Kevin Warren never really saw Justin Fields as an adversary. He viewed him as a leader.
In the summer of 2020, with major decisions to be made about Big Ten athletics in the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic, Warren understood where Fields was coming from with his public push to play. Warren admired Fields’ purpose even when the two didn’t agree on the proper direction.
As the conference commissioner, Warren had the responsibility of steering Big Ten athletics safely through uncertain times with the health and well-being of student-athletes his top concern. Fields, then a rising junior quarterback at Ohio State, was like so many athletes who badly wanted to play.
Thus when Warren decided in August 2020 to postpone the Big Ten football season indefinitely, it was Fields who subsequently started a petition urging the conference to start its season on time with certain health and safety measures in place. That petition garnered more than 230,000 signatures on the first weekend.
“If I had been in the Big Ten (as an athlete) at that time, I would have done the same thing,” Warren said Tuesday at Halas Hall as he was introduced as the new Chicago Bears president. “What that told me about Justin is he’s passionate. My whole goal was trying to keep players safe. But I appreciated him being able to take that leadership role.”
Eventually, in September 2020, Big Ten presidents and chancellors voted to allow the conference to play with Warren’s approval, and a condensed football season took place. Fields and the Buckeyes had three regular-season games canceled because of COVID but won all five of their conference games, beat Northwestern for the Big Ten championship and went on to face Alabama in the title game of the College Football Playoff, losing 52-24.
Three months later, the Bears drafted Fields with the No. 11 pick.
Now Warren and Fields will share a workplace in Lake Forest as well as a collective goal to carry the Bears to a Super Bowl. Their union is official. And Warren emphasized Tuesday there is no animosity whatsoever lingering from 2020.
“I have a strong personal relationship with him,” Warren said. “He’s talented. He’s a leader. I loved his passion. I would have been the same way.”
Warren said he wishes he had handled the postponement differently, mostly in the way he communicated with players and their parents.
“Just sit down and talk about it,” he said. “I’m going to tell you why I feel the way I do. I’m going to bring in our medical staff and doctors to communicate. I wish I would have done that.
“I’m a fast learner with things like that. And I learned after that. My wife was like, ‘Why are you communicating on medical issues when you’re not a doctor?’ And I said, ‘Well, we don’t have one.’ She says, ‘Go and hire a chief medical officer.’”
In October 2021, the Big Ten hired Dr. James Borchers, the head team physician at Ohio State, as the conference’s chief medical officer and tasked him with consulting all schools on health and safety, sports medicine and conference initiatives among other things.
“Some things are pretty simple,” Warren said.
Warren also spoke Tuesday of his exit from the college sports landscape for this new challenge back in the NFL. He is departing the Big Ten commissioner post after a little more than three years.
Warren retains great pride in what he accomplished in his time overseeing the Big Ten, most notably spearheading a record-breaking $8 million media rights deal while also pushing to bring USC and UCLA into the conference. Those schools will officially join the Big Ten in 2024.
Warren harked back to wisdom his father often imparted to him and his siblings, urging them to leave every career situation they walked into demonstrably better than it was when they arrived.
“That was always on my mind,” Warren said. “My dad always talked about that. When I would call him about different opportunities and jobs, he would say, ‘From the day you walked in the door until now, is it better?’ I’d say yes. He’d say, ‘Is it demonstrably better?’ Yes. He goes, ‘OK, then you can go on to the next job.’”
Warren said he followed that guidance while pursuing the Bears president job. He emphasized the work he helped the Big Ten do in navigating the pandemic, leading social justice initiatives and aiding mental health efforts for athletes. The media rights deal and addition of USC and UCLA only added to his feelings that he had accomplished a lot for the conference.
“I just felt this was the right time,” Warren said. “I had done what I was called there to be able to do. And I think that’s (something) different about me. I go by a calling. This is bigger than sports to me. This is really about life. This is where God wants me to be.”