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Why Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren says 2020 was one of his best years yet

Detroit Free Press logo Detroit Free Press 7/22/2021 Chris Solari, Detroit Free Press
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INDIANAPOLIS — The number remains fresh in Kevin Warren’s mind: 71 days.

That’s how long the Big Ten commissioner had been in his new job when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020 and shut down college sports.

It would only be the first in a series of major challenges during Warren’s tumultuous first year, with none greater than the football season cancellation-turned-revival last summer after receiving pressure from conference members and politicians.

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However, Warren arrived Thursday at his first Big Ten football media days — last year’s event was canceled — and told reporters at Lucas Oil Stadium he doesn’t have any regrets with how things transpired.

“Quite naturally, we all look back over our lives and there are things we wish we would have maybe done a little bit differently,” he said. “But if I had the chance to do it all over last year, I would do, make the same decisions that we made, because one of the things that I've always tried to focus on — and you heard me say it today — is making sure we keep our student-athletes at the center of all of our decisions; athletically, academically, regarding College Football Playoff expansion, relationships with our media partners, relationships with our bowl partners, all of those different things. If we put them at the epicenter of our decisions we're going to be OK. And we did that last year at the Big Ten.

graphical user interface: Kevin Warren will be the first speaker at the podium during the Big Ten's media days. The league's commissioner speaks starting at 10:30 a.m. Thursday. © Charles Rex Arbogast, AP Kevin Warren will be the first speaker at the podium during the Big Ten's media days. The league's commissioner speaks starting at 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

“Maybe the communication wasn't as clean and perfect as it could have been at times, and I think you've seen improvement with that.”

Warren on Jan. 2, 2020 replaced former commissioner Jim Delany, who retired after nearly 30 years leading the league. The pandemic presented an immediate leadership challenge for Warren on March 11 that year – from opening the conference basketball tournament with fans in the stands for the opening day at Bankers Life Fieldhouse and watching a coach get sick and leave the court midgame to saying the next day’s games would be closed to the public and the remainder of the season canceled.

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Then after eliminating all nonconference competition in fall sports last July, Warren said there would not be a fall football season in 2020 and the Big Ten instead would try to play in spring 2021.

However, the pushback from players, parents and lawmakers came quickly and intensely. Ohio State and Nebraska led the charge to get back on the field in the fall as the SEC, ACC and Big 12 all kept playing.

On Sept. 16, a little more than a month after the initial decision, the Big Ten announced it would play a nine-game fall schedule.

“We fought hard for football last year because we thought it was the right thing,” Nebraska coach Scott Frost said Thursday. “I'm really grateful to the people that helped make it happen so that we could get a chance to play last year. Where we landed last year was a good place. I thought the season came off well with the Big Ten and was managed well. We're going to trust them to make those types of decisions.”

Warren said in all sports, the Big Ten played 1,843 of the 2,000 scheduled events.

“And that only comes from just tremendous dedication and teamwork,” he said.

All of the internal conference strife coincided with the push for name, image and likeness reform in college sports and the racial unrest across the country last summer, sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Warren, 57, spent 14 years working for the Minnesota Vikings and was chief operating officer of the team before joining the Big Ten. He also happens to be the first Black commissioner of a major college conference.

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“I say I was fortunate because it was a time that made me grow up quickly. And what that experience taught me is that I don't take any moment, any day, any relationship, any opportunity for granted,” Warren said. “It grew my faith. It grew my belief in people. So although last year was really — I don't want to even say traumatic — it was one of the best years of my life. Because I always have a prayer on New Year's going into each year, and my prayer on 2019 was that I wanted my prayer life to grow in 2020. Little did I know that it would grow at the rate that it did, but I can tell you right now that I'm a stronger person.”

Warren said the pandemic and choppy football season forced him to better connect with the Big Ten presidents, chancellors, coaches and athletes

“My gratitude co-efficient is extremely high, and I am grateful that I had the opportunity to go through what we did last year. And I'm also grateful that I had the belief system to hold true to my values and my promise to keep our student-athletes and their health and safety and wellness No. 1, which I believe that we did. … What it did is allowed me to really understand the importance of relationships, the importance of communications, but also to have a gratitude for life. And so I'm grateful for last year. I embrace it, and I'm glad to be here today.”

Warren on the rumors of Texas and Oklahoma seeking to join the SEC, adding that he needs to consult with conference and university leaders: “We're at an inflection point in college athletics. … That's the world that we live in right now. And I know from where we sit, we're always constantly evaluating what's in the best interests of the conference. It will be interesting to see how that story evolves and where it lands, but I think that reiterates where we are in college athletics.”

On whether teams that have COVID-19 outbreaks this season will be required to forfeit games: “During our semiannual meeting (June 6) with our chancellors and presidents, it was voted for us to be able to create a decentralized process and procedure this year of handling COVID-19. So we have allowed our institutions to handle those issues. One of the things that we're working on right now is the fact that our schools are finalizing their proposed policies and procedures for the fall. We'll get that information in early August, we'll combine it and then we'll get together with our chancellors and presidents and other key constituents to make the determination as far as how we handle the fall.”

On name, image and likeness: “For the first time in over 150 years of college athletics, student-athletes gained the opportunity to be able to compensate for their name, image and likeness, which I still believe needs federal legislation. We in the Big Ten Conference embrace the empowerment of all of our student-athletes from social justice initiatives to NIL.”

Contact Chris Solari: csolari@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari. Read more on the Michigan State Spartans and sign up for our Spartans newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Why Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren says 2020 was one of his best years yet

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