The Chicago Bears hired Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren as their president on Thursday, bringing him back to the NFL to help lead a founding franchise after three years running one of college athletics’ marquee conferences.
Warren replaces the retiring Ted Phillips and becomes the Bears’ fifth president. His biggest task is helping the Bears finalize the purchase of a 326-acre tract of land in suburban Arlington Heights, Illinois, that could become the site of a new stadium.
He also is joining an organization with the No. 1 pick in the draft following one of the worst seasons in franchise history. The Bears went 3-14 and set a franchise record for losses.
Warren had spoken with several professional teams going through transitions at the top, including the Denver Broncos, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves during his tenure as Big Ten commissioner, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press on Dec. 29.
Warren became the first Black commissioner of a Power Five conference when the Big Ten hired him in June 2019 out of the Minnesota Vikings’ front office to replace the retiring Jim Delany. Now, the conference is searching for a new leader again.
With the Bears’ headquarters in Lake Forest about a 25-mile drive from the Big Ten’s offices in Rosemont, Warren won’t have to move.
He worked in the NFL for more than two decades, doing stints with the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions before settling in with Minnesota in 2005. He was the Vikings’ chief operating officer from 2015 to 2019.
Warren played a big role in their construction of U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in 2016. The Bears see it as a model for their potential new home, assuming their deal to purchase the site of the shuttered Arlington International Racecourse from Churchill Downs Inc. is completed and they decide to leave their longtime lakefront home at Soldier Field.
The Bears want to turn the Arlington Heights site, once a jewel of thoroughbred racing, into a different kind of gem, anchored by an enclosed stadium and bursting with year-round activity.
They envision restaurants, retail and more on the plot of land some 30 miles northwest of their longtime home at Soldier Field — all for about $5 billion, with some taxpayer help. The Bears plan to pay for their stadium but want taxpayer dollars to cover infrastructure costs such as roads and sewers to develop the site.
Soldier Field has been the Bears’ home since 1971. The team played at Wrigley Field from 1921 to 1970, and if a new stadium is constructed, the franchise would have its name on the mortgage for the first time since arriving in Chicago.
Phillips, an accountant by trade, joined the Bears as the their controller in 1983. He became the team’s first president outside the Halas-McCaskey family tree in February 1999.
Warren drew sharp criticism early in his tenure with the Big Ten when the league called off the 2020 fall football season because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Player parent groups sent letters demanding the conference reverse course. A petition that 280,000 signatures in three days was started by Ohio State star Justin Fields, who now happens to be the Bears’ quarterback. There were rumblings some schools, including Nebraska and Ohio State, would create their own schedules for the fall.
The conference reversed course five weeks after the initial decision and played an abbreviated schedule after receiving guarantees that athletes could be tested for the coronavirus every day and that there would be screening protocols for virus-related heart ailments for those who tested positive.
There have also been some big wins for the Big Ten in recent months
In July, the Big Ten announced Southern California and UCLA will join the conference in 2024, giving it a coast-to-coast footprint in the nation’s largest markets. A month later, the conference landed about $7 billion in media rights deals with FOX, CBS and NBC to share the rights to football and basketball games. The contracts go into effect in 2023 and expire in 2030.
AP College Football Writer Ralph D. Russo contributed to this report.