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Kevin Warren is blazing a new trail as Big Ten commissioner

Minnesota Vikings COO has spent years climbing the ladder while reaching back to mentor others

As word spread that Kevin Warren, the NFL’s highest-ranking African American in business operations, was leaving to become the first black commissioner of a Power 5 college conference, longtime league executives and observers weren’t surprised. Warren, they said, has always been a trailblazer.

The chief operating officer of the Minnesota Vikings, Warren, 55, was introduced Tuesday as the next Big Ten commissioner, replacing Jim Delany, who plans to retire in 2020 after 30 years with the league. Warren will step into one of the most high-profile positions in college athletics and an arena in which few black men have risen to the top rungs of power. On many levels, the Big Ten got it right, Troy Vincent believes.

Vincent, the NFL’s executive vice president of football operations, has worked closely with Warren. “Today the world of [college] sports got better,” Vincent wrote in a text message. “Once again, Kevin makes history. His acceptance of the job … is a testimony to hard work, intelligence, relationship management and great vision. And Kevin’s commitment to inclusion will serve him will.”

In terms of diversity in management in major college athletics, Warren’s hiring is highly significant.

Among 130 FBS schools, only 13 are led by black athletic directors. Back in March, Keith Gill became the first black commissioner of an FBS conference when he was hired to run the Sun Belt Conference. And Warren, by virtue of the seat he’ll soon occupy, will become one of the most powerful executives in college sports. For proponents of inclusive hiring throughout sports, Warren’s big move is great, said John Wooten, a pioneer in both college football and the NFL.

Wooten, who has known Warren throughout the latter’s 21 years in the NFL, believes Warren possesses the leadership skills to thrive in both guiding the Big Ten and helping to effect change across college athletics. “This is an outstanding move by the Big Ten. They definitely picked the best person for this job,” said Wooten, who recently retired as chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance, which helps oversee compliance with the Rooney Rule.

“It’s just a fact that you don’t see people who look like us leading the really big college conferences. Those are the conferences with the biggest football programs, which means the biggest revenue, and we all know how it works. Well, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Big Ten. The Big Ten is a mecca for football. The Big Ten is top-shelf in sports in general. It’s a great conference. But you have to understand the importance of football, how football drives everything, and what it means now that this will be Kevin’s new job.”

Many in the NFL figured Warren’s next job would be as an NFL club president. Repeatedly during his 14-year run with the Vikings, Warren has proven he has the chops to do what’s most difficult in business: provide truly effective senior leadership, say the NFL people who know him well. Since being promoted from vice president of legal affairs and chief administrative officer to COO in 2015, Warren has led the Vikings’ entire business operation — marketing, sales, legal, game-day operations — for owner Zygi Wilf. And Warren rose in the NFL the old-school way, one step at a time while always extending his hand to pull up others behind him, said Tony Wyllie, senior vice president of communications for the Washington Redskins.

In 1997, Warren, who attended law school at Notre Dame, joined the then-St. Louis Rams, holding a dual front office/legal role. It was during that time that Warren counseled Wyllie, as well as many other young black men and women working in business operations in the NFL, about how to best navigate the league and build successful careers.

“Kevin has always been a mentor. He has been a mentor for me and for so many others,” said Wyllie, who was among the organizers of a pioneer award presented to Warren at the Super Bowl in 2017.

“What I’m trying to do is to make sure that I do everything I possibly can in my power just to give diverse candidates an opportunity to succeed. And when I say ‘diverse candidates,’ it’s not only in color. It’s in gender. It’s in thought.” — Kevin Warren

“Even back to our time in St. Louis, I remember our conversations and the [most important] things he told me. Kevin is totally about opening a door for others to come behind him. That’s why I’m so happy for him and his family with this new opportunity. This is important. He’ll make such a big impact in a different area.”

In an effort to make the transition as smooth as possible, Warren plans to start his new position Sept. 16. He’s eager to learn from Delany before the outgoing commissioner retires. As always, Warren understands that how he fares will reflect on other minority candidates in the sports management pipeline.

“What I’m trying to do is to make sure that I do everything I possibly can in my power just to give diverse candidates an opportunity to succeed,” Warren told The Undefeated. “And when I say ‘diverse candidates,’ it’s not only in color. It’s in gender. It’s in thought. It’s important to give them an opportunity to succeed. And that’s what I’m going to do.”

There’s no denying that Warren’s departure from the Vikings to the Big Ten is a boon for diversity in college sports. But what about diversity in the NFL?

None of the league’s other 31 teams has a black COO. The NFL has never had a black team president. Chris Grier of the Miami Dolphins is the only black general manager, and there are only four head coaches of color. The NFL, with an on-field workforce that’s 70 percent black, realizes the optics are not good.

The person who seemed most prepared to shatter another glass ceiling in professional sports’ most successful league is taking a different path. Perhaps, however, only temporarily, said N. Jeremi Duru, professor of sports law at American University.

“It’s well-documented that there are substantial challenges to rising to the top ladder in coaching in the NFL to become a head coach or through the personnel ranks to become a GM. But people don’t really focus on the challenges on the business side,” said Duru, who chronicled the process that led to the creation of the Rooney Rule in his book Advancing The Ball: Race, Reformation, and the Quest for Equal Coaching Opportunity in the NFL.

“With what he’s done out there in Minnesota, I would say that Kevin is already on the launching pad, or still on the launching pad, to be a president of a club in the NFL. You think about it, with what he has accomplished throughout his career, he’s a prime candidate for a presidency of a club right now. But certainly, with what he’ll be doing next, with the experience of running the Big Ten, it’s hard to imagine a candidate who would be stronger than him.”

This time, blazing a new path will lead Warren away from the NFL. And it just may help him find his way back too.

Jason Reid is the senior NFL writer at The Undefeated. He enjoys watching sports, especially any games involving his son and daughter.