‘Everybody will want that one’: What’s next for Big Ten after Kevin Warren’s departure?

SAN ANTONIO – Just three days after the national championship game, there was supposed to be a carefully curated passing of the torch in college athletics.

Shortly after outgoing NCAA President Mark Emmert bowed out in his final keynote address during the organization’s annual convention, incoming leader Charlie Baker was formally introduced to a crowd of administrators who traveled to the center of Texas to discuss the future of college sports.

Leaving the address, and in the hours leading up to it, however, neither Baker nor Emmert were discussing athletic directors, commissioners and scores of school delegates as their focus quickly turned to more pressing matters. In fact, the focus was on a much more powerful figure in the growing company at the heart of the convention and a delivery that took place on Thursday that was much more seismic.

“Oh hello, the next commissioner of the Big Ten!” some joked with each other, a refrain that was repeated several times in the halls of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center.

“So how do you like Chicago?” a handful of others set the companions in a chorus of laughter.

While the comments circulating at the NCAA Convention were mostly made in jest, they cut into the day’s big news that the Chicago Bears had named Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren the franchise’s new president and CEO.

[Bears hire Kevin Warren as president, CEO]

While the reports and several hoax hints had been dropped in the days leading up to the new year, numerous college athletics officials who spoke to FOX Sports this week raised an eyebrow at the official news, though no one seemed totally surprised, apart from the speed that less than two weeks pass in 2023.

“I’m not surprised,” said one FBS commissioner. “This was always his world.”

But Warren, who is known in NFL circles through stints with the then-St. Louis Rams, Detroit Lions, and especially the Minnesota Vikings, leaves the Big Ten in good shape.

After entering the Big Ten as an underdog in 2020, it was forced to immediately navigate the pandemic and subsequent shutdown of sports. But during his tenure, he helped engineer the additions of USC and UCLA to the Big Ten ranks last summer, among the most surprising moves made since the conference was founded. Not only did it give the league a western bridgehead, it expanded the footprint from coast to coast and secured the three major media markets (New York, Los Angeles and Chicago) under the Big Ten banner.

Warren later completed the task he was primarily hired to do by negotiating the richest media rights deal in college athletics history. Already one of the most financially secure conferences, the 16 members will soon share more than $1.2 billion annually and appear in an extraordinary number of broadcast windows in a similar vein to their former (and now future) home in the NFL.

Then there’s the upcoming expansion of the College Football Playoff, which the Big Ten commissioner has been instrumental in shaping as things change from four teams to 12 starting in the 2024 season. Monday in Los Angeles, according to sources from the room, Warren seemed deeply invested in the development process before he formally took the Bears job, chairing meetings and leading lively discussions with presidents, chancellors, fellow commissioners and Notre Dame athletic director Jack. Swarbrick on the details surrounding the postseason structure.

Warren also leaves behind a legacy as the first, and so far only, black commissioner of a Power 5 conference. He also personally led several Big Ten players, coaches and administrators on a trip to Selma and Montgomery, Ala., to learn more about the civil rights movement, and has made diversity, equity and inclusion central to several league initiatives.

So, yes, the Big Ten is in a good place, having emerged from the turbulent pandemic with a future that looks secure, lucrative, and compelling for nearly every college beyond a select few that sing SEC in the end of games

What has now been unleashed, however, is a torrent of speculation about who will land one of the most coveted (and powerful) jobs in sports. Much of the chatter outside committee meeting rooms and the many restaurants along the Riverwalk outside the NCAA convention has been less about what Warren accomplished or his loss for the league, but more about who will take the chair next.

“Everybody’s going to want it,” said one Power 5 athletic director with Big Ten experience. “everyone.”

It’s too early to decide if that will actually be the case, but the feeling isn’t too far off.

Speculation has immediately focused on ACC commissioner Jim Phillips, a Chicago native who spent years at nearby Northwestern and finished runner-up to Warren in the initial search to replace Delany. He remains highly regarded throughout the Big Ten footprint and recently completed a stint helping shape the future of college sports on the Division I Transformation Committee.

When contacted, Phillips smiled and declined comment on that conjecture.

Others, including Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, Arizona State vice president Chris Howard, Patriot League commissioner Jennifer Heppel and numerous additional names with Big Ten figures , to end up connected with the much sought after opening for the next month or two.

That said, it’s not a complete walk in the park given the tough times that seem to be facing just about everyone under the NCAA’s big tent.

Name, image and likeness remain a matter of concern; the partnership is fighting several major lawsuits and a holistic review of the entire company is ongoing. Add to that the continuing details still to be ironed out on CFP expansion, a new football calendar and recruitment model coming up, plus future changes to the transfer portal and increased costs related to well-being of student-athletes, and it’s a lot.

On the other hand, the next Big Ten commissioner will have plenty of time before worrying about a new media deal and, likely, conference expansion. Instead, listening to and getting to know the new constituency will be a priority, and they will be given plenty of time to do so. Also, the gap between what the league’s Iowas and Michigans get from conference distributions will continue to widen and provide a growing cash cushion compared to those in other conferences or their own region.

It’s also encouraging for the Big Ten and another testament to what happened during Warren’s short tenure that, amid so much change happening in college athletics, it was the quick exit stage that left a previously unknown outsider that has all the experts talking. this week.

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets including NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.

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