One of the biggest changes in the history of the Big Ten Conference happened in January, when Kevin Warren, the former chief operating officer of the Vikings, took over as commissioner for retiring Jim Delany.
Delany will go down as one of the most important people in the history of the conference after serving as commissioner from 1989 until 2020, and Warren’s choice as his replacement shows the level of respect Delany has throughout all of sports.
Mark Coyle told me he got to know Warren well when Coyle was hired as athletic director by the University of Minnesota in May 2016, because Warren was one of the people who recommended him for the job.
Coyle said he already can tell Warren will be a great replacement for Delany, even in Warren’s short time in the job.
“I had a chance to meet him when I was hired as the athletic director at Minnesota,” Coyle recalled. “Commissioner Warren was part of the search committee when he was with the Vikings. I had a chance to meet him, and I was with him a week ago. We were in California for Big Ten/NCAA meetings and he’s going to do a wonderful job.
“I would be remiss if we didn’t thank Commissioner Delany and what he did for the conference and the program, but there is no doubt Commissioner Warren is ready for the task and [I] look forward to his leadership and working closely with him as he continues to build what we feel is the best conference in America in the Big Ten.”
Delany helped negotiate one of the most important TV contracts in sports history when the Big Ten Network was launched in 2007 as a joint venture between Fox and the conference.
When Warren accepted the job in June, he told me the Big Ten Network was going to be a focal point of his transition to leading the conference.
“It was the first of its kind, and it’s another one of the things that Jim Delany was ahead of his time when he did that,” Warren said. “The Big Ten Network has been a great network and it’s growing and touching so many households, and so that is going to be exciting to work in that whole TV area and just to be able to deal with the distribution of our material and just looking forward to even learning and growing in that entire area.”
One of Delany’s final deals as commissioner was signing a new contract with ESPN and Fox Sports that was a six-year partnership worth $2.64 billion that will run through 2023.
Football in demand
Coyle said demand for Gophers football season tickets has grown by 300% from last year following their 11-2 season and their 31-24 Outback Bowl victory over Auburn.
“There is no doubt that that win [over Auburn] has had a huge impact,” Coyle said. “I was down in Kentucky this past week for a couple of days seeing some friends, and I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, ‘You guys beat Auburn!’ The excitement it generates not only here in Minnesota but across the country.
“I can tell you we look at our football season tickets after they went on sale, and we have sold four times as many new football season tickets today than we did at this point a year ago. We have a lot of excitement. Our renewals are running ahead of schedule. I think they’re more than 10 percent ahead of where we were at this point a year ago.”
Coyle said that in addition to increased season ticket sales, the football program’s success has boosted fundraising.
“There is no doubt there has been an uptick in fundraising,” he said. “It is such a big, big part of what we do as we continue to generate revenue, not only to support our football program but to support all 25 programs and all 700 student-athletes. There is no doubt that Auburn win brought a lot of great excitement and energy to our department, and [I’m] really grateful for our football student-athletes and Coach [P.J.] Fleck for the season they put together this past season, and looking forward to continuing to build it.”
There is no question that fundraising continues to make a big impact around the university. Coyle said work continues on major renovations for several programs.
“We redid our wrestling facility and Coach [Brandon] Eggum and [assistant head] Coach [Luke] Becker and his staff did a phenomenal job,” Coyle said. “We worked on fundraising and we have a new wrestling practice facility that is state of the art. We went from a room that I don’t think was touched since 1976 to having a brand-new wrestling space. In addition to the wrestling space and with all the excitement around football, we built a brand-new golf house, we built a brand-new volleyball performance center. We made renovations to our locker rooms for several of our sports programs.”
Coyle said one of the biggest things for the Gophers after opening Athletes Village in 2018 is to continue to move forward with projects that can help recruiting.
“You have to keep your foot on the gas pedal and keep this thing moving forward and you can’t stop and rest,” he said. “Facilities are a big part of what we do, and it’s part of that ‘wow’ factor when we go out and recruit student-athletes to come compete in one of our 25 sports. We want to make sure we have great facilities that provide them a great experience when they get on campus and attend the University of Minnesota.”
President Gabel’s role
While Warren has taken over as Big Ten commissioner, Coyle is also working with a new president at the University of Minnesota in Joan Gabel, who took over as the 17th president in school history and the first female president in July.
Coyle said he appreciates how involved the new president has been with athletics.
“President Gabel, so great to work with her,” he said. “She obviously came from South Carolina and the Southeastern Conference. She spent time at Missouri when they were in the SEC. She worked at Florida State. She’s a Georgia grad from law school. She has been around [sports] at a high level. She has been incredibly supportive. She traveled to our away football games, which was awesome. She supported volleyball when our volleyball team was in the Final Four. She is very supportive.”