The walls in Kevin Warren’s office are decorated with photos of icons. Curt Flood. Jackie Robinson. Martin Luther King Jr. – and also, King’s “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” – and the 1966 Texas Western national champions.
If the theme is obvious, it’s also intentional. And you have to figure these photos will make the transition to his new office in the near future. Because as Warren becomes the Big Ten’s commissioner, he clearly understands the significance.
“It is definitely not lost on me, the history associated with this,” said Warren, who will become the first African American commissioner of a Power Five conference.
It should not be lost on the rest of us, either.
Kevin Warren talks to reporters after being named Big Ten Conference Commissioner during a news conference. (Photo: Charles Rex Arbogast, AP)
Warren, chief operating officer of the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings, will assume one of the most powerful positions in college athletics – succeeding Jim Delany, one of the most influential powerbrokers in the history of the industry. He will take on a complex, challenging job during a very tenuous time of change.
During an introductory news conference Tuesday, Warren offered no hints as to his stances on a couple of big issues, including compensation for college athletes and expansion of the College Football Playoff. The time will come, and soon, to hear his thoughts on those and other pressing issues, as he becomes one of the first of what will become, in the near future, a new generation of college leaders who will make enormous decisions.
DELANY SUCCESSOR: Minnesota Vikings executive is new Big Ten commissioner
Simply by virtue of his position, Warren’s voice will carry immense weight. For myriad reasons, his face does, too.
The power structure of college athletics has long been a monochromatic affair. The vast majority of its administrators and the head coaches in its most visible sports are white, even as minorities heavily populate the playing rosters. Although progress has been made, change has been slow in coming – which is in part why Warren’s hire is momentous.
“It’s a historic moment for collegiate sports,” Sun Belt commissioner Keith Gill told USA TODAY Sports. “We talk a lot about diversity and inclusion in our enterprise. This is another step forward in that.”
Gill should know. When he was named the Sun Belt’s commissioner earlier this spring, he became the first African American commissioner of a Football Bowl Subdivision conference. But Warren’s hire, for one of the most prestigious and powerful positions in college athletics, represents something even larger.
“You really look forward to the day when this is not significant,” said Charles Davis, the Fox NFL analyst, who’s known Warren for years. “But we’re not there yet. It is significant. It’s a Power Five conference, the first time it’s happened.”
At least as important, Davis says, are Warren’s credentials. Although he has never worked in college athletics, he played basketball at Penn and Grand Canyon University. He earned a master’s degree in business administration from Arizona State and a law degree from Notre Dame. He worked with Mike Slive, the late SEC commissioner, in a start-up law firm that specialized in defending schools involved in NCAA investigations. He was a player agent, then worked for several NFL franchises, rising to his current position with the Vikings in 2015.
“If you took the face off the resume and presented his with everyone else’s (resumes), you would say he would be ideal for the job,” Davis says. “You take this resume and put it in as a blind draw, it’s the same resume. … He just happens to be African American.”
Davis is correct. Warren worked his way into the position, and it is notable that he arrives via a nontraditional route, rather than through college athletics (even as it also points to the continuing scarcity of minorities working in roles that would prepare them to be qualified candidates to succeed Delany).
But he was clearly inspired by trailblazers, including family members. His father, the late Morrison Warren Sr., was an educator who served as vice mayor of Phoenix – as well as president of the Fiesta Bowl when it muscled its way onto the New Year’s Day calendar and into status alongside the elite traditional bowls. He was the first African American to lead a major bowl. Kevin Warren’s older brother, Morrison Warren Jr., was one of the first African American scholarship football players at Stanford. Warren is the first COO of an NFL franchise.
“There’s been a lot of ‘firsts’ in my family,” he said, “… so I’m comfortable in this skin.”
As he prepares to settle into the new job, Warren said he hopes his presence – but also his performance – would encourage others.
“Is it, from a historical standpoint, important? 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 make sure I perform at the highest possible level to open up the door for the next person.”
During an interview with the Big Ten Network, he envisioned a “blonde-haired, blue-eyed” 8-year-old girl and a 12-year-old African American boy seeing Warren’s new position, learning his back story and being inspired to work hard to achieve something similar.
“This not only talks to people of color,” he said. “I think this talks to America to say, ‘Life is good. Be the best person you can be. Work as hard as you can.’ … If you do that, I’m a big believer (that opportunities would follow).”
Sometime in the next few months, those photographs of icons will no doubt decorate the walls of the commissioner’s corner office at the Big Ten’s headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois. But the new occupant of the space is a trailblazer, too.
“It’s a huge moment,” Gill said. “That’s one of the biggest stages in college athletics, and to have a person of color there is significant. It is important. … Having a person in a role like that as a role model for all of us shows we can do it, too. It shows the progress we’re making in college athletics. I think on every front it is absolutely incredible.”
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