The scene at the 2020 Big Ten Championship Game could be described as awkward at best.
Conference commissioner Kevin Warren was walking across the field at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. On one sideline was Ohio State head coach Ryan Day. On the other was Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald.
Months earlier, Warren had postponed the Big Ten football season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost immediately, then-Buckeyes quarterback Justin Fields started a public petition signed by players across the conference, urging the Big Ten to reconsider. Behind the scenes, Day and Fitzgerald were instrumental in hatching a plan for an abbreviated season that included rigorous COVID testing and support from medical professionals.
It all culminated in an eight-game regular season that included many canceled games, including the annual Ohio State-Michigan matchup. When the dust settled, Fields, Day, Fitzgerald and Warren all ended up on the same field in Indianapolis for the Big Ten Championship Game. Also on the field that day: then-Northwestern AD Jim Phillips, who many across the conference thought should have been hired as the Big Ten commissioner instead of Warren. Phillips was instead getting ready to leave his hometown of Chicago and move to Charlotte to become the ACC commissioner.
We’ll never know if Phillips, or even former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, would have handled the 2020 season better than Warren. In Warren’s defense, when the Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors approved his hire in 2019, no one could have foreseen the COVID-19 pandemic on the horizon. But even today, there is an understandable sentiment that Warren’s NFL background and lack of familiarity with Big Ten power brokers contributed to some of the confusion and friction across the conference during 2020. Ever since, Warren’s fit in the Big Ten has been fairly questioned, and some have wondered if he would eventually return to the NFL, where he spent 21 years, including 15 with the Minnesota Vikings.
And that leads us to today. Not surprisingly, Warren has emerged as a top candidate for the Chicago Bears’ president and CEO position, which will become vacant when Ted Phillips retires at the end of February. ESPN’s Pete Thamel reported Thursday that Warren has interviewed for the job in person and is considered a finalist. Thamel also indicated that the process is expected to wrap up in the coming weeks, which would make sense if the Bears want to create a transition period.
In a statement provided to CHGO, the Bears said: “We have not set a timeline for announcing Ted Phillips’ successor. Our search team has cast a wide net, spoken to many outstanding candidates and looks forward to introducing our next President and CEO at the process’s conclusion.”
Why would Warren be an ideal candidate for the Bears?
This is relatively easy to answer. Before joining the Big Ten, Warren was the Vikings’ chief operating officer and handled the business, legal and operational aspects of building U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, which is now one of the NFL’s crown jewel facilities. Furthermore, he also was involved in the design and construction of the stadium. Warren also played the same role in building the team’s outstanding practice facility in Eagan, Minnesota, which includes a real estate development called Viking Lakes. That last point is notable, because the Bears’ development plans around their proposed new stadium in Arlington Heights includes an extensive real estate development. If he joined the Bears, Warren would instantly become the most qualified individual in the organization to lead the team’s stadium project.
Warren once served as an NFL player agent and holds a Super Bowl ring as the St. Louis Rams’ vice president of football administration. With the Vikings, Warren restructured the organization and is credited for building workplace diversity and creating opportunities for women. That was a large focal point for the Big Ten when the conference announced his hiring in 2019.
This is where there’s a notable connection to Bears chairman George McCaskey. While with the Vikings, Warren served on the NFL’s Workplace Diversity Committee with McCaskey.
Why would Warren want to leave a lucrative job as a Power 5 commissioner?
This is where the existing friction within the conference is notable. One source quickly indicated that current Big Ten athletic directors and presidents won’t be upset if Warren departs for the Bears. Despite recently expanding the Big Ten to include UCLA and USC, while also locking down an $8 billion media rights deal, Warren’s long-term job security isn’t necessarily stable.
Perhaps that should be a red flag for the Bears, but you don’t have to squint too hard to understand that Warren’s fit in the NFL is likely better than his fit in the Big Ten. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and the rapidly changing landscape of college football and NIL deals, the job Warren possesses today is much different than the one he accepted in 2019. The Bears’ president/CEO job, however, is much more similar to the COO job he held with the Vikings and the fit is obvious, considering the Bears’ future stadium plans.
As for the fit with Justin Fields in the same building? Chances are that won’t be an issue at all. But it would certainly be something if Warren is eventually in a position to sign off on a massive contract extension for the presumed franchise quarterback.
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