COLUMBUS — The Big Ten decision wasn’t made by Kevin Warren alone.
Before anything else, it’s important to remember that the conference commissioner is serving the presidents and chancellors. So, Warren isn’t the guy who shut down the fall and forced the conference to start exploring options for the winter and spring.
Any lingering anger about what the league continues to insist is a postponement for the football season — despite the fact that the traditional schedule was obviously cancelled — should be directed at Warren’s bosses.
But that doesn’t mean he’s off the hook for the way the Big Ten implemented this plan. It’s also distinctly possible that he didn’t do the presidents any favors by not pointing out how simple it would have been to delay the season to Sept. 26 and avoid the public-relations disaster that followed, but that’s a separate matter.
What’s going to haunt Warren potentially for the entire duration of his career leading the Big Ten is the botched rollout. And while growing pains and rookie mistakes are common in any profession and the global pandemic has presented historic challenges for everybody, it’s hard not to look at what Warren has done just over the last two months and see how this won’t follow him forever.
“The decision to postpone the season was not made lightly,â€ Warren told The Athletic. â€œWhen you make difficult decisions, you turn around and look back and wonder what you can do better. I know one of the things that we will focus on — at least me, personally — will be to improve our communication, not only internally, but externally. I understand the disappointment. I understand the passion.
“Thatâ€™s what makes the Big Ten Conference the Big Ten Conference.”
It seems at least for a moment that the conference leadership forgot about that passion. At a minimum, it dramatically underestimated how many in the league would respond to the cancellation while receiving almost no explanation about what prompted the decision. That’s the part that Warren won’t be able to escape, because he certainly had the power to shape the conversation moving forward.
Perhaps that seems like hyperbole. Maybe Warren and the presidents will eventually be vindicated by the other Power Five leagues pulling the plug as the virus and contact-tracing protocols have made simply getting through training camp without issues a fantasy for programs like North Carolina State, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and others. But the eventual outcome isn’t going to change the way Warren has already failed the coaches, players and parents. That’s the stain that won’t wash out.
Again on Wednesday a coalition of Big Ten parents delivered a terse letter to Warren seeking answers and transparency, this time dialing up the rhetoric and stressing that there’s now a “total lack of confidence” in league leadership. Lawsuits have been threatened. One protest has already taken place at league headquarters and another is scheduled on Saturday at the Horseshoe. Coaches continue to privately express frustration that the verdict came down with no guidance whatsoever about what would come next in terms of fall workouts, winter practice or spring games.
Kevin Warren alienated other conferences by essentially going rogue without warning in July that the Big Ten would be attempting a conference-only schedule. He enthusiastically signed off on a revamped schedule earlier this month while also giving the green light to start training camp, both of which were halted less than a week later. With multiple sources confirming the decision had already been made during a Sunday-night call with presidents, he then allowed teams to go practice for the next two days while the cancellation reports swirled around the country. Then after an abysmal interview on BTN to announce the decision, he waited more than a week before releasing a flimsy letter in response to the requests from Big Ten parents for more information. Then he only granted interviews to a few hand-picked reporters instead of engaging a full press conference — or even scheduling a face-to-face meeting with parents.
If that wasn’t enough, his own family created a perception problem that will essentially be impossible for the rest of the Big Ten moms and dads to ignore with Warren’s son still on track to play in the SEC next month.
It’s hard to believe it’s come to this: But the Pac-12, of all conferences, made the Big Ten look like a dysfunctional circus. And Warren will always be viewed as the ringleader thanks to his bungling response.
Again, the decision wasn’t his to make alone, and it should be obvious that a first-time commissioner wouldn’t be capable of wielding the necessary power to keep the presidents on track to attempt a season. It’s not his fault that he was thrust into that situation so early in his tenure. It’s also certainly within reason to expect that the SEC, Big 12 and ACC will eventually join his league on the sideline this fall.
Yes, the bar was high for Kevin Warren here. But that doesn’t change the fact that this was his shot at a first impression as the Big Ten commissioner.
He came up well short, and nobody involved will ever forget it.