Kevin Warren leaving Big Ten to run Chicago Bears

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Big Ten Conference Commissioner Kevin Warren is leaving his job atop the college sports conference to become the president and CEO of the Chicago Bears, the organization announced Thursday.

Warren, hired by the Big Ten in 2019, led the conference through its expansion to include the University of Southern California and UCLA beginning in 2024, and last summer, he unveiled a massive set of media rights deals for the conference. Warren was also at the helm as the Big Ten navigated the coronavirus pandemic that disrupted sports.

Warren has extensive experience in the NFL. Before he arrived at the Big Ten, he served as the chief operating officer for the Minnesota Vikings. He has spent 21 seasons in the NFL, including 15 with the Vikings. Warren, a licensed attorney, has also worked with the Detroit Lions and St. Louis Rams.

The NFL has faced intense scrutiny for its record of hiring Black candidates in head coaching and front office positions. Warren becomes with fifth Black team president since Washington hired Jason Wright as the first in 2020. Warren was the first Black commissioner of a major college sports conference.

Warren’s tenure with the Big Ten officially began in January 2020 when he replaced longtime commissioner Jim Delany, and he leaves after just over three years. There has lately been significant turnover among the commissioners of major conferences. George Kliavkoff of the Pac-12 and James Phillips of the ACC both began their jobs in 2021. The Big 12 hired Brett Yormark in 2022. Greg Sankey, the SEC’s commissioner since 2015, is now the only leader of a Power Five conference who has held his role for at least three years.

With Warren in charge of the Big Ten, the conference solidified itself as a power alongside the SEC. With the SEC set to add Texas and Oklahoma in 2025, and the Big Ten expanding to include USC and UCLA in 2024, the landscape of college sports has shifted power toward those two lucrative conferences, which will soon include 16 teams apiece.

Once USC and UCLA join, the Big Ten will stretch from coast to coast and include the major media market of Los Angeles. That reach enhanced the value of the Big Ten’s media rights as the conference negotiated a new deal last summer. The Big Ten finalized a seven-year agreement with Fox, CBS and NBC worth more than $1 billion annually. The deals, which begin in 2023, are the largest in college sports history.

Shortly after Warren began leading the Big Ten, the pandemic shuttered sports. With the 2020 football season approaching, the Big Ten became the first major conference to cancel all fall sports competition. The Pac-12 followed suit, but the other Power Five conferences remained committed to holding a fall season. Warren faced pushback from some athletes, coaches, parents and even President Donald Trump. The conference reversed its decision about a month later and eventually played a shortened slate of games.

Warren, a former college basketball player with a law degree from the University of Notre Dame, also led the Big Ten through initiatives related to racial justice, voting and mental health.

The Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors said in a statement that they will work with Warren during “this transition phase” and begin a “national search” for the conference’s next commissioner.

“[Warren] has guided the conference with an innovative spirit, a passion for people and exceptional business acumen,” the statement from the presidents and chancellors said. “. . . The Big Ten Conference remains in a position of strength during this pivotal time in collegiate athletics and its world-class institutions remain committed to providing an exceptional experience for our student-athletes.”

Warren takes over the Bears amid a retooling of the team’s roster. They’ll have the top overall pick in the NFL draft after finishing the season with a 3-14 record under first-year coach Matt Eberflus. The Bears ended the season with the first 10-game losing streak in franchise history. They’ll have to decide whether to remain committed to Justin Fields as their franchise quarterback or draft a replacement with the No. 1 choice and trade Fields.

Warren’s primary focus will be the team’s deliberations over a new or renovated stadium. A developer working for the city released renovation plans this week to place a dome over Soldier Field and surround it with an entertainment and commercial complex. But the team has been focused on the prospective redevelopment of a suburban site at Arlington Park.

Warren, 59, also has been mentioned at times as a potential NFL commissioner candidate for whenever Roger Goodell steps away from the job. But Goodell, who turns 64 next month, is expected to sign at least one more contract extension with the league’s franchise owners. Warren’s age could be a factor by the time Goodell completes that deal, given that he is only a few years younger than Goodell.

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