The Big Ten turned to a successful NFL executive as its choice for the sixth commissioner in conference history.
Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren was named as Jim Delany’s successor to lead the Big Ten on Tuesday. He'll become the first African-American commissioner of a Power 5 conference.
“It is definitely not lost on me, of the history associated with this,” Warren said in his introductory press conference.
Warren said his office features pictures of several groundbreaking African-Americans, including Jackie Robinson, Dr. Martin Luther King and Curt Flood, an African-American baseball player who successfully challenged Major League Baseball’s anti-trust exemption, ushering in the era of modern free agency.
Under the succession plan, Warren will start duties as Big Ten commissioner on Sept. 16, while Delany will stay on to assist with the transition until his contract expires on Jan. 1, 2020.
Warren, 55, has already been a trailblazer in the NFL with the Vikings, where he has worked since 2005. He is the highest-ranking African-American executive working on the business side for a team in the NFL and in 2015 became the first African-American COO in NFL history. During his tenure with the Vikings, Warren played an integral role in overseeing all aspects of the construction of the Vikings' new home, $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium, which was completed on time and on budget in 2016.
During Warren’s leadership, the Vikings went from near the bottom of the NFL in revenues to the top third of the league. In introducing Warren, Indiana University president Michael McRobbie also noted Warren’s civic involvement and his efforts as an executive to champion diversity.
“All of us on the search committee came away greatly impressed with his work ethic, communication skills, his knowledge and his passion,” McRobbie said.
A Tempe, Arizona, native, Warren recounted when he was 11 years old and run over by car while riding his bike, suffering life-threatening injuries. Warren was told by doctors he may not walk again, let alone play sports. When doctors told him his best chance of recovery was swimming, he convinced his family to use a portion of the settlement money he received from the accident to build a backyard pool, where he swam and played and trained. By 17, Warren said he was not only walking again but a good enough athlete to earn a Division I basketball scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.
“That’s the message I want to send our student-athletes, to empower them, to help them build their own pools,” Warren said.
Warren finished his college basketball career at Grand Canyon University in 1986, earned an MBA at Arizona State in 1988 and a law degree at Notre Dame in 1990. Following law school, Warren began his professional career working at a sports law firm with Mike Glazier and former SEC commissioner Mike Slive, specializing in representation of universities charged with NCAA violations.
Warren was emotional talking about Slive, whom he considered an early mentor. Slive died last year after a long bout with prostate cancer.
“Mike Slive taught me the values of hard work, respecting others and attention to detail,” Warren said.
Warren said former Philadelphia Eagles and St. Louis Rams football coach Dick Vermeil was another mentor. Vermeil helped Warren begin his NFL career in 1997, hiring him for a legal/front office position. From the Rams, Warren moved on to a front office job with the Detroit Lions before joining Zygi Wilf’s ownership group in Minnesota in 2005. Warren was promoted to Vikings COO in 2015.
Despite his 21 years in the NFL, Warren has always remained connected to college athletics and was drawn to the opportunity to help lead and guide college athletic departments and student-athletes.
“There’s nothing like a college sports atmosphere,” Warren said.
But Warren chose not to offer opinions on hot-button college athletic topics, such as increased student-athlete compensation or the expansion of the College Football Playoff, saying he needs more time to study both issues.
McRobbie said the search committee considered Warren’s NFL background as a positive trait.
“He’s dealt with massively complex issues, from helping acquire a franchise as part of Zygi Wilf’s group, to legal issues of building a new stadium, to various ways to communicate and deal with the media,” McRobbie said. “To turn around revenues going against some of the best in business in the world is no small feat. And he’s proactive when it comes to diversity and inclusion.”
The Big Ten also announced tie-ins for 11 college football bowls from the 2020-25 seasons Monday. Along with traditional matchups such as the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California (Big Ten-Pac 12), Orange Bowl in Miami (Big Ten-ACC), Citrus Bowl in Orlando (Big Ten-SEC) and Outback Bowl in Tampa (Big Ten-SEC), there were a few new wrinkles.
The Las Vegas Bowl will feature the Big Ten and SEC alternating in matchups against the Pac 12 at the newly-constructed domed stadium for the NFL’s Raiders. The Big Ten and SEC also will alternate matchups in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte against an ACC opponent.
The Big Ten also will continue to send representatives to the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tennessee, Cheeze-it Bowl in Phoenix, Arizona, Pinstripe Bowl in New York, Redbox Bowl in Santa Clara, California, and Quick Lane Bowl in Detroit.