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Kevin Warren’s short-term stint in the Big Ten will have long-term implications

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On June 4, 2019 — just 3.5 years ago — Kevin Warren entered college athletics, leaving his job as chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings to become a Big Ten commissioner.

In 2020, he led the disastrous and short-lived cancellation of the Big Ten football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. That all changed when the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 didn’t follow, and the league had an abbreviated season.

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In 2021, Warren helped form “The Alliance”, a de facto control bloc with the ACC and Pac-12, in response to the SEC adding Oklahoma and Texas as future members. The Alliance was supposed to be worried about the expansion of the conference (foreshadowing dismay), but its only tangible accomplishment was the derailment of the expanded playoff plan, as it was designed in part by SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey.

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By 2022, the Alliance was decimated when Warren led his own raid to expand the Pac-12, a supposed partner. By bringing USC and UCLA into the Big Ten, Warren forever changed the structure of both leagues and any semblance of trust in the sport.

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The Big Ten soon made a major media rights deal. As the league strengthened and the competition weakened, a playoff expansion was again considered and approved.

And now, in classic modern college sports fashion, Warren has hit the transfer portal for what is considered the best opportunity (president and CEO of the Chicago Bears) because it could lead to the mother of all name, image, and likeness deals – NFL Commissioner and his $60 million salary.

There is, well, a lot left.

The NCAA convention is currently being held in San Antonio, and the most popular buzzword among regulation-obsessed administrators is “restrictions” or the need for some kind of rules restricting athletes from transferring or making money, or who knows what. They argue that everything is a risk to the holiness of college athletics. Mostly people who are afraid of change.

The truth is, no amount of linebackers looking for playing time and an opportunity to earn a few extra bucks can change the structure of college sports the way Warren did. Players simply watch the actions of the boss, ruthlessly looking out for their own interests.

FILE - Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren speaks during Big Ten NCAA College Basketball Days October 12, 2022 in Minneapolis.  On Thursday, January 12, 2023, the Chicago Bears hired Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren as their president and CEO, bringing him back to the NFL to help lead the founder's franchise after three years at a college athletics .  thematic conferences.  (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, file)
Kevin Warren was the Big Ten commissioner for just over three years before returning to the NFL. (AP Photo/Bruce Kluckhohn, file)

Now it’s gone, and everyone else can figure out what to do with the results – be they positive, negative, or just different.

Even his greatest critic has to admit that Warren was forceful and divisive in ways no one expected. He was hired as a little-known underdog; he played some college basketball and worked as a lawyer for some infringement cases, but his experience was in the NFL.

Many believed that he would need time to study the area. Instead, the 59-year-old turned everything upside down and then gave up at the first opportunity.

The failed COVID cancellation plan initially raised questions about its competence. No, it wasn’t just his idea, but it was getting more and more ridiculous as football was being played safely in other parts of the country, not to mention the NFL.

However, instead of being paralyzed by his start, Warren blasted through everyone. The Big Ten are now bigger and richer than ever. He is also different, which may or may not affect him in ways no one can predict. Two Los Angeles schools in the former Midwest league? It might be great. Although maybe mediocre. One way or another, everyone got rich.

Meanwhile, Pac-12, who foolishly trusted Warren, is trying to dust himself off and prop himself up as a smaller and comparatively poorer organization. ACC simultaneously continues to underperform in monetary terms due to a terrible long-term media deal. And if there’s a #1 candidate to replace Warren in the Big Ten, it’s current ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, who used to be the athletic director at Northwestern.

The transfer portal in the corner office may not be completed, even if many in the corner office decry the athlete portal.

In college football, which pays the bills for college athletics in general, Warren firmly placed the Big Ten in a Big Two/Superpower Duel situation with the SEC. Everyone else is chasing them for relevance, income, and competitive hope. He more than earned what the league paid him.

Kevin Warren has perfected all the cries of fraud, money transfers, and other big decisions about how lineups are made. His entire tenure has been associated with secret deals and broken handshakes, which is not a criticism, but just a hint of reality. He dropped the pretense that he was playing well and just played everyone the way he and his league saw fit.

It was business, strictly business. There were no barriers to hold him back.

Now he will try to fix the problems with the Bears’ stadium and maybe turn the franchise into a winner on the field. After all, he could have succeeded Roger Goodell as NFL commissioner.

Three and a half years – not even a full traditional college career – after getting into the college game, Warren declared himself a pro.

His influence will be lasting, in every sense.


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