Kevin Warren, who is leaving the Vikings to become commissioner of the Big Ten, will be easy to replace. The Vikings just need to hire the following:
• Ellen DeGeneres.
For all of his scholarliness and intellect, Warren makes people feel as comfortable as if they were sitting on Ellen’s couch. He can make connections with anyone worth connecting to.
“The first few times I met him, I wondered if he was for real,” TCO CEO Troy Simonson told me for a profile I wrote about Warren in 2017. “Now I know he is. He can motivate a room like no one I’ve ever seen.”
• Santa Claus.
Warren’s wife, Greta, calls him “recklessly generous.” In 2014, the couple donated $1 million to an emergency pediatric care fund, Carolyn’s Comfort, at the Minnesota Masonic Children’s Hospital.
The fund honors Warren’s sister, Carolyn Elaine Warren-Knox, who died of brain cancer. The Warrens fund and throw Thanksgiving and Christmas parties where he hires a chef, hands out presents and washes the linen.
• John Grisham.
There aren’t many lawyers who become popular in America. There’s Grisham, the legal-thriller author, and Warren, and …
Warren, who was the Vikings’ chief operating officer, can strategize like an attorney without resorting to legalese.
• Mariano Rivera.
Warren can close, and manage crises.
He was instrumental in getting the state-of-the-art versions of U.S. Bank Stadium and the TCO Performance Center built. He helped the Vikings land a Super Bowl.
And when the Vikings were botching the public relations nightmare of their star running back, Adrian Peterson, beating his son with a switch, Warren was the only person in the organization able to take the mic and convincingly display toughness toward Peterson and empathy toward the child.
Warren accomplished all he could with the Vikings shy of winning a Super Bowl, and he’s not to blame for that. He broke into the NFL as Dick Vermeil’s consigliere with the St. Louis Rams when they won their first and only Super Bowl. He and Vermeil still socialize and confer, and Vermeil said Warren was “overqualified” for his role with the Rams.
I believed that Warren belonged at the helm of an NFL franchise, as the point person for an ownership group. Instead, he became the first black person to head a Power Five conference. Only after a black person had run the United States for eight years would college sports hire a black person to run a big conference.
Warren is not an accidental trailblazer, nor is he a symbolic hire. His family tradition is overcoming racism with hard work and persistence. He acknowledges the traditional inequalities of American life without complaining about them, as he surely has the right to do.
College sports are overdue for change, and not just in leadership demographics. Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney signed a contract for $92 million but doesn’t think players should be paid. P.J. Fleck criticized the culture of de-commitments even though he left Western Michigan after signing a contract extension.
The hypocrisy of big-money college sports is so blatant it’s almost funny. But not quite.
Warren is built to embrace change, and to lead. I just don’t think Big Ten commissioner should be his destination job.
It’s time to stop thinking of Warren someday running an NFL team. He should be the next to run the league.
If he succeeds as the commissioner of the Big Ten, Warren will be positioned to succeed Roger Goodell as the commissioner of the NFL — another money-making behemoth with ethical and social issues that need addressing.
Warren tells his own origin story, of the time a car hit him while he was bicycling, busting his femur and leading doctors to say he may never walk again.
Warren, then 11, and his family took the settlement from the accident and built a pool where Warren conducted his own rehab. He became a standout college basketball player before launching a legal career that veered into sports.
“You’ve got to be willing to build your own pool,” Warren said in 2017. “And you’ve got to be willing to pay for it.”
The Vikings will miss him, the Big Ten is lucky to have him, and no one should be surprised if his construction projects are only beginning.