Kevin Warren: Big Ten figuring out COVID policy by ‘decentralized’ process

Kevin Warren says he doesn’t have a lot of regrets about how he handled 2020, even if a significant portion of the college football universe believes he should.

The first-year Big Ten commissioner was thrust into an unprecedented position and tried to lead the way with how the conference handled the COVID-19 pandemic, only to find many of college football’s leaders decided to not follow him. After extensive conversations with stake holders and medical professionals, the Big Ten decided last August to cancel its season, presuming the rest of college football would see the risks of allowing the athletes to play to be too high and make the same decision. However, the only other Power 5 conference to make the same decision was the Pac-12, and the Big Ten ended up reversing course and decided in September to play. As a result, the league had a messy season that began on Oct. 24 and it had to vote to manipulate rules to give undefeated Ohio State a chance to play in the Big Ten championship game despite the fact that it had only played five games at the time.

On Thursday at Big Ten Media Days, however, Warren said he didn’t have many regrets about what he did because his judgment was driven by concern for the conference’s players.

“We all look back over our lives and there are things we would do a bit differently,” Warren said. “But if I had the chance to do it all over last year, I would make the same decisions that we made. … If we put our student-athletes at the epicenter of our decisions, we’re going to be okay, and we did that last year in the Big Ten. Maybe the communication wasn’t as clean or as perfect as it could be at times.”

That being said, the Big Ten will handle the still ongoing pandemic much differently this season. It should be much less of an issue because the vaccines have led to COVID-19 caseloads that are much lesser than they were a year ago. However, there has been a recent uptick with the spread of the Delta variant and vaccination rates still not as high as many would hope. Per Mayo Clinic data, every state in the Big Ten footprint has at least 43.6 percent (Indiana) of its residents fully vaccinated, but none has more than 58 percent vaccinated (Maryland) and most states are right around 50 percent.

Unlike other conferences including the SEC who announced at their media days events how cancellations would be handled, the Big Ten will not make that determination until August. The reason, Warren said, is that the conference decided on a “decentralized” decision making process with regard to COVID-19, which means each school will decide on its own policy and then bring those together in early August to try to synthesize them. The conference’s schools decided that on June 6, Warren said, during a meeting of chancellors and presidents.

“We have allowed our institutions to handle those issues,” Warren said. “One of the things that we’re working on right now is the fact that our schools are finalizing their proposed policies and procedures for the fall. We’ll get that information in early August. We’ll combine it, and we’ll get together with our chancellors and presidents and other key constituents to make the determination as far as how we’ll handle the fall. One of the things I did last year is to make sure that we are methodical and thoughtful, that we bring people together. So we’re right where we want to be and that will be a decentralized decision-making process.”

The college football landscape is shifting in other ways beyond the pandemic and Warren was vague about how he might handle those variables. News broke Wednesday that Texas and Oklahoma, two of college football’s biggest brand names, could be looking to break off from the Big 12 and petition to join the SEC, which would shift the sports tectonic plates and put the Big Ten in a position to decide whether it wants to expand again as it did in the last decade. Warren gave no indication about which way he would lean there.

“That’s the world we live in right now,” Warren said, “and I know from where we sit we’re always evaluating what’s in the best interests of the conference.”

Warren was also tight-lipped about the Big Ten’s position on the potential expansion of the College Football Playoff. He said he embraced the idea of allowing athletes to profit from their name, image and likeness, though he asked for federal legislation to streamline it. He did announce that the Big Ten will add a special advisor for football to the conference office in Barry Alvarez, the long-time Wisconsin coach who just retired from his position as the school’s athletic director.

“I trust Barry Alvarez implicitly,” Warren said. “I have known him since the days that I was a law student at Notre Dame and he was the defensive coordinator there. He means everything to this conference and we are so grateful that he agreed to join the conference office.”

It gives Warren help he could have used last season, but Warren didn’t lament the complications of his first year. He pointed out that he has faced much worse. When he was 10 years old he was struck by a car and spent almost a year in traction and a body case and had to drink many of his meals through a straw.

“What that experience taught me is I don’t take any moment, any day, any relationship, any opportunity for granted,” Warren said. “It grew my faith. It grew my belief in people. So although last year was, I don’t even want to say traumatic, it was one of the best years of my life. … I can tell you right now I’m a stronger person.”

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