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The Big Ten Expands Its Footprint


Just in time for the rest of us to settle into the 21st century, a piece to settle in, one branch of college athletics has finally advanced to the 20th century.

The Big Ten Conference tapped former Minnesota Vikings COO Kevin Warren as its new commissioner last week. In the process, the Big Ten became the first of the so-called Power Five conferences to select an African-American to such a post.

Let that swim around your noggin for a moment. Here we are, 150 years after the first college football game was played, more than a century after the NCAA was founded and 124 years after the Big Ten itself was created that the league finally brings in a person of color to lead it.

Warren, who will take over in September, said all the right things about his new job, offering that he was receiving a "legacy opportunity" and that only a post like Big Ten commissioner could get him to leave the Vikings.

Indeed, the man whom Warren will replace, Jim Delany, is arguably the most powerful man in college athletics, even more so than NCAA President Mark Emmert.

Warren’s legacy, in many respects, may be measured by his ability not to perpetuate Delany’s accomplishments, but rather to mitigate them.

Delany, who leaves after 30 years as commissioner, has been a strident figure against progress for student-athletes, standing against aid to college athletes beyond the cost of a scholarship, as well as against the efforts of Northwestern football players to form a union to protect their rights to health care and a reasonable practice and work schedule.

However, Delany never missed an opportunity to make money for the member schools.

In order to increase the league’s footprint onto the Eastern seaboard, Delany convinced Rutgers and Maryland to leave their respective leagues for the Big Ten.

At Delany’s urging, Maryland ripped up 60 years of tradition to bolt suddenly and secretly from the ACC five years ago for a conference where the Terps had no geographic and historical connection.

The result: the Big Ten got entry into four big East Coast markets, thus bolstering its television network, delivering more than $25 million annually to each of the 14 schools, not a penny of which goes to the athletes.

Kevin Warren’s tenure as Big Ten commissioner may not be as long or as financially fruitful as Jim Delany’s. But it will be successful if he helps bring dignity back to college athletics.

On a personal note, today’s program marks the first Sports at Large since last fall.

If you’ve wondered where I’ve been, I’ve joined the ranks of fewer than 200,000 people in this country as a patient with cancer of the esophagus, the tube that runs from the throat to the stomach.

The fight has been a challenging one, but it’s one I intend to win. I have so many people to thank for their love and support through this ordeal, all of whom have helped make today and other moments possible.

I am grateful to my WYPR family as well for their care and concern. And I thank all of you for your patience and your understanding. The Good Lord willing, I plan to be with you for many Mondays to come.

And that’s how I see it for this week. 

Milton Kent hosted the weekly commentary Sports at Large from its creation in 2002 to its finale in July 2013. He has written about sports locally and nationally since 1988, covering the Baltimore Orioles, University of Maryland men's basketball, women's basketball and football, the Washington Wizards, the NBA, men's and women's college basketball and sports media for the Baltimore Sun and AOL Fanhouse. He has covered the World Series, the American and National League Championship Series, the NFL playoffs, the NBA Finals and 17 NCAA men's and women's Final Fours. He currently teaches journalism at Morgan State University.