Not only did Kevin Warren have better news to deliver Wednesday morning, the Big Ten commissioner had a supporting cast to help him outline why the conference did a 180 and decided to play football this fall.
It was a far cry from the Aug. 11 debacle that featured Warren, left alone to answer questions for a decision made by chancellors and presidents from the 14 schools in the Big Ten, struggled to explain why the conference had punted on its season six days after releasing an updated schedule.
Whether the decision to begin a conference-only regular season the weekend of Oct. 23-24 is a good one is open for debate. But at least this time, the Big Ten was more transparent and, just as importantly, displayed a united front.
“I’m just proud to be here with a group of individuals within the Big Ten and I seriously understand what makes the Big Ten the Big Ten,” Warren said. “We will take a leadership role, we’ll put the health and safety of our student-athletes first and foremost and I’m proud to sit here today to say that we did that. We are so much better and so much more prepared today than we were (42) days ago” when the previous schedule was released.
Warren was joined in a virtual news conference Wednesday by a cross-section of Big Ten’s Return to Competition Task Force members. The group included three athletic directors — the University of Wisconsin’s Barry Alvarez, Penn State’s Sandy Barbour and Northwestern’s Jim Phillips — along with Dr. Jim Borchers, the head team physician at Ohio State, and Northwestern president Morton Schapiro.
Alvarez was asked about how the members of the Big Ten unite after what’s been an “ugly month” for the conference.
“The bottom line is we’re going to play football,” Alvarez said. “The decisions were made for the right reasons. Postponement was made for the right reasons, for the safety of our student-athletes. I think our chancellors and presidents acted prudently, they made the right decision at the time. They were open-minded enough to sit back and look at the answers and the solutions for the questions that they had.
“And, quite frankly, at the time, there were a number — and I agreed with them — the questions that were proposed to them, the medical questions that were out there, without them being answered there’s no way we could put our student-athletes back on the field. But now we have answers. The testing is an answer, the dealing with heart situation, we have answers to that, protocol, contact tracing is answered. All those were answered and in the end, that’s the reason we moved forward because the safety questions were answered, the medical questions were answered by our doctors.”
Warren’s first year on the job after replacing Jim Delany has been, as he put it, “complicated,” with the biggest challenge being the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
But the Big Ten didn’t do itself any favors with its response to postponing the season five weeks ago. Players and families complained about a lack of information from the conference and a lawsuit was even filed in order to obtain information behind the conference’s decision-making process.
One to-the-point question Warren faced Wednesday was why his communication with coaches, players and parents was so poor over the past month. He said he understood the criticism and said it was a sign of how passionate people are about Big Ten athletics.
“There are many things that we did learn over the last 40 days,” Warren said, “and we’ll get better. I think that’s the goal of life is just to make sure that today is better than yesterday.”
It was well-documented Warren received a call from President Donald Trump last month after the Big Ten’s decision to postpone football and other fall sports.
Warren called the conversation “productive and interesting.”
How much of role Trump played in the return of Big Ten football is unclear. The only decision-maker to take part in the conference’s virtual news conference said politics didn’t play a role in his decision.
“For me, it wasn’t about political pressure, it wasn’t about money, it wasn’t about lawsuits, it wasn’t about what everybody else was doing,” Schapiro said. “It was the unanimous opinion of our medical experts and that sort of evolved over the course of weeks. Even a week ago, I wasn’t convinced to be part of the unanimous decision to move forward. For me, the turning point was a long conversation with our medical team on Saturday, with a subset of the presidents and chancellors and again on Sunday and then again culminating into late (Tuesday) night.”
As trying as the past month has been, Warren said his focus was on moving forward. The 2020 season, at least for now, is back on track.
“I always ask myself, are we better today than we were yesterday and are we better than we were (42) days ago and the answer is unequivocally yes,” Warren said. “We’re better as a conference, we’re better as a people. And that’s why I’m comfortable … to go forward.”