Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren is on a tour of every university in the conference as he starts his new role leading one of the most powerful sports institutions in the country. He was at Williams Arena last week to meet with the Gophers athletic and academic staffs. In a one-on-one interview, the former Vikings chief operating officer said that the job is everything he expected, but there are changes he wants to make a priority as he starts his career as the sixth commissioner in Big Ten history.
Q Are you glad you took this job?
A Yes, absolutely. Any time you get an opportunity to lead a conference like the Big Ten and make sure that we make an impact — we have 10,000 student-athletes in the Big Ten, so I think it was a perfect time for me to take this opportunity at the Big Ten Conference.
Q Is the job what you expected?
A It is. Fortunately it has great history and tradition, started in 1896 and so it has a lot of tradition. We have great teams. You look at our NCAA men’s basketball and women’s basketball, we have great athletics. Our Olympic sports are doing well. We had a good football season. We have a good staff and so it’s everything I thought it would be.
Q What is the biggest problem you have faced so far?
A I think the biggest issue is just making sure that I manage my time properly. There are so many things that I want to do. I’m going out to see all 350 teams play in the Big Ten this year. I’m doing 14 town hall meetings. I’m making sure we get our office humming in the right direction.
Q What about transfers in college athletics?
A I’m a big believer and a big supporter of the transfer rule. I transferred as a student-athlete and I think student-athletes should have an opportunity to transfer one time without any explanation. Now if they transfer again, then they need to sit out. But I think it had gotten to the point where people who had gotten waivers from a transfer rule standpoint, they were having to discuss a lot of personal information about their parents or their grandparents or their personal situation. I think every young person who is in college is allowed to say, “You know what? The school I committed to may not be a good fit for me right now and I have decided to transfer.”
Q What kind of major projects are going on in the conference right now?
A I think the biggest thing right now is for us to really build our mental health and wellness platform for all of our student-athletes. We’re really leaning into voter registration. We’re working on financial literacy. But the biggest thing is to make sure that we put our student-athletes back at the center and keep them at the center of all of our decisions. Those are the biggest things — to make sure we look out for our student-athletes and give them a chance to be amateurs and enjoy their college experience, participate at a high level in sports, but get a great education.
Q Do you think that college basketball and the NBA are going to eliminate the one-and-done rule?
A I am hearing different conversations about things that are going on in the NBA. I don’t know if they eliminate it, but this is a great time and I say this sincerely: To think you have been so blessed to live 100 years and just think how you have seen the game evolve. You were the key in launching the Minneapolis Lakers, which morphed into the Los Angeles Lakers. You have seen basketball, all these sports, kind of evolve. But I want to make sure that we make the right decisions today so that the next 25, 50, 100 years are in a good position to succeed.
Q What kind of short-term goals and long-term goals do you have for the conference?
A To continually maintain our position as a leader in college athletics. When people look to the Big Ten Conference they look to it as a conference who they admire, who does the right things, who empowers our student-athletes to get meaningful degrees, who address the tough issues, who stand for diversity and inclusion at all levels, and to make sure that we create an environment where we’re winning a lot of national championships but that our student-athletes are graduating and we’re able to focus on empowering them.
Q Did your job with the Vikings help prepare you for this?
A It definitely did. One good thing about the Wilf family is they were so supportive, they’re the best owners in all of pro sports. They gave me the latitude to make decisions and learn.
Q What do you think about the Gophers’ operation?
A They have some excellent coaches here. The administration is strong. [Athletic director] Mark Coyle is strong. His team is strong. This is a great environment. Also to be in the Twin Cities, it’s unique in the Big Ten because other than Northwestern, most of the other schools are not in major metropolitan areas. I think it adds a certain kind of panache to the University of Minnesota.
Q What is it like working with the Big Ten Network?
A The network is phenomenal. We have great inventory. Francois McGillicuddy is the president there. That’s one thing that [former commissioner] Jim Delany, I tip my hat to him for being a leader and starting that network. It really is cutting edge. Mostly other conferences are following what the Big Ten have done.
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