INDIANAPOLIS — Hello again, Kevin Warren. And in a sense, hello for the first time.
The Big Ten commissioner’s first year on the job included a difficult assignment: Navigating the coronavirus pandemic. After an uneven performance handling it — "uneven" may be too kind depending on who you ask — he’ll give his first halfway-normal address to reporters at Big Ten media days.
COVID will likely be a topic, as it must be, but Warren can’t get bogged down too much there. Other Power Five commissioners have already set a unified tone that Warren can affirm — get vaccinated or risk forfeiting games.
An elongated defense of the Big Ten's handling of COVID last August isn't necessary. Everybody already picked a side.
The campus presidents and chancellors held sway initially. Ohio State — its athletic director, coach, star player and science-driven doctor — eventually got academic leaders back in the game. OSU also got a special pass to the Big Ten title game. Everybody took sides on that too.
Warren, a lawyer, likely knows he can’t relitigate what folks have already judged.
But can he project a confident vision for the Big Ten over the next decade?
Thursday’s appearance at media days will start to answer that question. Warren has initiatives that matter to him and many others — mental health and voting participation among them — and he may speak to those.
But the bigger topics on the table are name, image and likeness (NIL) and the looming College Football Playoff expansion. The Big Ten should be big winners in both. Is Warren ready to maximize what the league does in those two spaces?
In NIL, the SEC unsurprisingly has tried to claim the lead. Alabama coach Nick Saban said his presumptive starting quarterback, Bryce Young, is earning "almost seven figures," which the media rounded up to $1 million and took as gospel. I’m skeptical of any big figure unless details come with it, but the SEC specializes in making itself seem bigger than every other league.
Will Warren project the Big Ten to the leading edge of the revolution, or the cautious middle?
As for the CFP, the Big Ten has a reputation of being a one-division league. It’s somewhat unearned because the Big Ten West has twice sent undefeated teams to the conference title game. Both teams — 2015 Iowa and 2017 Wisconsin — could compete in the first round of any 12-team playoff. But since the West has never won an outright league crown, the call for ending divisions may come up.
Penn State’s James Franklin might be the guy who brings it up. Franklin, blunt and innovative, had three teams good enough for a 12-team — or even an eight-team — playoff, and may see ending divisions as a way to avoid playing Ohio State every year and to get the best two teams in the Big Ten title game.
Does Warren have an opinion there? Or on the playoff in general?
Warren comes from the NFL and is surely a player advocate. Does he think college athletics should retain some of its identity from 10 years ago, or does he want a model in which athletes share TV revenue with their respective teams? Where does he stand on college athlete player unions?
The palace intrigue still has flavor — especially the Big Ten's interesting relationship with Nebraska — but NU is ready to move on as a very-excited, fully fledged member of the Big Ten. Warren can either be led to dwell on a year that didn’t go very well for him or nearly any Big Ten program — or he can pivot. It’s a good, early test in an important year for his leadership.
And now, with rumblings that Oklahoma and Texas reached out to join the SEC, is Warren ready to address — and pivot toward — another major conference realignment? The Big Ten could, but does not have to add schools, particularly programs from what’s left of the Big 12. Kansas and Iowa State immediately jump to mind. Is Warren ready to roll in the next three weeks? He might have to be.
More Big Ten storylines to watch:
» Bret Bielema is back, a man made for this league like few others. The former Iowa football player/Wisconsin coach takes over Illinois, a job that means something to him because he grew up in the state. He's a great storyteller, full of jokes, and gives Illinois a presence it hasn’t enjoyed at media days in a long time. Tim Beckman was awkward. Lovie Smith was relaxed and cool. Bielema is a beer and a brat in human form. A great fit.
» Jim Harbaugh’s here — but for how much longer? The Michigan coach remains in Ann Arbor after restructuring his contract — for less money — and basically ducking the media for months. When Big Ten media days were last held in 2019, Harbaugh predicted his team would win the league. He sounded sure of it, too. How about now?
» Least in the East rising: Rutgers and Maryland may not be also-rans much longer. The two programs have consistently looked overmatched in recent years, but coaches Greg Schiano (Rutgers) and Mike Locksley (Maryland) have created recruiting momentum and buzz. If they can cash in on their geographic potential, an end to East and West divisions almost seems preordained.
» Where’s Barry Alvarez? He retired as Wisconsin’s athletic director to take a liaison job with the Big Ten. Alvarez no longer reps the Badgers, but could roll in to Indianapolis anyway as a Big Ten guy. Wherever Alvarez goes at media days, a crowd tends to follow.
» The big stars: The league is low on players who stand tall in college football. Who is the next Justin Fields? Saquon Barkley? Chase Young? Jonathan Taylor? Rondale Moore?