Asmussen | UI grad believes old pal is up to challenge of Big Ten's top office

Asmussen | UI grad believes old pal is up to challenge of Big Ten's top office

Jeff Verbin didn't know his buddy was up for the job. But Verbin was sure happy when Kevin Warren landed it.

Warren is the Big Ten commissioner-in waiting and will replace retiring Jim Delany. Warren takes over Sept. 16, though Delany won't officially step away until Jan. 1, 2020.

Verbin, a Chicago- and Phoenix-based attorney who is a 1971 Illinois graduate, has been friends with Warren for 30 years.

"When I first heard about it, I was surprised," Verbin said. "Then, when I thought about it, I said 'Boy, that was a great choice.' I didn't envision he would leave the NFL."

They first met when Warren applied to Verbin's firm, Greenberg Traurig in Phoenix. Hiring Warren, a recent Notre Dame law school graduate, was an easy call for Verbin.

In 2003, after stops with the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions, Warren wanted to return to Greenberg Traurig. Again, an easy "Yes" for Verbin.

"Of course, it was a no-brainer," Verbin said. "The guy's terrific."

Warren later returned to the NFL, working for the Minnesota Vikings. He eventually became the team's COO, which led to the Big Ten's interest.

Warren played college basketball at Penn and Grand Canyon. But his new position will be his first time in college administration.

Verbin thinks Warren has the right skills to be Big Ten commissioner.

"I look at the business side of it," Verbin said. "I look at the job he did (with the Vikings). He was very involved with legal issues, which is certainly a part of college these days."

Warren's work on the Vikings new venue, U.S. Bank Stadium, will help him as the Big Ten's leader.

The new commish knows how to navigate the sometimes-treacherous side of the sports business.

And Warren gets along with people. He listens.

"Everybody likes him," Verbin said. "I've never met a person who didn't love the guy. When he walks into a room, everybody lights up. He's the most positive guy."

On the horizon

Delany was routinely praised for his work with the television networks. The conference schools gain more from rights fees than any other league.

It will be Warren's responsibility to keep that going. The TV deals expire early in the next decade.

"He's a great negotiator," Verbin said.

There are plenty of other questions facing college athletics. Like the idea of play for pay.

And conference expansion. During Delany's run, the Big Ten added four schools to reach its current 14.

"I'm sure he will look at the right opportunity," Verbin said. "He's a big thinker."

Delany played an important part in the creation of the College Football Playoff. Some, like me, have called for the field to grow to at least eight.

"I think he would look into it," Verbin said. "I couldn't tell you where he would come out on it. He's one that would look at everything."

You never know when the next scandal will hit. In the past decade, Penn State, Ohio State and Michigan State have dealt with major off-the-field issues.

Verbin trusts Warren's judgment.

"He's absolutely the guy who would do all the right things," Verbin said. "He's really a high-character person. Incredible integrity."

Fair, but tough.

"He would be no-nonsense with those types of issues," Verbin said. "I don't think he has any patience for that type of misconduct."

Delany met with the media each summer during the Big Ten Kickoff in Chicago. It often turned into a State of the Conference-type event.

Verbin thinks Warren will be available to reporters. Good to hear.

"He's very media savvy," Verbin said.

What if we ask a question he doesn't like?

"I have never seen him get angry with anybody," Verbin said.

Following a legend

Delany leaves Bigfoot-sized shoes to fill.

Verbin doesn't think it will bother Warren.

"He's a person who would be very appreciative of what Jim Delany has done," Verbin said. "He will relish working with Jim and Jim's advice and mentoring."

The Big Ten office staff will enjoy working with Warren. He will soon know everyone's name.

"He came into my office every morning (saying), 'Today's going to be a great day,'" Verbin said.

After the Big Ten announcement, Verbin and Warren exchanged text messages. They will see each other soon enough.

Verbin and his wife, Tami, currently live in Champaign and are regulars at Memorial Stadium, State Farm Center and Huff Hall.

"We love it here," Verbin said.

Bob Asmusen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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