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When new Bears president and CEO Kevin Warren officially starts his new job this spring, he plans on meeting with every employee in the organization.
That might sound ambitious, but this is the same guy who vowed to visit every Big Ten program when he became the conference’s commissioner in 2019. And despite the COVID-19 pandemic interrupting those plans, Warren did his best to follow through. Apparently, according to one source, that even included attending women’s hockey games, which is interesting because, well — women’s hockey isn’t a Big Ten sport. Minnesota, Ohio State and Wisconsin have women’s hockey programs in the WCHA, while Penn State plays in the CHA.
But that comes as no shock to those who know Warren, even if there are some eye rolls along the way. In a conversation with CHGO Tuesday, Warren claimed to “watch every Big Ten football game.” My initial reaction was to shrug that statement off as a bit of hyperbole, but one well-connected conference source believed it, saying if Warren wasn’t on-site at an event, he was watching every game.
The Bears’ new president and CEO made that claim while discussing how he can be a resource to general manager Ryan Poles. And that’s where we jump into this week’s Bears Things:
The Lead: This is the Kevin Warren-Ryan Poles show now
It stood out to me Tuesday that Warren never shied away from talking about the football side of business. In the past, that’s been a sensitive subject around Halas Hall, particularly when it came to Ted Phillips’ involvement/influence in football decisions. Chairman George McCaskey made it clear that Poles “remains in charge of our football operation with complete authority to do what he thinks is best for the Bears,” but McCaskey also changed the reporting structure back to how it used to be, with the GM reporting to Warren, not the chairman.
“It’s clear to me that given Kevin’s experience with NFL clubs and his interaction with their football operations, we should return to having the general manager report to the president and CEO,” McCaskey said.
A few important points here:
1. McCaskey revealed that he knew of Phillips’ retirement plans last year when Poles was hired, which is why he decided to have the new GM report directly to him.
2. Poles was aware of the reporting structure in the past and knew it “was a possibility” that it could change under the new CEO.
From Poles’ standpoint, he seemed legitimately grateful to be involved in the final phases of the president search and confident that the pairing with Warren, especially when it comes to collaborating on football decisions, is a good one.
“One hundred percent. I’ll say this: I got that to a degree with Ted and George,” Poles said. “Before the draft and before free agency, we’d get together and go through the plan. They’d ask questions: Are you sure about that, are you sure about this, have you thought about that? I would assume that’s going to stay the same. But getting another perspective in here that’s seen different organizations kind of come up through that process, I absolutely love that.”
The question is, will Warren want to have more of a say? Will he challenge Poles on football decisions stronger than George and Ted ever did?
Frankly, Warren is probably more qualified to do so, but Poles doesn’t envision things changing too much.
“I don’t imagine it’d be too much different. He has a lot of knowledge, especially being in the Big Ten, around those players. I think that’s big. He’s been in the opening media days that they have, so he’s been able to spend time with the players,” Poles said. “The other thing is, I’ve always thought colleges are a little bit ahead of the NFL teams in terms of mental health. We take pride in how we’ve kinda set it up here, but there’s probably a lot of really cool things that a lot of schools have done to put their athletes in the best situation possible, so I would love to hear more about that, too.”
And how does Warren envision the ideal relationship with Poles?
“Almost like it works with a spouse,” Warren told CHGO in a sit-down interview Tuesday. “If someone asks in our household who has the final say between you and your wife, you know what? We sit down and hash stuff out. When we sit down with the kids or make a decision, it’s our decision. And I think that’s really important. This is a marriage. It becomes a marriage. You have to work these things out and figure it out and understand you spend time with each other and do it the right way. But it starts with someone who has a good heart and is really starting the day off saying, ‘My goal is to win championships.’ And once that happens you work through these issues.”
Describing “final say” as “marriage” is different messaging than McCaskey saying Poles has “complete authority” over football decisions, but perhaps this is the football oversight the Bears have been lacking. While the topic of a “football czar” has raged in Chicago over the years, the one problem with a so-called football guy overseeing the entire operation is that person likely would not have had the same business acumen — or connections — that Warren clearly does. And while Warren didn’t play in the league and might not be able to break down tape in the draft room, his extensive experience in multiple NFC North organizations — as well as a Super Bowl ring with the St. Louis Rams — might be just enough to adequately challenge the general manager while not creating conflict.
“He mentioned when he was with St. Louis that climb from where they started to where they got to was a championship level team, a really good team,” Poles said. “I’m interested in hearing about that journey, some of the challenges they had along the way, as well as his time with Minnesota and how he collaborated with those people in that building in really getting the organization off the floor as well. There’s a tremendous amount of information that I know I can use in my job as well.”
What would Kevin do?
In meeting with every Bears employee, Warren said he plans on asking them: “If you were a member of the McCaskey family, what would you do to bring a championship (to the Bears)? What can we do to help you on a daily basis? Tell me one thing we can change to make this an incredible place.”
So when I got the opportunity to speak with Warren Tuesday, I turned that question around on him. What would he do if he was a member of the McCaskey family?
“The answer I would (say) is, it’s OK to raise the expectations and put the pressure on us. That’s what I would do if I was a member of the family,” Warren said.
Warren certainly isn’t the first executive to come into Halas Hall and try to raise the bar with his words during an introductory press conference. But he is the first in recent memory to walk in with the resume of his caliber.
“People need to get comfortable being uncomfortable, and then (comfortable) talking about championships,” he said. “Because when you talk about championships then you have to be about it. And you have to put in the work. So instead of wanting a trophy, then you gotta really want the training that comes along with the trophy.”
How much does a team president really impact wins and losses? That’s a long standing debate with good arguments on both sides. But there certainly are professional organizations that are run better than others, and typically those organizations are put in a better position to win championships.
If we’re being honest, Poles’ decisions over the next 24 months will have a much greater impact on the Bears potentially winning a Super Bowl. Still, Warren’s oversight and big picture decisions in the long run will certainly have an impact on how the Bears are viewed leaguewide. And the partnership between Warren and Poles will be interesting to watch.
But what about the Big Ten friction?
Interestingly, Warren’s ambition to connect with every Big Ten program is the same ambition that led to mixed feelings about the commissioner within the Big Ten. The reality is, there aren’t many inside the Big Ten upset about him leaving. There wasn’t a big push from within the conference to fend off the Bears when they came calling.
Shouldn’t that be a major red flag, especially considering Warren did his job and made the Big Ten institutions money?
It’s a question I’ve worked hard to answer the past few weeks. And the summary is basically this: No one seems to have an issue with Warren personally. His ambition is just a lot to handle. His relentless 7 a.m. meetings during the pandemic wore people out. Multiple Big Ten sources questioned whether it was really the best use of Warren’s time to be traveling to so many different sporting events. And when Warren says his only hobbies are his family and work, well, he’s not kidding. But that’s not how most people live, so you can understand how that can create some conflict.
Still, perhaps most importantly, everyone CHGO spoke to over the last few weeks seemed to agree on one thing: Even if he wasn’t a great fit in the Big Ten, Warren is a great hire for the Chicago Bears. He’s exactly what the franchise needs.
For more conversation on the Kevin Warren hire, join us tonight for another CHGO Diehard Happy Hour at 8 p.m. CT. And in the meantime, you can watch my full interview with Warren right here.
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