Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren is off to the Chicago Bears after spending fewer than 30 months in Rosemont, Ill. It was a short but eventful tenure — from facing a pandemic just months into the job and canceling the Big Ten’s college football season before restarting it, to adding USC and UCLA and signing a record-setting seven-year, $8 billion media rights deal.
The open Big Ten job is one of the two most powerful positions in all of college sports, alongside SEC commissioner Greg Sankey. The two leagues bring in significantly more money than their peers on an annual basis, with the gap only widening in the coming years.
So, where does the Big Ten look? Almost the entire Council of Presidents and Chancellors has turned over since Warren was hired, which makes it harder to predict — and presidents tend to be an unpredictable group in the first place. Do they opt for another outsider like Warren, who had no college sports experience when he was hired? The Big 12, Pac-12 and even the NCAA just opted for outside hires for their biggest jobs. The potential remains for the Big Ten to go outside of college sports once again.
Or the league may go in the opposite direction, trying to avoid some of the pitfalls and friction that stemmed from hiring someone who did not have an innate feel for college sports or preexisting relationships with athletic directors or others on campuses.
The Athletic spent the last couple of weeks discussing the opening with administrators, agents and those who work at search firms to get a sense of the potential candidate pool. Some are viewed more as short-term solutions; others would be in it for the long haul. With the media rights deal done, USC and UCLA coming in 2024 and the 12-team College Football Playoff set to begin the same year, there is no major pressing project for the next commissioner. But he or she will walk into a period of great instability and uncertainty, with the collegiate sports model under attack from outside forces. Still, the position is one of unprecedented strength, power and finances. And the next commissioner will lead the first college sports conference that stretches from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
“Every AD in the country would take it,” said an industry source.
Current commissioner candidates
Jim Phillips, ACC. A commissioner moving from one Power 5 conference to another would be darn near unprecedented. But Phillips was widely believed to be the frontrunner to land this job in 2019, before Warren came out of nowhere to ultimately win the presidents over. Can Phillips come back nearly four years later? For what it’s worth, 12 of the 14 school presidents in the conference have turned over since Warren was hired, including at Northwestern, where Phillips served as AD for 14 years. Could that change in decision-making power work for or against Phillips’ candidacy? Hard to say.
Phillips is a Chicago native who was a men’s basketball manager at Illinois and spent much of his administrative career at Notre Dame, Northern Illinois and Northwestern before he was hired as John Swofford’s successor in December of 2021. His family still lives in the Chicago suburbs, as Phillips is in the process of relocating the ACC’s offices from Greensboro to Charlotte.