The Big Ten Conference is getting a powerfully effective leader in Kevin Warren as its next commissioner. The 55-year-old Warren, who will take over from outgoing Commissioner Jim Delany on Sept. 16, almost lost his life after being hit by a car at age 11. But he pushed himself to earn a law degree and an MBA, and become a player agent, a business owner, an administrator and, most recently, Minnesota Vikings COO. Warren’s experience is broad, but he doesn’t come from college sports. That’s not a bad thing, but it will be his learning curve.
I’m an unabashed admirer of his. I have sat with him many times and went back to study the quotes he gave to get a glimpse into what one could expect from his leadership of the Big Ten. In reading his remarks, I was struck at how similar Warren’s style and substance are to his accomplished predecessor Delany.
“I believe in the adage that you hear Navy SEALs talk about: ‘Embrace the suck.’ If you’re in the industry we’re in, and if you’re really trying to deal with tough issues and create a legacy, the majority of your life is going to be mundane, tough and demanding. You’ve got to embrace it.”
“In any hire, I look for work ethic. Can they set goals? Do they have vision? Can they think really big, but then are they willing just to crystallize it down where they embrace the suck and are they physically, mentally and emotionally tough?”
“When I went to the Vikings, I visualized a hardworking, demanding, collaborative, healthy, detail-oriented environment, and those are the people we looked for. Our group works really hard. We’re very demanding. We’re a very, very detail-oriented organization.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Few will outwork Warren, who is known to sleep little, have early morning workouts and be meticulous about details. Like Delany, he’s a demanding, level-headed leader who looks for similar attributes in his staff.
“We in the sports business need to understand that sports is bigger than sports. It has a major impact on societal issues, political issues, how people raise their children, and how people deal with race and gender issues. We forget about the power of sports. This is a powerful platform.”
“We have to start recognizing that diversity and inclusion in sports is a critical component. How do we make the staffs of these sports organizations look more like America? Women and men in sports, are they paid similar?”
WHAT IT MEANS: Another similar trait to Delany. When you look at Warren’s hiring history and the initiatives launched at the Vikings, including a women’s platform, the first NFL team LGBTQ symposium, as well as a leadership program for young people, you can see Warren will continue to use the Big Ten platform to promote inclusiveness and empowerment and create an environment where everyone can feel comfortable.
“Sports people are in their bubbles and pretty insular, and don’t get outside. We must talk to politicians, to the financial services industry, to Silicon Valley and internationally. How can sports interplay with other industries? Because it’s powerful. Sports executives need to be more leaders of community and of industry.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Warren isn’t afraid to learn from other industries and develop innovative partnerships, similar to the nontraditional approach of Delany. Expect him to continue to push the Big Ten into unique areas of business, technology, research and development.
“Leaders underestimate the power of their presence, the power of their words, and most of all, the power of their actions.”
“People want an honest opinion on where they are, and the best way to do it is to be brutally honest with people. I’m very direct.”
“Sports and entertainment are truly relationship businesses. So many people think that they can just bully their way into success. You may get to a certain point, but in the long term, people do better deals with people that they like.”
WHAT IT MEANS: Like Delany, Warren is not showy or flashy. He is very understated. But when he speaks, there’s a powerful message delivered clearly. In Warren, Big Ten presidents and athletic directors are getting a consistent, direct individual who doesn’t speak to hear his own voice.
Finally, I kept coming back to a comment Warren shared when reflecting on his accident, saying, “I should have died. My classmates should have been coming to a funeral for me as a young boy to say, ‘He was a nice young boy, a good athlete, a good student and was fair, but life was cut short.’ That should have been the story of Kevin Fulbright Warren. But it wasn’t.”
No, it surely wasn’t.
First Look podcast, with issues Abe is watching this week, at the 27:56 mark:
Abraham Madkour can be reached at email@example.com.