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

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

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

The Big Ten commissioner has finished all of his media day obligations. He has schmoozed with countless TV executives and bowl representatives. He has caught up with each of his football coaches. And he has put the rest of college sports on notice.

Warren has been using a field-level suite as his home base this week, tucked away from the coaches, players and reporters splayed out across the Lucas Oil Stadium turf. From this suite, he can peek and see what’s happening — and he will pop out to spend a few minutes with Michigan State coach Mel Tucker before he heads back to East Lansing — but no one can see him inside. Not easily, at least.

The door to the suite is nearly all the way closed. It’s ajar, but just so — an apt metaphor as the conversation veers into the subject of realignment and conference expansion. Nearly a month has passed since the Big Ten added USC and UCLA, and each day has brought fresh informed (and uninformed) speculation of potential new additions to come. And they may come someday, but it’s not yet clear when that someday will come.

“The Big Ten is not in the active market,” Warren tells The Athletic. “I’ve got to make sure our 14 (members) are solid and strong. We’ve got two that are coming in who I want to over-deliver to.

“Then, I think, it’ll be apparent as far as if there’s other interests that makes sense for us. … Any other areas of expansion — I think it would become obvious.”

His tone is different from what it was a day prior, when he stood on a podium and said the future may include expansion that “will be done for the right reasons at the right time” and would be “strategic.” He said the Big Ten would be “aggressive.” That language doubled as a sort of warning shot throughout the rest of college sports, advance notice that the Big Ten was not going to sit back now that it had its new LA schools. One industry source noted that Warren may be a little too loose with his language right now, not realizing that his words carry extra weight on the heels of the coup he just orchestrated.

And now everyone is focused on who’s next. Would the Big Ten add a true western wing — say, Oregon, Washington, Cal and Stanford? That could help USC and UCLA with Olympic sport scheduling and the conference in its efforts to claim the late Saturday night kickoff window to boot. It’s an idea that makes quite a lot of logical and geographical sense, but only Big Ten leadership can know if it brings enough value to execute.

Everyone is also focused on when. This is the most interesting question, the reason there is so much breathless coverage of potential moves and posturing. People seem to forget one important factor: The Big Ten started this. After a brief but notable period of relative calm, the Big Ten was the conference that got the realignment ball rolling again at the end of June. This conference is the aggressor this time. This conference is the one that made a move others must now react to. The Big Ten made a choice to add USC and UCLA—and just those two.

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

So why should there be urgency now? Why would the Big Ten need to react to — checks notes — tea Big Ten‘s own move to add USC and UCLA?

The only reason to do something is if you’re worried you’ll lose a valuable prize by not moving quickly. But if Notre Dame believes it can retain its cherished for the time being, then the Irish independence aren’t going anywhere. If the ACC’s grant of rights agreement is as ironclad as those in the league believe it to be, its top programs may not be available for a while. And if it’s not clear whether the SEC wants to go across the country to the West Coast, what’s the rush with the Pacific Northwest schools? Or in the Bay Area?

Maybe there isn’t one. Perhaps there is no need for a knee-jerk reaction, especially if the Big Ten’s boss has been evaluating potential additions since before he took the job in 2019, as he said this week. He has also had an expansion exploratory subcommittee in place for months. The league has the information it needs to act, but it knows it doesn’t have to.

“The experience of adding one school is really complex; two is very complex,” Warren says. “Because of that, I really want to focus on all of our 14 schools. Our membership is strong, and for our two new family members coming in in 2024, I want to provide exceptional transitional service to them. You’ve got to be focused on that.”

So how does he balance leaving the door open for potential new additions and avoiding the temptation to add members just because prospects come calling? Establishing the value to the Big Ten of the school that’s calling. Evaluating its leadership and internal alignment. Determining if its academic profile matches the schools that would be its peers in this conference. If such stars aligned as they did with USC and UCLA, Warren believes it would be obvious that the Big Ten would need to make a move.

“These are first-world problems,” Warren says. “But if it happened — whether it was a month or four years from now — we’d figure it out.”

The Big Ten is now undoubtedly in a position of power. His commissioner had been much-maligned for much of 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 does not regret joining, even now). But now he has built up relationships and trust on his campuses, which directly enabled 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 who helped ensure the Big Ten gets to chart its own course moving forward. No matter what college sports looks like in five or 10 years from now, the Big Ten will have a say in it.

“I wasn’t going to come into (this job) saying, ‘Oh, well, this is the way it’s been,’” Warren says. “The organizations, the entities and the people who are going to be able to thrive in a disruptive environment are those who embrace being comfortable in an uncomfortable situation. The organizations or conferences that are going to come out of this in a really good position are those that are able to adapt and be nimble.”

In other words, the leagues best positioned for success are those that do the disrupting. And because the Big Ten just did some, it can afford to be patient. This is a luxury given to those who transform the landscape, the ones who set the agenda for everyone else. After everything Warren has endured to get here, he’s earned it.

(Picture: Robert Goddin/USA Today)

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