'An excellent leader': Big Ten taps Vikings executive Kevin Warren as new commissioner

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News
Minnesota Vikings chief operating officer Kevin Warren talks to reporters after being named Big Ten commissioner during a news conference Tuesday in Rosemont, Ill.

Many didn’t see the hiring of Kevin Warren coming as the next commissioner of the Big Ten succeeding Jim Delany who is retiring in 2020 after 30 years with the conference. But the 55-year-old former Chief Operating Officer of the Minnesota Vikings who worked for the Lions in the early 2000s, is widely regarded as smart, likeable, and although he doesn’t have collegiate athletic administrative experience, is considered a quick study.

Warren was formally announced at a news conference Tuesday and becomes only the sixth commissioner in the long history of the Big Ten. He is he first black commissioner of a Power 5 conference. He will begin as Big Ten commissioner on Sept. 16. Delany will officially step down Jan. 1, 2020.

“It is definitely not lost on me of the history associated with this,” Warren said at his news conference when asked about being the first black commissioner of the Big Ten. “I have some key pictures on my wall I look at every single day thanks to my wife.  Picture of Curt Flood, an African-American pioneer in baseball who, really, stood up about baseball free agency. I have a picture right in front of my desk of Jackie Robinson. I have a picture behind me of Dr. (Martin Luther) King. I have a picture of the 1966 Texas Western basketball team. First time five black student-athletes won a national championship when they beat Kentucky. I have all those pictures in my office."

Michigan athletic director Warde Manuel applauded the hiring of Warren, who had been COO of the Vikings since 2015, and called it a great move for the Big Ten.

“I was excited to hear yesterday that Kevin Warren was selected as the next Commissioner of the Big Ten,” Manuel said in a text Tuesday to The Detroit News. “I have known Kevin for a couple of decades. Great person, really smart, and excellent leader. I am excited about working with him in his new role.”

Shinola CEO Tom Lewand, the former Lions president, worked with Warren when he was with the Lions for two seasons as senior vice president of business operations and general counsel from 2001 to 2003.

“I’m really happy for him,” Lewand told The News on Tuesday. “I really do think he’ll do a good job. It’s great to have somebody who has spent so much time in Big Ten country in Michigan and Minnesota to lead the conference. Wish him nothing but the best.”

Warren spent 21 seasons working in the NFL, including 14 with the Vikings. He was promoted from vice president of legal affairs and chief administrative officer to COO in 2015 becoming the first black COO in the NFL.

In March, the Big Ten announced Delany, 70, would retire in 2020.

"It's been an amazing opportunity to serve and lead these preeminent institutions, presidents, administrators, coaches and students," Delany in a Big Ten release in March. "It is incredibly fulfilling to support the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who have been afforded an opportunity to obtain best-in-class educations as a result of the invaluable, one-of-a-kind lessons learned through the unique combination of athletic and classroom competition. I would like to recognize and thank each of my colleagues for being such invaluable members of, and contributors to, the Big Ten Conference team, while acknowledging that there is still plenty of work to be done.”

Under Delany’s guidance, the Big Ten expanded to 14 members, adding Penn State in 1990 and then Nebraska in 2011 and Maryland and Rutgers in 2014. He also was pivotal launching the Big Ten Network in 2007. With that income generated from the Big Ten’s television network and contracts, the conference reportedly had $759 million in revenue during the 2018 fiscal year.

During his news conference Tuesday, Warren referred to Delany as “an iconic leader” and said he has no intention to make enormous immediate changes.

“The worst thing you can do is tear down what he has built and what this staff has built,” Warren said.

Warren was asked about a number of topics, including his thoughts on paying players and conference expansion, but said he would discuss those issues at another time. He said he likes to read and learn.

He said he will take the time to be a “great listener and observer” so he can build on Delany’s success.

Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana University and chair of the executive search committee, praised Warren as a “visionary leader.”

“(He is) an experienced, successful and highly respected executive, and a skilled communicator who is uniquely positioned to continue the traditions of excellence that have become synonymous with the Big Ten Conference,” McRobbie said in a statement. “Over a remarkable and pioneering career, he has developed a reputation among his peers and colleagues as an individual of enormous character, integrity, knowledge and passion, who has dedicated the majority of his professional career to the empowerment of young people and the positive impact athletics can have on improving lives and our society.”

Ohio State president Michael Drake, a member of the search committee, said Warren’s hiring was the result of an extensive national search.

“We were all impressed with Kevin’s broad experience, his extraordinary level of commitment and his vision for our collective future,” Drake said in a statement. “My colleagues and I all look forward to working closely with him to support and advance the Big Ten. This is an important moment for our conference and for intercollegiate athletics. Kevin is the right person at the right time to lead us forward.”


Twitter: @chengelis