Kevin Warren started his tenure as Big Ten commissioner trying to connect.
He planned stops at all 14 campuses to meet with administrators and students as well as the local media. After the more than 30-year tenure of his predecessor, Jim Delany, it was a chance for Warren to share who he was and his plans for the conference.
But he made it through only a handful of stops before the coronavirus pandemic derailed his course. And the ensuing months brought unmapped territory.
Warren made decisions — such as to go ahead with a conference-only football season in early August — only to undo them — such as canceling said season just days later — only to revise the original plan — such as when he reinstated the season with amped-up safety practices in mid-September. The flip-flopping was confusing for coaches, players and fans, and Warren wasn't as readily available to ease those frustrations as he wanted to be.
But he's trying to change that in 2021.
While his interviews were infrequent for most of last year, he has spent many hours in recent weeks talking with media who cover the Big Ten in each of its markets. And while Warren ultimately considers 2020 a success — just for the fact the conference tried to afford its athletes a chance to compete — he also knows there's room to grow from what he called "year zero" of his commissioner career.
"The journey was, at times, complicated and challenging," Warren said. "But we do have to take a step back, and for people to really understand, to be where we are today, is really phenomenal."
With Ohio State playing for the national football championship Monday, the Gophers hockey program ranked No. 1 in the country and other athletic achievements around the conference, it's easy to say Warren made the right call in not canceling all fall sports.
But he wasn't concerned about whether people would view his choices as correct. Especially because he felt that definition changed as time passed.
After the conference first canceled sports, Warren endured blowback from players and their parents, fans, entire schools, even President Donald Trump. That might have appeared to force Warren's hand into reinstating. But Warren said the reality was that new medical information emerged, including access to daily, rapid-results testing and better screening for myocarditis, a potential side effect of COVID-19 that affects the heart.
"That's why I was comfortable to go forward," Warren said. "It was not from getting pressured into doing it."
Admittedly, Warren would have handled the situation differently if this had been a normal year. But the former chief operating officer for the Vikings realized sticking to his first instinct wasn't what would best serve the conference in a year of turbulence.
"The leadership lesson I have learned in a global pandemic is to be flexible," he said, "to be agile, to be nimble, to be thoughtful and to be on a perpetual quest to gather new information."
Warren knew in making his decision about canceling the fall season it wouldn't be a popular choice. He said the same in terms of some of his member schools that have cut sports in recent months.
The Gophers are one, eliminating men's gymnastics, tennis and indoor track after taking a projected $30 million loss from playing a truncated football season with no fans.
Warren didn't condemn any of those reductions, saying he trusted the schools to make the right call given the complexity of the situation. But he also wasn't surprised members such as Minnesota and Iowa took that route.
"All these issues were on the path for us to have to address, but 2020 just brought it to the forefront quicker," Warren said.
In 2021, the commissioner anticipates tackling not only the outlook for some individual sports but also the sustainability of athletic departments as a whole, which largely hinge on the financial success of a few revenue sports. The Gophers haven't spoken to those topics much since announcing their program cuts in September, with athletic director Mark Coyle declining an interview with "60 Minutes" and sending a written statement instead.
But Warren didn't judge.
"People need to be afforded grace in this year," Warren said. "I'm a big believer that, especially in 2020, business leaders, sports leaders, really did the best that they could."