Why Big Ten's hiring of Kevin Warren is so significant

Kevin Warren will take over for Jim Delany as the Big Ten commissioner. (Getty)
Kevin Warren will take over for Jim Delany as the Big Ten commissioner. (Getty)

Throughout its history, college athletics has been led by an unbroken oligarchy of white men.

The head of the NCAA has always been a white man (there are some titular semantics here, but the face of the association has not varied in terms of race and gender). The commissioners of the Power Five conferences have always been white men. The coaches of Division I FBS football national champions have always been white men. Even in men’s basketball, 77 of the 81 national champions have been coached by white men, including 20 of the past 21.

The monochromatic nature of the College Sports Inc., power structure could be labeled “bad optics.” While that fits an industry that is always more concerned about appearances than reality, it’s an insufficient term.

The lack of diversity at the top has been more than just “bad optics.” It’s been bad governance, bad leadership and bad business. It’s been regressive, exclusionary and antithetical to the racial makeup of the sports they lead.

Which is why the Big Ten’s hiring of Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren as its new commissioner is one of the most substantial 21st century occurrences in college athletics.

An African-American is now leading the oldest, most profitable and arguably most traditional of the Power Five conferences. This isn’t a fixer-upper job: this is a league that formed in 1895; that cut record revenue checks to member schools in 2018; that has the top three teams in FBS attendance each of the past three years. Rutgers aside, it is a thriving conference.

Selecting Warren to lead the Big Ten should do more than improve the bad optics of college sports (which, yes, extend to the media). It should herald the beginning of the end of a stubbornly enduring Old Boys Club.

It’s amazing, and damning, that we had a two-term black President of the United States before we had a black Power Five commissioner. (Although there are no term limits in the commissioner’s office, which is why the white men who get those powerful and lucrative positions tend to stay in them for a long time.)

"This is an important moment for our conference and for intercollegiate athletics," said Ohio State president Michael Drake, himself an African-American. "Kevin is the right person at the right time to lead us forward.”

The hiring of Warren, a former basketball player at Penn and Grand Canyon, hopefully will further motivate minority athletes to seek college sports leadership positions after they finish playing. It hopefully will further motivate universities to seek qualified minority candidates for leadership positions — and, even more importantly, to work harder at developing minority leaders from within the college sports framework.

Warren came from the outside — his background is wholly in law and the National Football League. He's never spent a minute as a college athletic administrator until now. Some recent Power Five minority athletic director hires have been similarly outside the NCAA box — Ray Anderson at Arizona State, Malcolm Turner at Vanderbilt and Lynn Swann at USC (for better or worse). So have several prominent coaching hires — football coach Herm Edwards at ASU, and basketball coaches Juwan Howard at Michigan, Jerry Stackhouse at Vandy, Penny Hardaway at Memphis and Patrick Ewing at Georgetown.

It’s fair to ask why colleges aren’t producing more of these African-American leaders from within. They shouldn’t need to outsource leadership development to the professional leagues.

I know efforts are being made — athletic directors will talk passionately about how hard they search for qualified minority coaching candidates from within the college sports space. But there are decades of institutional inertia (if not outright resistance) to overcome, and the pace is plodding. The NCAA’s demographic numbers point out the stark difference between who plays revenue sports, who coaches them and who sits in the AD offices.

In 2018, among Division I non-HBCU schools, 76 percent of all ADs (252) were white men. Just 8.4 percent (28) were white women. Just 7.8 percent (26) were black men, and 0.9 percent (three) were black women. (Twenty-three ADs were identified as “other.”)

Meanwhile, head-coaching diversity has stagnated among Division I non-HBCU schools. In 2008, 76 percent of men’s basketball head coaches were white and 23 percent were black (with 1 percent identified as “other”). In 2018 those numbers were 75 percent and 22 percent (with 2.4 percent identified as “other”). In football, the percentage of white head coaches has dropped from 93 to 89 percent from 2008-18, with black coaches inching up from 5 percent to 7.

(Assistant coach trends are more toward minority inclusion over the decade referenced above. The question is whether that increased diversity will break the coordinator/top assistant ceiling and translate to head-coaching positions.)

As for the athletes: Black players made up 54 percent of men’s basketball rosters among Division I non-HBCU schools in 2018, with 25 percent white and 21 percent “other.” In football, the numbers are 45 percent black, 40 percent white and 15 percent “other.”

But in hiring Warren, the Big Ten didn’t just break a color barrier. The conference broke a mold.

Jim Delany was one of the most powerful and influential figures in the history of college sports, serving as the commissioner of the Big Ten for 30 years. But the league he leaves behind didn’t turn to a loyal, long-time Delany assistant or someone steeped in conference history.

Warren was never a student-athlete or administrator at a Big Ten institution, going from Penn to Grand Canyon to Arizona State to Notre Dame academically, with stops at multiple NFL franchises and law firms thereafter. The Arizona native lives in the Big Ten footprint, but his son, Powers, plays football at Southeastern Conference school Mississippi State.

And he counts among his mentors the late Mike Slive, with whom he worked in 1990-91 at the NCAA troubleshooting law firm Bond, Schoeneck & King. As commissioner of the SEC, Slive was Delany’s frequent sparring partner, and their rivalry fundamentally affected both conference realignment and the college football postseason.

But new ideas and foreign backgrounds can work at the commissioner level. Delany was a Big Ten outsider when he arrived — a Jersey guy and a Tar Heel who had worked at the NCAA and as commissioner of the Ohio Valley Conference. Slive bore no resemblance to any SEC demographic, arriving as a Yankee Jewish lawyer with an Ivy League undergrad degree, and he was both successful and beloved. Bob Bowlsby was a Midwestern guy and the Stanford athletic director when the Big 12 lured him to the Southwest.

Will Warren be a good commissioner? Only time will tell. But he arrives in the Big Ten with a long list of endorsements, both from without and within the league.

“He's a connector,” said his Minnesota neighbor, Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck. “He's infectious. His personality is wonderful for the role. He's a natural born leader.

“He makes change happen. He's a person that takes action and makes things happen. I still remember, I called Kevin on an issue. We wanted to practice at the Vikings facility. Within in a few hours it was done and ready to go. He's a go-getter. People love him.”

Kevin Warren is replacing a historic college sports figure. In larger terms, he’s hopefully leading the replacement of an enduring oligarchy. Don’t limit the importance of this by simply referring to it as improved optics — it’s bigger than that.

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