INDIANAPOLIS — The Big Ten isn’t to the finish line yet, and Kevin Warren will have at least more major decision in front of him to get the league across it.
Obviously little about the commissioner’s first year in charge has gone according to plan with the pandemic wreaking havoc on the football season and instantly putting a microscope on Warren’s ability to lead the richest league in the country both now and into the future.
It’s also hard to evaluate the scrapping of the first conference-only schedule and initial postponement, the reinstatement with no bye weeks built into the slate or some of the lack of flexibility with making up games outside of the Big Ten without a dose of skepticism based on what happened elsewhere around the nation. But at least on the flip side: Ohio State and Northwestern are also about to play for a conference championship, there’s a potential College Football Playoff berth on the line and the last couple weeks have at least shown more willingness to adjust than was apparent on the surface in August.
Getting to Indy was a wild journey, but it does count for something that the Big Ten made it there. Now Warren could face a couple more key decisions beyond that which will certainly be in the spotlight — and could perhaps go a long way toward mending any damaged fences in Ohio State.
“Challenges are good,” Warren told Lettermen Row on Friday. “Challenges are healthy. I think one thing challenges provide all of us is an opportunity to grow stronger. I think that’s what we’ve done as a conference. I will always remain focused on my mission, and that’s really to protect and respect the tradition of the conference.
“I think the Big Ten, we’ve handled it in a very professional manner. We’ve worked together. … One thing we have to realize, and many times people have forgotten, is we’re playing college sports during a global pandemic. I just have a heart full of gratitude for this weekend to be able to see our student-athletes compete at the highest level. I’m excited about that. It’s never been about me — this is really about the conference.”
The Buckeyes are just part of that puzzle, but it’s hard to deny just how big their piece is for the Big Ten. Ohio State is the three-time conference champion, the most prolific television draw and the only national-title contender as the postseason kicks off. And with everything from pointed statements from coach Ryan Day, a petition from star quarterback Justin Fields and a pair of protests led by families of players, the relationship between the top program and the new commissioner didn’t exactly get off to the best start.
But reinstating the season was a first step. Recognizing and correcting the flawed tiebreaker and minimum-games requirement to compete for the Big Ten crown was another. The next collaborative process will involve potential discussions next week about the conference’s COVID protocol since those will apply to the Buckeyes if they qualify for the College Football Playoff and don’t currently match CDC guidelines of the standards in place for likely SEC or ACC opponents.
On top of that, the Big Ten might also have to flex some muscle with its storied partners at the Rose Bowl since it’s currently not going to be allowed to host families for the semifinal matchup, which is a major problem for the Buckeyes. Perhaps it’s an oversimplification to point to those Ohio State-only, football-specific decisions to judge Warren at this early point in his career — but fair or not, those are the ones with the highest profile.
“Our medical subcommittee, I trust their opinion,” Kevin Warren said. “I know any time the CDC raises issues, has updates, all those different things, we stay on top of it. As new information regarding testing, vaccines, medical advances become available, it remains important for all of us to make sure that we’re flexible, nimble and up to date with our decision-making process. One thing we’ll do is continue to implement any requirements based on our medical subcommittee in the best interests of the health and safety of our student-athletes.
“The work that our medical subcommittee, led by Dr. [James] Borchers at Ohio State … their sacrifices and the sacrifices of all of our team doctors and trainers and our medical personnel who help our student-athletes has been absolutely incredible. That is complicated. When you play sports in a pandemic, every party involved must remain flexible. It’s not going to be perfect. I will always remain a collaborative-relationship leader and not a transactional-relationship leader. A global pandemic hit 70 days of me being on the job. We’ve had to dig deep and be creative, work through a lot of issues, but I’m proud to be a member of the Big Ten Conference. I’m looking forward to a great weekend of football and finishing up 2020 in a strong manner.”
The Buckeyes could cap it with a trip to the College Football Playoff and a chance to bring another national title back to the conference.
One way or another, Kevin Warren will have a role to play at the end of the race.