Rosemont, Ill. — In early May, Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren took a break from the whirlwind of his life to put it into some context.
The 58-year-old Warren flew in the night before from Phoenix, where he had traveled to eulogize his older brother Morrison, his fourth sibling to predecease him. Before that, Warren had made an impromptu trip to New York, where the Big Ten has a satellite office, for in-person meetings related to the conference’s most valuable asset: its expiring multimedia rights.
“I’m just a big believer, in life and everything, that the personal touch, that personal relationships, are critically important,” said Warren, who often begins his sentences with, “I’m a big believer.”
Warren’s eulogy for his brother was basically finished when he touched down around midnight at Phoenix’s Sky Harbor Airport. But then he had an epiphany. As he descended the escalator to National Rent-a-Car’s parking garage, he noticed the overhead mist sprayers hanging from rafters, cooling the passengers arriving in the scorching desert.
For Warren, this otherwise banal observation called to mind a biblical verse from James 4:14: “You do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
“I’ve always been focused on my vapor, my mist,” said Warren. “Our mist may last the day, it may last a week, it may last a year, 10 years, 40 years. But regardless, what are we going to do with our remaining vapor mist that we have on Earth?”
In his 40-minute speech at the Historic Tanner Chapel A.M.E. Church in Phoenix, Warren said he regretted not spending more time with his family, but especially his brother, whom he looked upon as a father figure.
“What I do is hard for some people,” Warren said in the eulogy, recalling his last conversations with Morrison, a former football player at Stanford. “But to me it is easy. Because you shot out of the blocks so fast and you put that baton in my hand, that I literally was so far ahead that so long as I didn’t drop the baton and step out of my lane, what I do is easy.”
This week, as the conference plays host to Big Ten Media Days, the 48-hour event in Indianapolis heralding the upcoming college football season, glory rains down on Warren. Last month, USC and UCLA announced they would be leaving the Pac-12 for the Big Ten in 2024. The stunning news, which further cemented its intercollegiate supremacy alongside the SEC, also served to leverage the Big Ten’s position in its negotiations for the multimedia rights deal, already expected to net a billion dollars a year. When that deal is finally consummated, Warren will have achieved one of the most abrupt reputational turnarounds for a sports executive in modern history.
The chatter that currently surrounds the commissioner is whether the conference should immediately move to extend his current contract, which expires in 2024—something unimaginable two springs ago, when Warren was floundering in a job that was anything but easy.
Beyond a public commotion over COVID-19, there were numerous unreported struggles that transpired behind the scenes of the Big Ten—from a police lockdown of the premises to high-level executive turnover to bitter conflicts among employees—all as Warren tried to modernize and professionalize the operations within the original college sports power conference.
As it came to pass, Warren’s surname was aptly suited for the saga of a commissioner forced to navigate many rabbit holes not of his making while, at times, burrowing treacherous new ones, and who has emerged to gaze upon a bountiful future still riddled with risk.
Warren was a surprise choice to succeed the retiring and nearly canonized Jim Delany as head of the Big Ten in 2019. A respected NFL executive who had most recently served as chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, Warren had zero experience working in college sports, a point frequently noted by critics.
Delany, meanwhile, was lauded by legions of admirers as a kind of Steve Jobs-like genius during his three-decade run, where he oversaw the Big Ten’s expansion to include Penn State, Nebraska, Maryland and Rutgers; the wildly successful launch of the Big Ten Network; and the conference’s 2017 short-term multimedia rights agreement, which has auspiciously set it up for the new deal starting next year.
The transition plan called for Warren to shadow Delany for three-and-a-half months prior to taking over the job on Jan. 2, 2020, a day after the Rose Bowl. Seventy days later, a novel coronavirus pulled the rug out from under sports and thrust the novice commissioner into an unprecedented dilemma.
The conference’s subsequent decision to postpone the 2020-21 college football season on account of COVID drew ferocious blowback, eliciting not only litigation and death threats for Warren, but also the attention of former President Donald Trump, who had decided the reinstatement of Big Ten football was a national priority. For a while, both Warren’s dearest supporters and angriest critics seemed united in wondering how soon he might quit to do something else.
But Warren insists he never wavered on his commitment to the conference, even as some other attractive opportunities in the pro ranks were floated his way.
“There is an intangible responsibility that I feel as the first African American commissioner in the [Power Five] and a man of God,” he said, “to persevere through challenges with integrity and dignity.”
At the doorway of Warren’s Big Ten office hang illustrated portraits of his five predecessors: John Griffith, Tug Wilson, Bill Reed, Wayne Duke and Delany.
Warren says he personally saw to it that the pictures were summoned from a storage room and hung in their current place of prominence. Sometimes, he says, when he arrives at his office at the crack of dawn, he will stand for a minute and contemplate the depictions of five white faces, a reminder of all the Big Ten history that transpired before Warren broke the color barrier.
“Each one of those men on the wall, you know, operated the conference in a manner that was fitting for that time,” Warren said. “But where we are right now is just a different time. It doesn’t make it better or worse. It’s just different.”
The portraits also present a reminder of how taxing the job can be. Two of the six Big Ten bosses—Griffith and Reed—perished while in office. This fact is not lost on Warren, a self-avowed health nut, who dutifully exercises each morning before sunrise and makes certain to attend his twice-yearly executive physicals.
“I have 1,440 minutes a day,” Warren said. “So I’m very conscious of how I spend every single one of those minutes.”
Warren is also quite aware of the minutes he’s already spent, recounting those in a yet-to-be-released autobiography, Build Your Own Pool: Conquering Life’s Challenges Using Tools Within. The self-published book charts Warren’s life from his near-death experience getting hit by a car when he was 11, through his career in the C-suite of the Vikings. The title references the swimming pool Warren’s parents built with the money he received in a settlement, which he used to rehab his injuries.
Warren intended for the book to come out last year, but decided to delay it on account the pandemic. “I didn’t want people to think I was leveraging off of COVID,” he said, adding that the proceeds will be donated to pediatric cancer organizations.
Warren is, by his own account, highly attuned to optics. It is one of the reasons he ceased flying private jets for work when he took the commissioner’s job, which paid him nearly $3.5 million in the 2020 fiscal year. Instead, Warren extols the virtues of using LandJet, an Iowa-based company that leases tricked-out conversion vans for the traveling Midwestern executive.
“I’m just a big believer in efficiency,” Warren said, explaining that the vehicles have TVs and Wi-Fi and can even be used to conduct meetings. Unlike Delany, whose reputation was as a hands-off innovator, these are the sorts of weeds Warren is happy to get into.
Warren entered the job with a list of over 100 different action items. Sources say he repeatedly raised questions about whether the Big Ten could establish its own, well-stocked rainy day fund, and pitched the idea that the conference purchase a building or hotel in Manhattan as an investment property. Warren said the characterization of that proposal is “not exactly right,” but for the conference to advance, he needs to “consistently and methodically evaluate business opportunities.”
One of the key people Warren says he consulted after taking the Big Ten job was NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who offered a Sinatra-esque piece of advice: “Do it your way.”
To that end, Warren’s first hires were two people who had worked under him at the Vikings: his longtime (now senior) executive assistant, Mai Davis; and Adam Neuman, a recent Penn law school graduate and former Vikings legal intern.
Neuman, then 30 years old and with no college sports background, was anointed Warren’s co-chief of staff, a move that rankled other conference employees who were already concerned about Warren’s understanding of the industry.
“We connect on many levels,” said Neuman, who is based in New York, “including our commitment to true inclusion, our ability to push past the status quo and our faith in something greater than ourselves.”
The perimeter game
The Big Ten headquarters occupies a three-story office building on the other side of the interstate from Chicago’s O’Hare airport. The red-brick facility, which opened in 2014 at a reported cost of $20 million, is contiguous to a Big Ten-themed Aloft Hotel, where conference presidents and athletic administrators can stay when summoned to the mothership.
The proximity of the two buildings is such that a number of the hotel guest rooms stare directly into the conference offices, while others have a clear line of sight to the Big Ten staff parking lot, which banks against a frontage road. These adjacencies, and the invasions they might allow for, did not go unnoticed by Warren, who had never been to the offices prior to his introductory press conference on June 4, 2019.
One of Warren’s earliest initiatives was installing a 10-foot wrought-iron fence with a mechanical security gate around the staff parking lot, a recommendation Warren says came from a security consultant “at a very high level.” Though his urgency in doing this struck some staffers as a little odd, if not downright paranoid, Warren insists these are the issues someone in his position must be prepared to address.
Warren says his naturally heightened sense of alertness was further piqued during his time working in the front office of the St. Louis Rams from 1997 to 2001, during the team’s Kurt Warner-Marshall Faulk Super Bowl years. On a club with multiple future NFL Hall of Famers, Warren says, “you become very conscientious.”
His concerns for the Big Ten extended well beyond just physical threats: He worried the conference was inadequately prepared to handle the potential legal, human resources and information technology challenges that high-profile, well-funded modern enterprises face. Having worked as both the Vikings COO and the club’s top legal advisor, Warren scoured his new organization for deficiencies—and found them.
Warren wanted the conference to codify its HR reporting structure, as well as build out an internal legal department. He moved quickly to overhaul the Big Ten’s IT apparatus, bringing in a new chief information officer, and enlisting Nasdaq’s Boardvantage software, an online secure portal for companies to share documents and communications, through which Big Ten school officials and the conference office could communicate in secret. In some cases, efforts to reduce potential headaches seemed to manifest real ones.
Boardvantage, for example, came to the public’s attention about a year later, when the Washington Post reported on an email it had obtained from Wisconsin chancellor Rebecca Blank to Michigan president Mark Schlissel, in which she proposed they share information “through this Big 10 portal, which will assure confidentiality.” Schlissel, according to the Post, later suggested in a separate message that conference presidents delete their Boardvantage communications, as a way of getting around their “FOIA obligations.” (A Michigan spokesperson claimed the university leaders never ended up speaking over Boardvantage, and Blank later apologized, saying that her intent was not to skirt public records laws.)
Asked about the Big Ten’s rationale for employing Boardvantage, Warren said, “The conference has a fiduciary responsibility to its members to communicate confidential elements of governance and information in a timely and secure manner.”
Months prior to the parking lot gate going up, and before he had officially taken the reins, Warren was treated to an unplanned lesson in the conference office’s potential vulnerabilities. In late October 2019, as Warren was still shadowing Delany, the Big Ten headquarters were put on lockdown and police descended on the premises. A conference staffer had alerted the building manager that her then-estranged husband might be coming to cause a disturbance.
The staffer, according to a police report, had recently admitted to being in an extramarital affair that her husband discovered by allegedly “hacking” her Big Ten laptop and gaining access to her work emails. He was discovered by police idling in his car outside the Big Ten office, but claimed he had no intention of entering and left without further incident.
However, that scare commenced a series of legal issues involving the staffer that, for the next two years, repeatedly enmeshed Warren and the Big Ten.
On March 15, 2020—less than three months into Warren’s tenure and three days after the NCAA canceled March Madness over COVID—the staffer was arrested at her home and charged with misdemeanor domestic battery against her husband, whom she would separately accuse of abuse. The staffer was ultimately acquitted of the charges in a jury trial last May.
Three months after the staffer’s arrest, both Warren and the Big Ten were subpoenaed by the ex-husband in the course of divorce proceedings. The subpoenas, copies of which were obtained by Sportico, asked for records that could expose the conference’s inner workings and employee practices and potentially prompt other investigations if any deficiencies or discrepancies were uncovered. (The staffer declined to comment; as an alleged victim of domestic abuse, Sportico is choosing not to name her.)
Warren also declined to comment about the staffer, citing employee confidentiality. But the matter, according to multiple sources, further motivated the commissioner to search out and disarm landmines within his organization.
From the start of Warren’s tenure, human resources was identified as an aspect of the organization in urgent need of beefing up. Some conference sources described a slapdash HR operation under Delany, with either nonexistent or poorly rendered workplace conduct policies, a number of staffers working without formal employment contracts, and no formal human resources chief. Instead, those responsibilities bounced between various higher-ups, including COO Brad Traviola, which could pose a possible conflict of interest. (Delany declined to respond to repeated requests for comment for this article.)
A perfect storm
For all his prestige, sources say, Delany was not a particularly detail-oriented office manager, allowing staffers to come and go as they pleased, and leaving the day-to-day operations almost entirely to Traviola.
Over the course of his 30 years as commissioner, Delany had hired over 200 employees, but in his latter years, his circle of confidants had mostly dwindled to a single Big Ten official, Diane Dietz, the conference’s other deputy commissioner besides Traviola. Delany had tasked Dietz with a broad portfolio that included media relations, public relations and branding. She worked remotely from Detroit and, according to sources, showed up in the office at most a couple days per month—to the consternation of some of her colleagues. (Dietz did not respond to requests for comment sent to her email and LinkedIn accounts.)
Even as the Big Ten's coffers grew exponentially over the past two decades—from $100 million in revenue in 2000 to nearly $800 million by 2020—the organization still possessed a small-time quality. Many within the membership perceived this not as a failure but indicative of Delany’s recognition of the conference's true purpose: to serve as a pass-through for its institutions, not to evolve autonomously. They much preferred Delany's approach to, say, the lavish spending of the Pac-12 under former commissioner Larry Scott.
“I always appreciated that, to the greatest extent possible, Jim treated the Big Ten office as a nonentity beyond the member schools themselves,” said former Indiana athletic director Fred Glass, who retired in June 2020 after a 12-year stint. "I always felt like a close eye was being kept on expenses. All of this with the realization that any money the conference spent or retained was money that couldn’t be distributed to the schools.”
In contrast, “Kevin seemed to have a vision that the conference ought to have an identity beyond it being a conglomeration of schools,” Glass said.
Warren anticipated that his Big Ten vision would be unsettling to some.
“Any time there's a transformation, there are tsunamis,” said Warren. “I [had] come into a historical environment that had been in business since 1895, that had had a leader here for 31 years, and that had very consistent athletic directors and meetings—they had a cadence down. I understand that.”
The presumptive favorite to replace Delany was Jim Phillips, Northwestern’s athletic director since 2008. Instead, to the surprise of almost everyone outside the presidential hiring committee, the job went to Warren, whose last college sports doings were as a basketball player at Grand Canyon University in 1986. So out of the blue was his candidacy that several conference athletic directors and even senior Big Ten officials woke up the morning he was announced as commissioner and had to Google his name.
Eric Kaler, then the president of the University of Minnesota, had been the conference conduit to Warren and first inquired about his potential interest in the job. Despite the obvious college sports gap in Warren’s résumé, Kaler says, his pro-sports background was tailored for the conference’s future media and competitive challenges. “I couldn’t think of a better set of skills than what Kevin had,” Kaler said.
Vikings owner Mark Wilf believed Warren’s steady disposition was well-matched for the convulsive industry he was embarking upon.
“He is even-keeled,” said Wilf. “He really garners great respect because he listens well, he integrates a lot of thinking around the table, and I think that has suited him for the valleys and peaks a job like this would have.”
This skill set, however, was a tough selling point around the league.
“I am a big proponent of people in positions like the commissioners and athletic directors and head coaches that have paid the price and worked through the stages to get there,” said former Nebraska athletic director Bill Moos, who emerged as one of Warren’s most vocal critics during his first year on the job.
“It was kind of the perfect storm,” said Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith. “People were lobbying for [Phillips], you had the pandemic, you were following a legend.”
The Big Ten is overseen by a Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C), the board that the commissioner must report to. Though school athletic directors don’t themselves have any direct oversight role, the presidents rely heavily on them for guidance. One of Delany’s much-commended strengths was his ability to make them feel embraced.
In 2006, Delany, with the ADs in tow, led the launch of the Big Ten Network, the first conference-controlled broadcasting venture. In accomplishing this, Delany had successfully convinced Michigan and Ohio State to forgo other offers to create their own separate networks, in order to make the value proposition of the BTN work for Fox, which would initially hold a 49% stake.
A decade later, following the Big Ten’s eastward expansion to Maryland and Rutgers, Delany again led the conference’s TV rights renegotiations, which moved the prime cuts of its football and basketball inventory from ESPN to Fox in a strategically short-term arrangement.
“He brought us ADs along step by step, including my dumb ass who was just learning all of this stuff,” said Indiana’s Glass, “and he was a maestro of strategy and execution. I’d much rather have him spending his time on that than dealing with pedestrian HR issues or setting the baseball schedule.”
On Aug. 11, 2020, the Big Ten announced it would indefinitely postpone the upcoming fall sports season, including all football games, just two days after it had proposed a modified, 10-game, conference-only football schedule to keep the season afloat.
The about-face was relayed in an eight-paragraph press release, in which Warren said the conference, in consultation with medical professionals, had found it “abundantly clear that there was too much uncertainty” over the risks of COVID for athletes to take the field in the fall. The statement gave little information about the process, including that the presidents had voted 10-3 for postponement, leading many to assume that Warren had acted unilaterally in kiboshing Big Ten football.
The inevitably hostile response seemed to catch only the Big Ten by surprise. A week later, Warren tried to clean things up with an open letter that clarified the conference’s decision was supported “overwhelmingly” by the Big Ten Council of Presidents and Chancellors (COP/C), while also insisting that the postponement would “not be revisited.”
Still, the hits kept coming, and the new regime felt woefully underserved by what the previous regime had left behind.
“What became incredibly clear was there was no crisis or strategic communications plan that existed at the conference in the past,” said Neuman, “or to effectively articulate or disseminate information about the medical due diligence, internal discussions, authority in decision-making or the COP/C’s vote.”
In trying to regain his footing, Warren looked outside the Big Ten for help, placing a call to Carrie Cecil, a crisis and litigation communications consultant who has done extensive work for college athletic departments and other sports clients.
“Everyone that I spoke with across the NFL, NBA and business circles, including reporters, respected and liked him,” Cecil said. "It was bizarre how he, and the conference, were being portrayed as public enemy No. 1."
Among a number of Big Ten athletic directors, the prevailing feeling was that the conference’s COVID communications crisis owed greatly to Warren, who hadn't paid them sufficient heed.
Moos started souring on the new commissioner even before the pandemic, when Warren made his first official visit to Nebraska in early 2020, for a Cornhuskers beach volleyball game. Moos says Warren never gave him a head’s up before visiting, instead contacting an assistant AD to arrange for use of the Huskers’ exercise facilities. Moos claims the two never spoke during the trip, and that, in a failure of “basic leadership,” Warren even passed by his office without so much as acknowledging the Huskers AD.
Warren says that he had no intention of ignoring Moos. “If I had known that he was in the office,” Warren said, “I would have spent time with him.”
Moos grew only more disillusioned with Warren on the weekly pandemic-related Zoom calls between the conference office and athletic departments.
“It didn’t seem like we could come to any consensus,” Moos said, “which could be illustrated by us ending up with three different football schedules and what I thought were some ridiculous rules that were put in place.”
As a sign of the growing disconnect, the Big Ten ADs and football coaches began hosting separate calls without the conference staff, which not infrequently turned into Warren gripe sessions. Although it wouldn’t have been binding, the idea of the ADs taking a no-confidence vote on Warren was seriously broached, according to multiple sources. As a more impish reaction, Moos says he and some of his cohorts resorted to a game of tallying up the number of times Warren would use the same corporate buzz phrases over Zoom, such as “optics” and “pivot.”
The Big Ten’s status as the first Power Five conference to postpone football, combined with the political geography its schools cover, put Warren in the center of an escalating political debate over how sports should reconcile itself to the plague. Conservative commentator Clay Travis, who then had a Fox Sports radio show, deemed Warren “flagrantly hypocritical,” given that Warren's son, Powers, was a football player at Mississippi State of the SEC, which was playing its season.
On Aug. 21, a group of Big Ten players’ parents, led by the father of Ohio State’s star cornerback Shaun Wade, traveled to Rosemont to stage a small protest outside the conference headquarters. Six days later, eight Nebraska football players filed a lawsuit in state court against the Big Ten, alleging that postponing the season had breached the conference’s contractual obligations to athletes, including those for transparency in the decision-making process.
“I don’t take it personally, but the pressure was extreme,” said Kevin Warren. “I was getting it from every angle.”
Trump on the line
At 6:30 in the morning on Aug. 31, Warren’s cell phone flashed an unfamiliar, three-digit number. On the other end of the line was Tim Pataki, director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, telling Warren that President Donald Trump wanted to speak with him the following morning. Warren, then at his home in Minneapolis, had a conflict—he was scheduled for his executive physical—but Pataki, an Ohio State alum, was insistent.
Sure enough, the call came from Trump the next morning, just as Warren was readying to drive to the doctor’s office. In their 15-minute conversation, which has been previously reported on, the former president suggested the White House could help the Big Ten procure enough COVID tests for its football season to start on time.
The problem, Warren told Sportico, was that even if the Big Ten procured tests, it didn’t have a way to expeditiously process them. Warren says he also didn’t think it was ethical for the conference to take tests, which were in short supply, out of the hands of Americans in need.
As the discussion wound down, Warren says Trump asked him if he had any intention of saying something publicly about their talk; Warren said he didn’t and assumed, then, that Trump wouldn’t either.
In a follow-up call, however, Cecil told the White House communications shop that the conference was readying a statement, just in case word of the phone call leaked. “You may be dealing with North Korea,” she told Trump’s staffers, “but this is our North Korea.”
Sure enough, barely a half-hour later—as Warren was disrobed and gowned at the doctor’s office, preparing to enter an egg-shaped, fat-measuring machine called a Bod Pod—Trump tweeted about their "very productive conversation,” declaring that the return of Big Ten football was “on the one yard line.” It wasn’t, actually.
A nurse informed Warren that his office was frantically trying to reach him; he eventually got on the phone with Cecil. The commissioner’s initial instinct was to lie low. “We don’t have to do anything,” he told her. But Cecil convinced him the Big Ten needed to immediately respond—arguably, it had already paid the price for its lack of forthrightness when it had first announced the postponement of football.
With a statement that sought to push back on the president without incurring his wrath, the Big Ten echoed the assessment that the call between Warren and Trump had been productive but maintained that the conference was still waiting for “the appropriate time” for football to resume.
Two weeks later, Warren was on a Zoom staff call when Trump again phoned his cell. In that exchange, which has not previously been reported, Warren says Trump reiterated the offer for tests and Warren politely, but firmly, declined.
“I strongly believe that it was important, not just for optics, but because of what we really believed to put the health and safety of our student-athletes first,” said Warren. “I'm a lawyer, I'm not a doctor.”
Despite asserting the decision to pause would not be revisited, the Big Ten backtracked and commenced its football season in late October. Three months later, OSU faced Alabama in the national championship—after a controversial conference decision allowing the Buckeyes to play for the Big Ten title—a point Warren marshals in explaining that the costly delay had caused no permanent damage to the conference's members.
Throughout this turmoil and its aftermath, Warren continued to put his stamp on the office. Dietz quietly transitioned from a full-time to a consulting role with the conference last summer when Warren announced the hiring of Jon Schwartz, a top NFL senior spokesperson, as the Big Ten’s senior VP of communications, marketing, digital and social media.
Cecil, meanwhile, solidified her status as one of Warren’s most trusted advisors. After her initial contract with the Big Ten expired, Cecil resumed advising Warren earlier this year while subcontracting with one of the conference’s outside law firms. One potential advantage of their roundabout arrangement is that Warren’s communications with Cecil fall under attorney-client privilege.
Despite Cecil’s vital role, Warren made it his stated mission to consolidate the work of the Big Ten in-house, reversing Delany’s MO of outsourcing core competencies. That included reducing the conference’s reliance on Jon Barrett, an old college friend of Delany’s at North Carolina, who had served as the Big Ten’s longtime outside general counsel.
With an expertise in mergers and acquisitions and media law, Barrett was front and center for the Big Ten for two decades beginning in 2000, including the negotiations for the BTN and the conference’s more recent media rights deal. All the while, he was handsomely compensated: The conference’s tax returns show that Barrett’s consulting firm, SPMA, was the Big Ten’s highest-paid independent contractor in 2016, receiving $2,348,733.
“There is always a pendulum swing for insourcing and outsourcing,” said Jay Sharman, CEO of branding firm TeamWorks, another of the Big Ten’s much-relied-on independent contractors under Delany. “I think Kevin had large ambitions, like Jim, and the vision he has for insourcing is significant.”
Sharman lauds Delany for his willingness to not only use outside companies, but to give them the creative latitude to take risks.
“He was concerned about being too insulated in the bubble,” Sharman said, “that you need people from outside to challenge you.”
Warren preaches a different management gospel.
“I'm just always of the mindset that I would like to do as much as possible internally,” he said. “Primarily for confidentiality, for protection and also to control the direction of the work and understand it.”
(To that end, the Big Ten on Monday announced the creation of an in-house corporate partnership division.)
Though Traviola had stayed on after the transition, he departed his post as chief operating officer in April 2020, later receiving $340,271 in severance pay, according to the conference’s tax filings. Several Big Ten sources described his exit as abrupt, and no mention of it was ever made publicly. Warren says the decision for Traviola to leave was “mutual.”
Traviola now works for a social service organization in Illinois. Other than confirming his current job, he declined to comment for this story.
Over two years later, Warren has still yet to fill the COO position, instead assuming a number of those duties himself. He insists this was not by design, but a situation forced on him by COVID. Of greater necessity, Warren determined, was for the conference to hire an in-house general counsel, a staff position that had not previously existed under Delany.
“Every single part of our business is important, but there are some critical cornerstones in operating a business at this level, at this size, with the things coming down the pike,” said Warren, a Notre Dame Law School alumnus. “I love lawyers who are businesspeople who understand the law, because that is how I view myself.”
Warren’s first hire for the new general counsel role was Tshneka Tate, who had most recently left NASCAR, where her appointment as senior assistant general counsel for media ventures made her the circuit’s first black female officer. She notably led NASCAR’s 2012 broadcast media rights negotiations with Fox Sports.
Warren publicly praised Tate in May 2020 for securing the conference’s partnership with Calm, the meditation app, so that athletes and coaches could use it for free. But sources say Tate seemed increasingly overwhelmed, especially as COVID-19 complicated the legal dynamics.
“Tshneka was a talented lawyer,” said Warren. “College [sports] was different for her, understandably. Totally different.”
Tate, who declined to comment, was subsequently replaced by Erica McKinley, who the conference formally introduced in March 2021 as its “first chief legal officer and general counsel,” even though she was its second. McKinley, the former COO of the National Basketball Players Association, was coming off a two-year stint at the University of Mississippi, her alma mater.
With McKinley’s hiring, Warren made Neuman deputy general counsel, in addition to being chief of staff, even though the young attorney had only a year of professional legal experience under his belt pre-Big Ten. Warren, in a press release, hailed the two lawyers as forming the bedrock of a “progressive and proficient legal department.”
Warren didn’t know McKinley prior to the search that led to her hiring, and the two never met in person before the job offer was tendered.
“A very challenging and difficult job is for the person who serves as the chief legal officer and general counsel for me,” Warren said. “Because I’m a lawyer by training.”
But McKinley’s tenure, which encapsulated much of the Big Ten staffer’s divorce proceedings, turned out to be particularly harried. A large part of McKinley's job entailed “enterprise risk management,” which naturally put her in an adversarial position on the staff. However, multiple sources complained about McKinley being combative with her colleagues, complaints that were brought to Warren's attention. Moreover, sources add, McKinley clashed with the Big Ten’s other legal staffers, Neuman and Chad Hawley, a longtime conference official who had overseen the conference’s compliance functions since 2005.
“I cannot speak for others,” McKinley said in an email response to questions. “What I can say is that I was committed to Commissioner Warren’s vision to move the Conference forward while building a best-in-class legal department and mitigating risk for the Conference and its member institutions. The work was challenging, and I welcomed the challenge because the work we did served the best interests of the member institutions and student-athletes. Observations that invoke the ‘difficult black woman’ stereotype in relation to me are rather unfortunate.”
Unbidden, multiple Big Ten sources brought up an uncomfortable Zoom call between Big Ten staff and conference athletic departments in September 2021, over the subject of NIL, during which they say McKinley repeatedly belittled Hawley.
Warren, meanwhile, largely sat back and stayed silent; finally Maryland athletic director Damon Evans interjected and sternly asked McKinley to yield the floor to Hawley. (Hawley and Evans declined to comment.)
“I do not recall any meeting happening in the way you describe,” said McKinley, when presented with the sources’ accounts, adding, “I pride myself on treating my colleagues with respect, and in an inclusive and professional manner.”
Warren insisted he would have stepped in if one of his employees was behaving inappropriately, but that he doesn't like to “micromanage these calls.”
For a swelling group of Warren critics at the time, the alleged Zoom altercation signaled deeper issues with the Big Ten’s new leader. Why, they wondered, did he seem to be abiding by this kind of discord? Why didn’t he seem to value and appreciate the institutional knowledge of Hawley, who had been with the conference since 2002 and was well-regarded by the ADs?
Concurrent with McKinley’s hiring in the spring of 2021, Warren had named Omar Brown as the Big Ten’s new leader of “all human capital efforts” under the title of vice president, people & cultural officer. Brown had previously worked at Deloitte and as a vice president of human resources for the Chicago Transit Authority. Sources say multiple female staffers found Brown combative and dismissive.
According to sources, discrimination complaints from multiple women at the Big Ten prompted the conference to hire an outside law firm to conduct a workplace investigation into Brown, which eventually cleared him of misconduct.
“I deeply value all of my colleagues at the conference and it is very important to state that there has never been any type of substantiated allegation against me in my entire career,” Brown told Sportico in a statement.
Though sources say that Brown had been hired to be the Big Ten’s head of HR, Warren disputed that and says the conference is still actively looking to fill that leadership role. Brown has since been bumped up to senior vice president.
In October, Warren sent word to the schools that McKinley was taking a medical leave of absence, according to a copy of an email reviewed by Sportico. McKinley confirmed that she left the job while on leave.
This past May, 10 months after she was hired by the Big Ten, McKinley officially took a job as the Sierra Club’s general counsel, in what was publicly reported as the embattled environmental group poaching her from the conference. In fact, she was no longer at the Big Ten by then.
Warren declined to comment directly about McKinley’s tenure but spoke generally about his struggle of remote hiring in the throes of COVID.
“There were people who I hired over Zoom, who in the first year I probably only saw two or three times,” Warren said.
One new hire who received high marks across the conference was Diana Sabau, who Warren named as his deputy commissioner and chief sports officer in May 2021. Sabau previously served as Gene Smith's second-in-command at Ohio State and brought a much-desired college athletics background to the Big Ten’s emerging senior leadership team.
“She has a great understanding of higher education in the collegiate space from campus perspective, and that is a significant value addition for Kevin’s team,” said Smith. “I hated losing her.”
Sabau says that since coming to the Big Ten, she has noticed a “considerable bridge of respect” form between Warren and the conference athletic departments. And Warren has made some additional strategic efforts to fortify those relationships, naming former Wisconsin football coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez as the Big Ten’s special advisor for football matters.
Both Alvarez and Warren declined to disclose how much the former Badger boss is being paid for this contract work, but multiple sources say that it is at least mid-six-figures annually.
Delany, who last year received a $7.5 million check from the Big Ten for “accrued compensation,” also continues to be paid as a consultant to the nonprofit, as does Barrett, even though he recently became outside general counsel for the ACC, where Jim Phillips is now commissioner. Barrett declined to comment for this story, but an ACC spokesperson confirmed his current role.
The B1G believer
In March, the Big Ten announced both the promotion of Hawley to senior VP of policy and compliance, and the hiring of Anil Gollahalli as the conference’s third general counsel and chief legal officer since Warren took over. The commissioner’s gut instinct tells him this time’s the charm.
For one thing, as Warren is quick to note, Gollahalli’s interview process was not confined to Zoom. Instead, the two met multiple times in Chicago, including once for dinner with their wives. The conference also used an executive recruiter firm, DHR Global, to assist in the search.
Gollahalli was previously the general counsel at Oklahoma, where he helped guide the Sooners through the legal hoops of jettisoning the Big 12 for the SEC. That announcement last summer, done in tandem with Texas, initiated the wave of conference convulsions that drove USC and UCLA to the Big Ten. Coming full circle, Gollahalli now serves an integral role in the Big Ten’s process of commandeering new members.
In an interview, Gollahalli extolled Warren’s “resilience” as one of the reasons he felt confident in taking a position that has, itself, proven so convulsive.
“He has been through a rough time,” Gollahalli said of Warren, “but he had a vision and foresight about where he wanted the conference to go and was committed to it.”
Indeed, three-and-a-half years into the job, Warren now tends to encounter praise where he once mostly received grief.
“Right now, our engagement as ADs with him and the conference office staff is phenomenal,” said Ohio State’s Gene Smith, who, like Moos, had been publicly critical of Warren amid the postponement of fall sports two years ago. “I think he has evolved. As a result of the lessons learned, I think we are in a better place.”
Asked if he has felt a sense of vindication, for all the hell that accompanied the first two years of his job, Warren insisted that such a reaction is “not in my nature.”
Whatever legacy hang-ups Delany handed off to his heir apparent, he also left a plum prize within close reach: the chance to sign the Big Ten’s next new multimedia rights deal. In 2017, Delany struck the six-year, $2.6 billion agreement that gave the Big Ten the opportunity to quickly reestablish the high end of a booming market after the SEC sold its multimedia rights ($3 billion for 10 years) in 2020.
“The entire Big Ten Conference should be and I think are indebted to him for that,” said Moos.
Nevertheless, Warren has carried on as if the outcome of the rights deal will fall entirely on his shoulders. Even in the doldrums of the early pandemic, Warren says, he kept his eyes fixed on 2023, flying in near-empty airplanes to Los Angeles or New York for in-person meetings with potential media partners.
“Praying on our media rights deal is probably my biggest prayer for wisdom and guidance,” said Warren. “The decisions I make now hopefully put us in an environment as a conference where we're moving in the right direction, that allow us a couple years from now, when we do this again, to make sure that we stay in the right direction, because the worst thing you want to do on all of these businesses decisions is to have to retrace your steps.”
In the course of the negotiations, Warren has been working in tandem with Kerry Kenny—a 15-year conference veteran who last December was promoted to the position of senior vice president of television, media analytics and emerging platforms—and with Fox, which owns 60% of the BTN and is positioned to be the cornerstone of the new deal. However, unlike other conference commissioners, Warren decided early on against hiring a dedicated multimedia rights consultant.
He is doing it his way.
“I'm a big believer that you can rely on experts or specialists to gather information,” Warren said. “I’m also a big believer that if there's anyone on planet Earth who cares more about the Big Ten Conference, and our media rights, and our partners and our brands and our fans and our student athletes and our coaches and our institutions and our administrators than I do, then there’s probably something wrong. This is my life.”
–With additional reporting by Emily Caron
(This article was corrected to reflect that Michigan, not Michigan State, was considering its own network prior to the formation of the Big Ten Network, and has been updated to clarify the workplace allegations that were made against Omar Brown.)