Skip to main content

The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Kevin Warren, former exec with the Minnesota Vikings, speaks to the media Tuesday in Rosemont, Ill., after being named Big Ten commissioner.

Wednesday, June 05, 2019 1:00 am

Big Ten breaks barrier with hire

ANDREW SELIGMAN | Associated Press

ROSEMONT, Ill. – Kevin Warren keeps a picture in his office of Curt Flood. There's another of Jackie Robinson, one of Texas Western's barrier-bulldozing 1966 NCAA championship basketball team and Dr. Martin Luther King's letter from “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

Warren understood the significance of the moment Tuesday as he became the first black commissioner of a Power Five conference. The Big Ten hired the Minnesota Vikings executive to replace Jim Delany, bringing on a former college basketball player and sports agent with a law degree from Notre Dame to lead one of the most lucrative leagues in the country.

“It's really about diversity, inclusion and it really is about opportunity,” Warren said. “One of the things I will stand for here is to make sure regardless of your background – regardless of your race, color, creed, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation – this will be a place from an exclusive standpoint that we will embrace everyone and give everyone an opportunity to be the best they can be.”

He will start Sept. 16 and work alongside Delany, who will step down Jan. 1. The 71-year-old Delany announced his decision to step away this year.

It's not the first pioneering role for the 55-year-old Warren. He has been the chief operating officer for the Vikings since 2015, the first African-American to hold that position for an NFL franchise. And now comes another milestone among the Power Five, which includes the Southeastern, Pac-12, Big 12 and Atlantic Coast conferences.

“Do I think about it every single day? Yes,” Warren said.

“But I also remember it provides me with an opportunity to make sure that I send the elevator back down to give people who – other people may not have given an opportunity to people who look like me – to remember that. And to make sure that I perform at the highest possible level to open up the door to the next person regardless of their color.”

Indiana President Michael McRobbie said the Big Ten considered more than 60 candidates.

Warren became emotional during the news conference, particularly when discussing his parents as well as the late SEC commissioner Mike Slive.

He recalled a mutual friend arranging a meeting with Slive in the early 1990s at The Palmer House in Chicago – the famed hotel where the Big Ten was born and brownies invented in the 1890s. By the time he drove back to South Bend, Slive had left a message on his answering machine offering him a job at his legal firm, where he started working on NCAA infractions cases.

Warren also remembered the tough obstacles he faced just to get back to walking let alone playing sports again after he got run over by a car. Just 11 years old, the kid who grew up in Phoenix was riding his bike with friends that summer day.

He heard paramedics say he might not make it but he wound up in traction and then a body cast with a broken right femur to go with a fractured wrist. As he was preparing to leave the hospital, a doctor told him swimming would give him the best shot at recovery, though the odds were not good.

Warren persuaded his parents to use some of his $30,000 settlement to install a pool in the backyard, arguing that community pools aren't open every day and they might not always be able to take him there. The future lawyer made such a strong case they had one built for $11,000, a life-changing decision for their son.

“When you actually pay for something, you appreciate it more,” said Warren, who saved his mangled Schwinn until the movers threw it away after his father died. “For me at 11 years old, to formally write the check on something like that. ... That made me mature at a really young age. And it saved my life.”