The Big Ten’s expansion future is a mystery, but Kevin Warren’s command of the situation is not

INDIANAPOLIS — Kevin Warren is a man who is often pulled in a million directions at once, but in this quiet moment Wednesday night, he’s just a man who’s done.

The Big Ten commissioner has fulfilled all of his media day obligations. He’s cuddled with countless TV execs and Bowl reps. He has met with each of his football coaches. And he’s caught the attention of the rest of college sports.

Warren used a field-level suite as his home base this week, hidden from the coaches, players and reporters who are spread across the turf of Lucas Oil Stadium. From this suite he can peek and see what’s happening — and he’ll come out to spend a few minutes with Michigan State coach Mel Tucker before returning to East Lansing — but no one can see him inside. At least not easily.

The door to the suite is almost completely closed. It’s ajar, but exactly the same—an apt metaphor when the conversation veers onto the topic of realignment and conference expansion. It’s been almost a month since the Big Ten added USC and UCLA, and each day has brought new informed (and uninformed) speculation about potential new additions. And they may come one day, but it is not yet clear when that one day will come.

“The Big Ten is not in the active market,” says Warren the athlete. “I have to make sure that our 14 (members) are solid and strong. We have two coming in that I want to deliver more to.

“Then I think it will be seen to that extent whether there are other interests that make sense for us. … Any other areas of expansion – I think it would become clear.”

His tone is different from the day before when he stood on a podium and said the future could include expansion that will be “for the right reasons at the right time” and would be “strategic”. He said the Big Ten would be “aggressive.” This language served as a warning shot of sorts to the rest of collegiate sports, proclaiming in advance that the Big Ten would not sit back once they had their new schools in LA. An industry source noted that Warren may be a bit too casual with his language right now, not realizing that his words carry added weight in the wake of the coup he just orchestrated.

And now everyone is focused on it who is next. Would the Big Ten add a true west wing — say, Oregon, Washington, Cal and Stanford? That could help USC and UCLA in planning Olympic sports and the conference in their efforts to claim the late Saturday night opening window. It’s an idea that makes a lot of logical and geographical sense, but only Big Ten leadership can know if it’ll bring enough value to execute.

Everyone is also focused on if. This is the more interesting question, the reason there is so much breathless coverage of possible movements and postures. People seem to be forgetting one important factor: the Big Ten started it. After a brief but remarkable period of relative calm, the Big Ten conference in late June was what got the ball rolling again. This conference is the aggressor this time. This conference has taken a step that others must now respond to. The Big Ten decided to add USC and UCLA — and only those two.

The Big Ten could have added more schools back then if they wanted to. The league could have taken half the Pac-12, or at least Oregon and Washington, if it wanted to. There was no bidding war with the SEC for USC and UCLA; it was just the Big Ten rushing in under cover of darkness.

So why should it be urgent now? Why would the Big Ten need to respond to this – reviews notes – the big ten‘s own move to add USC and UCLA?

The only reason to do some is when you’re worried you’ll lose a valuable prize if you don’t move quickly. But if Notre Dame thinks it can keep its cherished independence for now, then the Irish are going nowhere. If the ACC’s rights-granting agreement is as solid as members of the league believe it is, its top programming may not be available for a while. And if it’s not clear if the SEC wants to go cross-country to the West Coast, where’s the rush to the Pacific Northwest schools? Or in the Bay Area?

Maybe there isn’t one. Perhaps a knee-jerk reaction isn’t needed, especially when the Big Ten boss was already evaluating potential newcomers before taking office in 2019, as he said this week. He also set up an expansion exploration subcommittee months ago. The League has the information it needs to act, but it knows it doesn’t have to.

“The experience of adding a school is really complex; two is very complex,” says Warren. “For that reason, I really want to focus on all of our 14 schools. Our membership is strong, and for our two new family members coming in 2024, I want to offer them an exceptional transitional ministry. You have to focus on that.”

So how does he manage to keep the door open to potential new members and resist the temptation to add members just because potential customers drop by? Determining the value for the Big Ten of the school that is calling. Assess his leadership and internal direction. Determining if his academic profile matches the schools that would be his peers in this conference. If stars like USC and UCLA were to join forces, Warren believes it would be obvious the Big Ten needed to make a move.

“These are first-world problems,” says Warren. “But if it happened – whether in a month or in four years – we would find out.”

The Big Ten are undoubtedly in a position of power now. His commissioner had been the subject of much libel during the first two years of his tenure, particularly regarding his handling of the pandemic in the summer of 2020 and last summer’s ill-fated formation of an alliance with the ACC and Pac-12 (which Warren says he regrets his don’t join, even now). But now he’s built relationships and trust on his campus, which directly allowed him to add USC and UCLA while keeping developments extremely close to the vest.

Now he’s the toast of the conference, the man who delivered Los Angeles to the league and helped the Big Ten chart its own course forward. No matter what college sports looks like in five or ten years, the Big Ten will have a say.

“I didn’t want to walk into (this job) and be like, ‘Oh, well, that’s the way it has been,'” says Warren. “The organisations, companies and people who can thrive in a disruptive environment are those who appreciate being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. The organizations or conferences that will come out of this in a really good position are the ones that are able to adapt and be flexible.”

In other words, the leagues best positioned for success are the ones creating disruption. And because the Big Ten have just done some work, they can afford to be patient. This is a luxury bestowed upon those changing the landscape, those setting the agenda for everyone else. After everything Warren has endured to get here, he deserves it.

(Photo: Robert Goddin / USA Today)

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