First-year Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren endured his first truly tumultuous news cycle this week. Through all the emotional crosswinds and open-fire antagonism, no Big Ten school’s petulance stood out like Nebraska.
Cornhuskers coach Scott Frost held a news conference Monday to essentially announce that Nebraska would attempt to go rogue if the Big Ten canceled the fall football season. The news conference doubled as a pep rally and the local media jumped aboard, speculating about future opponents without bothering to Google the phrase “grant of rights.”
The entire University of Nebraska doubled down on Frost’s chestiness on Tuesday in the wake of the Big Ten’s decision to cancel the fall season, saying it was “very disappointed.” The release included everyone from the chancellor to the coach and said Nebraska “[hopes] it may be possible for our student-athletes to have the opportunity to compete.” In other words, they stood on their porch in Lincoln and flipped off Warren in unison.
When Warren was asked specifically by Yahoo Sports if Nebraska could play college football this fall, he gave an answer that would make his hardline predecessor nod with approval.
“No,” he said, firmly. “Not and be a member of the Big Ten Conference.”
Warren’s concise Nebraska rebuttal is a nice window into the bottom line he used to help guide the decision that may ultimately define his career as Big Ten commissioner. He politely told Nebraska that if it goes rogue, it can pack it where the corn doesn’t husk. And the league would be happy to keep its $50 million cut and share it with those who play nice.
Warren’s stance on Nebraska’s fall football fantasy would make former commissioner Jim Delany proud. Delany ruled the league with swagger, intimidation and the occasional f-bomb. It’s safe to say Nebraska wouldn’t have attempted to go rogue with Delany in the commissioner chair, as it would have received phone calls with Delany’s Jersey-colorful vernacular. And, likely, it would have been guaranteed the Cornhuskers would have opened their league schedule on the road the next three years with some combination of Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan as a reminder of who is in charge.
Warren hasn’t been perfect through his eight-month baptism by blowtorch as Big Ten commissioner. He alienated some of his fellow commissioner colleagues when he surprised them by going to a conference-only schedule. He certainly burned some goodwill with his coaches, athletic directors and presidents with the clunky way the Big Ten arrived at the decision.
Warren’s task learning the nuances of the college football ecosystems during a pandemic – he arrived from the Minnesota Vikings front office – is equatable to getting dropped into Middle East peace negotiations and conducting them in sign language. There’s a segment of coaches and ADs irked with the way the league’s decision unfolded, especially the lack of a plan to tell student athletes about the specifics of the spring and their eligibility.
Warren prides himself as a consensus builder. A key phrase that every conference uses when announcing decisions is “unanimous,” even when their decisions aren’t unanimous. They’re always at least advertised as such. So it was telling that the Big Ten didn’t bother with that word in its press release Tuesday. It meant Warren navigating an unprecedented situation without even getting to pretend like everyone is getting along.
This was a no-win situation for Warren. Lead a decision to cancel the fall season and the players, coaches and fans all revolt. Lead a decision to play amid a pandemic and you lose the academics and medical professionals. Ultimately, the Big Ten ended up in a smart place. There’s an exponentially better chance of the remaining three major conferences joining the Big Ten on the sideline than there is in those leagues finishing the season. Vegas wouldn’t even give you odds on that bet.
From a risk-management perspective, there’s also a strong argument those leagues have a better chance of ending up with glaring issues than they do actually finishing the season. No matter your politics, view on the virus or perspective on the season, this 2020 fall football season was always a slog with long odds. That got lost a little bit the past 72 hours.
Cut through the roar of emotion this week and it remains a daunting challenge to navigate an entire season this fall. There are health risks both known and unknown, tens of thousands of students returning to campuses and a lack of frequent and accurate testing. Maybe this will be better in the spring. Maybe it won’t. But the best chance for any medical breakthrough that could allow the sport to play remains rapid and accurate testing.
Warren’s rationale gives us a glimpse into what we’ll see from him in the upcoming years as a leader. He has conviction and principle, and the baseline of his decision is difficult to argue against, no matter how badly you want to see your favorite team play.
“When you’re dealing with the lives of human beings, you can’t have ‘I don’t knows,’” Warren said in a phone interview. “These are amateur athletes, they’re not professionals. They are amateurs. We’re not the NFL, NBA or Major League Baseball.”
When Warren noted there were too many questions he didn’t know the answers to, he was prodded for specifics. He asked: How many times can you get COVID-19? How does contact tracing really work? What does intense training do for asymptomatic or symptomatic individuals who have COVID-19?
“There’s a whole litany of items from a health and wellness standpoint where there’s different opinions,” Warren said. He didn’t think “I don’t know” was an adequate answer.
Warren won’t be invited to the Lincoln or Columbus Touchdown Club to speak anytime soon. And it’ll take him a little while to navigate the political damage in his league.
But as the Big Ten landed the plane and bounced on the runway for the past 72 hours, Warren’s actions remained rooted in pragmatic reasons. Through adversity, character is revealed. And Warren’s has been shown to err on the side of safety, health and caution.
As for the most extreme signs of disrespect that emerged in Lincoln, Warren showed he’s not afraid to stand up to schools who try to rally their base at his expense. Well, the Cornhuskers have been dared to follow through. The hunch here is their actions will be much quieter than their words.
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