Big Ten commissioner on season unraveling: 'I need to learn from it and get better at it'

Pete Thamel
·7 min read

The past two weeks have been a time of unprecedented public tumult for the Big Ten conference. A league that has long regarded itself as above the fray of much of college athletics ended up on the main stage of dysfunction.

Coaches and athletic directors, both publicly and privately, railed against both the league’s decision to postpone the fall football season and the process that helped it arrive there. The volume of player angst rose to the level where the Big Ten’s biggest star, Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields, spoke out on “Good Morning America.” Parents from multiple programs wrote formal letters to commissioner Kevin Warren pleading for their sons to play. Perhaps the biggest sign of unrest came from one player parent, Randy Wade (father of OSU star Shaun), organizing a peaceful protest at Big Ten headquarters.

For a league that’s long operated with a code of silent lockstep, the moment is jarring as a 10-day fingernail drag down a library chalkboard. The defiantly sober Sports Business Journal summed up the Big Ten by saying it “appears to be in meltdown.” Around college sports, the commissioner peers of Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren are chuckling at the karmic payback for his rookie mistakes.

Whether or not the league took a vote on the decision to postpone became a week-long storyline, with the lack of information fueling misinformation. The actual vote of presidents and chancellors, according to the league, took place on Tuesday and was “overwhelmingly in support” of postponing fall sports. “It will not be revisited,” Warren said in an open letter to the Big Ten community made public on Wednesday.

Eight months into his tenure as Big Ten commissioner, Warren has found himself at crossroads of anger, emotion and uncertainty. He’s in no danger of losing his job, but has a lot of work to do to save face with constituents both in his league and around college athletics.

Warren’s initial inability to fully articulate the league’s reasonings and failure to follow up until Wednesday allowed those emotions to bubble over. Upon initially unveiling the decision, Warren’s presentation of reasoning put forth the optical equivalent of handing in an index card for their thesis while the Pac-12 dropped a full-color and footnoted term paper.

Warren released a letter on Wednesday night that dove deeper on details. It cited COVID-19 “transmission rates,” the unknown medical impact of the virus, contact tracing concerns, the risk of full-contact practices and testing logistics as some of the reasons the Big Ten arrived at its decision. “My focus is on doing the right thing, even when it may not be popular,” Warren said.

The letter also crushed all fanatical hopes and message board conspiracies that the decision would be reversed and the season would end up being played. Some of the screaming around the league drowned out the nuance, as Warren had clearly articulated for months that the league could get to this point. (Remember, it didn’t even feel comfortable with full-contact practices.) Warren just fumbled the process at the goal-line and the messaging aftermath.

Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren speaks about the cancellation of the men's basketball tournament on March 12, 2020. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren speaks about the cancellation of the men's basketball tournament on March 12, 2020. (Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Warren stressed that the league didn’t regret the decision or reasoning behind it. But he fell on the sword for the way the league arrived there and the awkward silence that followed. “Was this a clunky process? Yes.” Warren said. “Were there areas I’d have liked to gone smoother? Absolutely. I need to learn from it and get better at it.”

It’s impossible to calculate whether the Big Ten’s bad fortnight will be remembered in hindsight for being as wayward as it was in real time. Much of that has to do with whether or not the other three Power Five leagues end up playing. Fair or not, that outcome is going to be much of how history views both this decision Warren. It could have been right in real time, but there’s still the chance it’s second guessed. There’s also a chance the other Power leagues’ seasons sputter because of the same concerns the Big Ten had, and Warren looks clairvoyant. Regardless, the next few weeks antacid sales will be spiking in the Big Ten footprint.

What’s also difficult to gauge is the real-time brand damage from this.

Warren took over a difficult situation in a pandemic, but the flawed process of the past few weeks has the league operating from a position it’s not accustomed to – strategically behind its peers. Warren’s decision to freeze out the other Power Five commissioners on the league’s decision to go conference-only has alienated those leaders.

That political misfire backfired spectacularly quick on Warren, who lacked allies when he decided to punt on the season. Warren pushing the Big Ten out first, something he seemed intent on doing, only raised the size of the target and the volume of second-guessing. “I’ll be the first one to admit, I was not as clear as I should have been,” Warren said of the initial messaging. “That’s why I felt it was important that I write this letter to explain it.”

Brand damage will ultimately be measured with the bottom line. The Big Ten’s primary media partners, Fox and ESPN, will be in discussion with the league as it pushes on toward formulating a winter/spring season. Warren met with Fox officials in Los Angeles in July and he plans to meet in person with both Fox and ESPN in the next month. Those relationships will be key, as the Big Ten and Pac-12 enter new territory in attempting to play football in the winter/spring. Warren says he’s been in constant communication with all the television partners, and there’s a few billion reasons that dialogue needs to remain robust.

The Big Ten is halfway through a six-year deal that goes through the 2022 football season, which means conversations will start on the next deal in nearly a year. By then, Warren will no longer be a rookie and the league will need to regain the unified front it held under Jim Delany.

Warren’s other most critical constituency is the league’s presidents and chancellors. It’s hard to gauge what the presidents think of Warren, as five the Big Ten presidents are new and few can prioritize athletics amid the other billion-dollar decisions on their campus.

A telling clue to where the athletic directors sit came from OSU’s Gene Smith, who released a 670-word statement on Wednesday and didn’t mention Warren once. The pandemic ended Warren’s honeymoon before it began, and this last two weeks leave him playing catch-up. Internally, Warren should learn from the choppy Pac-12 tenure of Larry Scott, who lost his athletic directors early on and has spent much of his decade in charge flailing as a result. Warren needs to rebuild internal trust, as he still faces a steep learning curve on conference politics.

So much of being a commissioner is alignment behind the scenes, and that was clearly flubbed. Warren’s process as the Big Ten arrived at the decision was too siloed off, as groups like the medical officials, presidents and athletic directors rarely crossed over in communication. That led to mixed messaging, which Warren regrets.

“This process was definitely not perfect, especially around communication,” Warren said. “In retrospect, what I would have done differently is I would have brought all the parties together. That’s part of the learning and growing and striving to be better.”

And as the last two weeks have exposed, there’s significant room for improvement.

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