Kevin Warren described an idyllic childhood in Phoenix, filled with sports, friends and family. It changed quickly at age 11, when he was hit by a car while riding his bike. Warren spent weeks in the hospital with a broken femur and months confined to bed.
The accident and recovery forged Warren’s fortitude, he said, and set him on a path toward Tuesday’s announcement that he will become only the sixth commissioner in the 123-year history of the Big Ten and the first African American to lead any Power Five conference.
A doctor questioned whether Warren would ever play sports or even walk again. That skepticism created a fiery resilience.
“Sometimes people (inspire you) who may not even believe in you and don’t know your internal constitution and what you stand for,” he said.
Warren, 55, introduced himself to the Big Ten at a news conference in Rosemont as a man with an impressive resume and an inspiring biography.
He comes to the position after 14 years working for the Minnesota Vikings, the last four as chief operating officer. Warren will move into a transitional role Sept. 16, working alongside Jim Delany, 71, who will step down after more than 30 years as commissioner Jan. 1 — five months earlier than the original timetable.
“He’s a person with extensive experience across many dimensions of athletics,” Indiana President Michael McRobbie, who chaired the executive search committee, said of Warren. He said the Big Ten council of presidents and chancellors agreed on Warren’s hiring “enthusiastically and unanimously.”
It was a non-traditional choice, considering Warren has worked in law and the NFL but never in college athletics. Many had speculated the job would go to Northwestern athletic director Jim Phillips.
McRobbie said 60 candidates were considered, but he declined to detail how many were interviewed or how the council whittled its choices. Warren said he spoke to the council about a month ago and the process moved quickly and “naturally.”
With the Vikings, Warren worked on developing U.S. Bank Stadium and the team’s performance center while “negotiating every day” — experience that will serve him well in the Big Ten when working on media rights contracts.
Warren has an MBA from Arizona State and a law degree from Notre Dame. He worked for the Rams from 1997 to 2001 as vice president of football administration and vice president of player programs and legal counsel and for the Lions from 2001 to ’03 as senior vice president of business operations and general counsel. After two years with the law firm that assisted in the Wilf family’s purchase of the Vikings, he went to work for the team in 2005.
He previously founded his own law firm and worked at a law firm with Mike Slive — the former Southeastern Conference commissioner whom he called a “second father” — representing universities charged with NCAA violations.
Warren overcame his severe childhood injuries to play basketball at Penn before transferring to Grand Canyon University, where he received his bachelor’s degree. His passion for athletics was shaped at an early age, and he was determined to recover from his accident.
In the hospital, he asked his doctor what would give him the best chance of returning to sports. He was told swimming. Warren decided that was his route back to health and being “a normal boy.”
He asked his parents to build a pool in their yard. When they balked because of the cost, Warren showed an early aptitude for negotiating and investing. He couldn’t use the city pool, he argued, on days it was closed or when his parents were working — and he planned to swim daily.
They allowed the preteen to use $11,000 of his $30,000 insurance settlement to have a pool installed behind their home. For hours each day, he played Marco Polo and swam laps to rebuild strength.
“Six years after my accident, I was able to lace up some red Nike shoes and walk onto the court at the Palestra in Philadelphia and be a Division I student-athlete,” he said. “What I learned from that journey and in life, most of the times when you accomplish great things, you have to build your own pool. You have to be willing to pay for it. You have to be willing to dedicate yourself. Sometimes it’s lonely. Sometimes it’s complicated. But it’s great.”
His right leg still bothers him at times, he said. But swimming remains as much a physical comfort as a metaphorical reminder. It’s part of his regular workout routine and a recreation he enjoys while vacationing.
“I love the water,” he said. “It reminds me that that’s where my healing happened.”
Before Warren became the NFL’s first black COO, he absorbed lessons from family members who carved out success as pioneers.
His grandfather had only a sixth-grade education but became one of the first black business owners in Phoenix. His father, Morrison Warren, played professional football for the Brooklyn Dodgers of the All-America Football Conference in 1948 and went on to be the first African American to serve as president of a major bowl’s board of directors when he took that role with the Fiesta Bowl in 1982. His brother, Morrison Warren Jr., was one of Stanford’s first black athletes.
“Sometimes when you’re around history, you don’t even recognize it,” Warren said. “It became so natural in our household.”
Warren’s office walls are decorated with photographs of Curt Flood, Jackie Robinson, the 1966 Texas Western national basketball champions and Martin Luther King Jr.
“It is definitely not lost on me, the history associated with this,” he said of his historic hiring.
Warren emphasized that diversity and inclusion across racial, gender and sexual orientation lines has long been part of his mission and will continue to be in the Big Ten. He serves on the NFL committee on workplace diversity.
The 14-team conference currently has three black head football coaches (Illinois’ Lovie Smith, Penn State’s James Franklin and Maryland’s Mike Locksley), one black head men’s basketball coach (Juwan Howard, recently hired at Michigan) and three black athletic directors (Ohio State’s Gene Smith, Michigan’s Warde Manual and Maryland’s Damon Evans).
“I will make sure, regardless of your background, race, color, creed, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, this will be a place where we embrace everyone and give everyone an opportunity to be the best they can be,” Warren said.
His wife, Greta, sat in the front row during his news conference with his daughter, Peri, who recently graduated from Occidental College, where she played volleyball. His son, Powers, plays football at Mississippi State and could not attend because of academic and athletic obligations — which was just fine by Warren, who stresses dedication to both.
Warren promised to empower athletes through sports and education and make “an already phenomenal and fantastic conference … a little bit better.”
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“I’m ready for the challenge,” he said. “I’m excited. I’m energized. Most of all, I’m grateful.”