Bears hire Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren as team president

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
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CHICAGO — The Chicago Bears hired Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren as their president and CEO, bringing him back to the NFL to help lead a founding franchise after three years running one of college athletics’ marquee conferences.

Warren, who replaces the retiring Ted Phillips, becomes Chicago’s fifth president and the first from outside the organization. He goes from becoming the first Black president of a Power Five conference to the first for the Bears. He is the team’s second president that was not part of the Halas-McCaskey family tree, joining Phillips.

Warren’s biggest task would be helping the Bears construct a new enclosed stadium, assuming they finalize the purchase of a 326-acre tract of land in suburban Arlington Heights and decide to move.

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.

“I am honored and recognize the responsibility bestowed upon me to lead the Chicago Bears during this exciting and pivotal time for the franchise,” Warren said in a statement. “I join the Chicago Bears with gratitude and drive to carry out and build upon the legacy and spirit of this founding franchise and my predecessors.”

Chairman George McCaskey called Warren “a man of integrity, respect and excellence.”

“He is a proven leader who has many times stepped outside of his comfort zone to challenge status quo for unconventional growth and prosperity,” McCaskey said. “In this role, Warren will serve in the primary leadership position of the franchise to help bring the next Super Bowl championship trophy home to Bears fans.”

It wasn’t immediately clear how the team’s chain of command would be structured. General manager Ryan Poles, who was hired a year ago, currently reports directly to McCaskey. Previous GMs reported to Phillips.

Poles said he looks forward to working with Warren.

“In my time spent with him during the interview process, it quickly became apparent his resume and business acumen will be a powerful asset to helping improve our organization and ultimately reach our goal to be a championship organization,” he said.

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 was hired as Big Ten commissioner 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 (40-kilometer) 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 (48 kilometers) northwest of 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 their controller in 1983. He became team president 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 got 280,000 signatures in three days was started by Ohio State star Justin Fields, now the Bears’ quarterback. There were rumblings that some schools, including Nebraska and Ohio State, would create their own schedules for the fall. The conference ultimately reversed course and played an abbreviated schedule.

There also have been some big wins for the Big Ten in recent months.

In July, the Big Ten announced that 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.

Signing day ends recruiting sagas for QB Rashada, CB McClain

college signing day
Chris Leduc/Getty Images
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The opening of college football’s traditional signing period for high school prospects brought an apparent end to two of the cycle’s most notable recruitments.

Blue-chip quarterback Jaden Rashada, who signed with Florida in December and then asked to be released from the commitment when a name, imagine and likeness deal fell through, announced Wednesday he is going to Arizona State.

“Glad to truly be home!” Rashada posted on Twitter.

Also in the Pac-12, Cormani McClain, previously committed to Miami, signed with Colorado to make it two straight years that coach Deion Sanders has landed a five-star cornerback.

Rashada’s recruitment made national headlines and became something of a cautionary tale for the college football’s NIL era.

The four-star recruit from California was the focal point of a recruiting fight between Miami and Florida. That led to a bidding war between booster-run collectives that try to secure sponsorship deals for athletes from those schools.

Rashada had originally given a verbal commitment to Miami, but flipped to Florida and signed with the Gators during the early signing period after being offered an NIL deal that could have been worth more than $13 million.

When it became clear that Gator Collective, which is not part of the University of Florida or its athletic department, did not have the money to fund the deal, Rashada asked to be released from his national letter of intent. Florida granted the request.

Gators coach Billy Napier told reporters he could not provide details on what happened with Rashada, but did say he did not anticipated hearing from the NCAA about possible violations of recruiting rules.

“I think the reality is the current structure of NIL with third parties being involved, with agents being involved, with marketing representatives, with lawyers, with collectives, very fluid and I think a very unique dynamic,” Napier said. “I think ultimately NIL is a strength for the Gators.”

Rashada becomes the highest-profile high school recruit in new Arizona State coach Kenny Dillingham‘s first signing class. The 32-year-old Phoenix native and Arizona State graduate was hired in December.

Rashada’s father, Harlen, was part of Arizona State’s football team in the 1990s. Jaden Rashada called ASU his “childhood dream school.”

“Can’t wait to carry on the family name at the University and start my journey. Forks up!” Rashada posted.

McClain’s recruitment was more traditional in its twists and turns. One of the highest-rated players in the country, he was pursued by most of college football’s most successful programs, including Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State.

The Lakeland, Florida, product committed to Miami last fall, but even then it seemed he might be lured away from the Hurricanes by the Crimson Tide.

Then Coach Prime took over in Boulder, Colorado, and changed the game.

Last year, Sanders made recruiting history when he swayed five-star cornerback Travis Hunter to renege on a verbal commitment to Florida State and sign with Jackson State.

Never before had a player rated that highly signed at a school that plays in Division I football’s second tier, the Championship Subdivision.

Colorado hired Sanders to turn around a program that has been stuck near the bottom of the Pac-12 for most of the last decade. McClain visited Boulder last month and soon after committed to become the first five-star to sign with the Buffaloes in more than a decade.

He made it official early on signing day. McClain will join Hunter, who transferred to Colorado, in the Buffs’ secondary.

“First time CU signed two five-star players in the same class,” Sanders said. “Same position, by the way, and both of them are dogs. I can’t wait to see them play together.”

SOUTH CAROLINA SPEEDSTER

Nyckoles Harbor from Washington was one of the few five stars, as rated by 247 Sports’ composite rankings, who entered signing day uncommitted with real mystery surrounding where he would end up.

The decision came down to Oregon and South Carolina and the Gamecocks were the choice for the 6-foot-5, 225-pound edge rusher who might wind up playing receiver in college.

Harbor runs track, has posted elite times in the 100 and 200 and has Olympic aspirations.

STILL DUCK SEASON

Oregon drew a lot of attention during the early signing period, winning a handful of high-profile recruiting battles to be in position to have the Pac-12’s highest rated class.

The Ducks missed out on Harbor but had one more big score, landing four-star cornerback Rodrick Pleasant. The California player picked Oregon over Pac-12 rival – at least for another year – Southern California.

“Ultimately, we want to sign the best players everywhere but if you can win in your footprint, and our footprint, certainly California is part of that, we want to have success there and think this year we proved that we’re able to do that,” Lanning told reporters.

USC, which moves to the Big Ten after the 2023-24 school year, did get a signing day win with four-star tight end Walker Lyons.

FINAL SCORE

Alabama had already locked up the No. 1 recruiting class in the country for the 10th time in 13 years before the February signing period.

The Tide landed nine five stars. There were only 39 players given a five-star rating in the class, according to 247’s composite.

Two-time defending national champion Georgia was second, followed by Texas, Oklahoma and Ohio State. The rest of the top 10 were LSU, Miami, Oregon, Tennessee and Notre Dame.

While there has been much angst over the impact of NIL money being used as a recruiting inducement, the early results suggests it isn’t changing which schools are coming away with the highest-rated classes.

Using a five-year average of recruiting rankings from the 247 composite, here are the top 20 schools from 2017-21.

1. Alabama, 2 (average ranking)

2. Georgia, 2.2

3. Ohio State, 5

4. LSU, 6.8

5. Clemson, 8.2

6. Oklahoma 9.2

7. Texas A&M, 9.6

8. Texas, 10.8

9. Florida, 11.0

10. Oregon, 11.4.

11. Auburn, 11.6

12. Michigan, 11.6

13. Notre Dame, 12.4

14. Penn State, 13.8

15. Miami, 15.0

16. Florida State, 16.0

17. Tennessee, 16.8

18. USC, 19.6

19. Washington, 20.0

20. Nebraska 20.6.

Over the past two years (2022 and ’23), 17 of the top 20 teams remain in the top 20. USC was knocked out by an unusually low 70th place in 2022.

1. Alabama, 1.5

2. Georgia, 2.5

3. Texas, 4

4. Ohio State, 4.5

5. Oklahoma, 6

6. Texas A&M, 8

7. Notre Dame, 8.5

8. LSU, 9

9. Penn State, 9.5

10. Clemson, 10.5

11. Oregon, 10.5

12. Miami, 11.5

13. Tennessee, 13

14. Michigan, 13.5

15. Florida, 16

16. Auburn, 19

17. North Carolina, 19

18. Florida State, 20

19. South Carolina, 20

20. Kentucky. 22.5

Coach Prime comes up big in 1st recruiting class at Colorado

colorado football recruiting
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY Sports
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BOULDER, Colo. — Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders proudly recited the numbers from his first recruiting class at Colorado.

Two five-star recruits. A No. 21 overall class ranking, which was the highest in 15 years, he pointed out. A top-five class from the transfer portal, according to 247 Sports.

Then, a quick reminder – he’s not done gathering talent. Not by a long shot. This is just a brief pause, he teased, with possibility of more skilled players arriving sometime after the spring.

It’s taken Sanders less than two months in Boulder not only to revamp a downtrodden program but to give a starved fan base something else – hope.

“We’re not recruiting just no ordinary Tom, Dick and Harry,” Sanders said Wednesday on signing day. “We recruited some guys that can light up the scoreboard and prevent touchdowns from occurring. We’re coming. We’re serious about that.

“Hope is in the house. Hope is in the air. Hope is in the city. Hope is in the community.”

Sanders and his veteran staff have been busy scouring the nation for talent. The Hall of Fame NFL player known then as “Prime Time” has also posted on social media for recruits to reach out to him as well: “I ain’t hard to find.”

The Buffaloes signed players from 16 states and two from England. Not only that, they brought in a pair of five-star recruits in high school cornerback Cormani McClain and transfer cornerback/receiver Travis Hunter, who followed Sanders from Jackson State.

In all, there are around 35 newcomers on the spring roster. Maybe that’s why Sanders didn’t really want to talk about each of them by name.

“We’ve got names on the back of their shirts right now,” cracked Sanders, who starts spring practice March 19 with the intrasquad game scheduled for April 22. “I’m not familiar with every kid. I’m not being disrespectful. I’m just being honest.”

Only natural, given that he’s completely overhauled the roster from a team that went 1-11 last season. The class has four players from Georgia and seven from Sanders’ home state of Florida. There are eight defensive backs, which will come in handy given the level of quarterback play in the Pac-12.

In addition, Sanders brought in eight wide receivers, including Adam Hopkins, a four-star from Georgia. There’s also running back Dylan Edwards, who switched after verbally committing to Notre Dame.

Of course, don’t forget that transfer quarterback named Shedeur Sanders, who just happens to be the son of “Coach Prime” and threw 70 TD passes in two seasons at Jackson State.

Deion Sanders said he’s only getting warmed up, too.

“This is just a comma, because there’s a lot of people that’s going to bungee jump into the portal after spring because they’re going to be disappointed in playing time, commitment or the level of participation they’re garnishing,” Sanders said. “We’re going to take full advantage of that. So we’re not done. This is just the comma for the spring. But I love where we are, and what we have.”

It hasn’t taken long for Sanders to settle into the city of Boulder, calling it a “hidden gem.” He can’t wait to move into a house and have “a dog run around the yard.” He even doesn’t mind the snow, which blanketed Folsom Field on Wednesday. Quite honestly, he’s not sure why any player would want to go anywhere else.

“We expect to go get that kid,” Sanders said. “Only thing that can keep that kid from coming and signing with us, is a bag – someone paying them, the collectives or whatever. That’s it. Just outkicking the coverage. That’s it.

“Because the coaching staff, the atmosphere, the city, the publicity, the structure, the discipline, the academics, the graduation rate, the food in the cafeteria – I can keep going, because this thing is getting good. Just everything. It’s hard to say no. It really is.”

Listening in was athletic director Rick George, who appreciated the tone of what he heard. Sanders has quickly built the framework for a speedy turnaround.

“He’s brought a lot of energy and passion to this program again,” George said. “It’s what we desperately needed.”