For almost as long as I’ve been alive, and certainly as long as I’ve been following college sports, Jim Delany has been one of, if not the, most powerful figures in college sports.
Historic? Influential? Financially successful? He was unquestionably all of those things. Good for college athletics as a whole? Well, that’s a trickier question. But love him or hate him, you couldn’t ignore him.
But Delany is retiring, and to replace him, the Big Ten surprisingly went for an outsider in a major way, hiring Kevin Warren away from the Minnesota Vikings.
I went to Big Ten HQ for his introductory press conference. Here are a few quick thoughts on what this hire means, and where the league will go from here.
1) First, there’s a pretty big obvious difference between Warren and Delany. Kevin Warren is a black man. The Big Ten has never had a black conference commissioner before. In fact, NO power conference has ever had a black conference commissioner before.
The demographics of the student athletes competing in the Big Ten are pretty diverse, but the entire leadership apparatus of the league, from coaches, to athletic directors, to administrative personnel, to yeah, even the media, is overwhelmingly white.
Indiana president Michael McRobbie (who was there to introduce Warren and answer questions about the selection process) was quick to point out that this was no token hire, and that Warren was selected on the strength of his credentials.
No matter how it happens, conference leadership more closely reflecting the demographics and experiences (Warren was a student athlete himself, at Penn and Grand Canyon, and his son plays football at Mississippi State) can only be a positive thing.
2) This may be superficial, but I think it’s clear there’s also a huge step up in the personal charisma department between Delany and Warren. Delany’s annual sermons at Big Ten Media Days had all the charm of a middle school book report, and for all of his competence, never developed much of a cuddly reputation. Warren opened his remarks with an emotional and personal stories about recovering from a near-fatal accident when he was 11 (he was hit by a car), to thanking all of his many mentors. He was engaging and interesting in ways that big time administrators usually…aren’t. That’s a welcome change.
3) One concern that I heard from fans was that Warren had never really negotiated a media rights deal before. The Big Ten is making roughly a gazillion dollars from their current media deal, and winning the next negotiation will be critical in maintaining that financial advantage into the next decade.
Warren’s response was to point to his resume. He said:
"My last 15 years at the Vikings, every day I'm involved in some negotiations. Every day, 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."
There’s a certain degree of content knowledge that will be needed to get the Big Ten a good media rights deal, to be sure. But there’ll be plenty of institutional knowledge left in the league, including from Jim Delany himself (who is staying on until 2020 to help ease the transition) to make that easier. If you’re a proven dealmaker, and know how to establish a successful culture, you’re most of the way there already.
On Tuesday, Michael Smith of the SBJ wrote that Warren is “respected and accomplished enough to be the NFL’s next commissioner.” I imagine a person of that caliber has the juice to figure out how to get ESPN to hand them lots of money.
Plus, let’s be honest, if Warren messes the next media deal up and the Big Ten only gets oh, 80% of what the might have been able to earn…the league will still be filthy rich, and fans probably won’t notice much of a difference. We don’t get a dividend check, after all.
4) On that note, I actually think on many levels, Warren’s less-traditional background make a really powerful statement.
If the Big Ten only wanted to make a “diversity hire”, they could have hired a sitting conference commissioner, or perhaps a long tenured athletic director, who wasn’t a white male. That would have been pretty safe, and the conference would have still been praised.
But by hiring a qualified candidate who doesn’t exactly fit the expected profile of what the candidate’s resume should look like, you’re making a much stronger case that diversity is important to your organization.
In most industries, if you want to build diversity (be that with race, gender, socio-economic background, whatever), you need a broad pipeline. Only hiring from a narrow set of backgrounds will almost certainly limit your candidate pool, since all sorts of factors might keep certain kinds of people from fitting your original template. That’s true for commissioners, for athletic directors, for senior vice presidents, for journalists, and for all sorts of jobs.
Being open to different backgrounds can only make the Big Ten, or any other institution, much stronger.
5) Given how large Delany’s profile looms for this league, it was interesting to me that he wasn’t at the press conference (he was in Las Vegas working on the Big Ten’s new Vegas Bowl relationship). Warren told me he doesn’t know Delany particularly well, and McRobbie said he wasn’t a significant factor in the hiring process.
6) I asked Warren how his administration might differ from Delany, and he was hesitant to offer much in the way of specifics. Us journalists tried to get Warren to bite on expanding the college football playoff, on amateurism, and other hot-button issues in college athletics, but he declined to get too specific, wanting more time to study everything before giving an opinion. It’s clear he really respect Delany’s legacy though, and isn’t looking at the Big Ten like a gut-rehab sort of job, but rather wants to “build” on Delany’s legacy. I think any fan expecting a total 180 from Delany is going to be disappointed, at least in the near future.
7) Warren is entering the league during a very interesting time in college athletics. What happens with the playoff, likeness rights, amateurism, and player benefits, media rights, realignment, and a slew of other major issues is very much in the air, and Warren will be expected to be a leading voice not just for the Big Ten, but for all of college athletics. There is never an easy time to learn on the job, and Warren will have all sorts of administrative support, but right now seems especially volatile.
If you’d like to hear his remarks in full, the presser has been uploaded to Youtube:
So a league that has historically stuck with the safe, conventional, traditional choice— the administrative equivalent of Wisconsin’s offense—they’ve decided to do something bold, original, and yes, risky.
Will it work? I dunno. But I’ve watched the Big Ten punt from the opponent’s 40 enough times. Sometimes, you gotta take a shot downfield.