with Jim Delany, to still have him here and working, this is oral history -- not only the Big Ten but college athletics."

Warren declined to offer opinions on major issues such as student-athlete compensation or possible College Football Playoff expansion, saying he prefers to study the issues for several months before publicizing his views. He praised the collegiate model, saying, "What you learn through athletics, you cannot put a dollar value on."

Warren, the highest-ranked black executive working on the business side of an NFL team, emphasized that the Big Ten will be an inclusive organization that offers opportunities to everyone. Warren hired several female vice presidents in restructuring the Vikings organization, which more than doubled its staff during his tenure.

Becoming the first black commissioner of a Power Five conference "is definitely not lost on me," Warren said. His office with the Vikings includes photos of Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King Jr., baseball free-agency pioneer Curt Flood and the 1966 Texas Western championship basketball team that had five black starters.

"There's been a lot of firsts in my family, starting with my mother and father, so I'm comfortable in this skin," Warren said. "It's not only about color, but it's really about diversity, about inclusion, and it really is about opportunity. One of the things I will stand for here is to make sure if, regardless of your background, regardless of your race, color, creed, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, this will be a place, from an inclusion standpoint, where we will embrace everyone and give everyone an opportunity to be the best they can be."

McRobbie said Warren's experience in negotiating the Wilf family's acquisition of the Vikings, helping the franchise rise from NFL-low revenues to some of the best in the league, and overseeing major projects such as U.S. Bank Stadium and TCO Performance Center stood out to the Big Ten board.

Delany's legacy is closely tied to the launch of the Big Ten Network and several successful media rights agreements, an arena Warren steps into with confidence.

"My last 15 years at the Vikings, every day I'm involved in some negotiations. Every day," Warren said. "From building a stadium -- the largest construction project in the history of the state of Minnesota -- to our practice facility, now we're building apartments and hotel and real estate development. And then our big naming-rights deal and sponsorship deals. Really, at the end of the day, when you negotiate an agreement, what does it come down to? Making sure you have the right information, making sure you have the right people around you to help you think through these issues, being a negotiator, thinking for win-win situations, building relationships.

"Those are all the same, so I'm very confident."

Warren became emotional several times during Tuesday's introduction, including when discussing his late parents, Morrison and Margaret, who told him "days like this would come. They may not come when you're ready. They may not come when you want them to come. But they'll come when the time is right."

He also spoke in detail about being struck by a car while riding his bike as an 11-year-old.

A doctor told him he likely wouldn't walk again but encouraged swimming as therapy. So Warren used $11,000 from the settlement he received from the accident to build a pool next to his family's home so he could rehab daily.

"Six years after my accident, I was able to lace up some red Nike shoes and walk on court at the Palestra in Philadelphia as an NCAA Division I student-athlete," he said. "What I was able to learn from that journey, most of the times when you accomplish great things, you've got to build your own pool. You've got to be willing to pay for it. ... You have to be willing to dedicate yourself to being great."