To those who work at 1920 Football Drive in Lake Forest and have grand aspirations for what the Chicago Bears can become, get excited. And get ready. That’s everyone from general manager Ryan Poles to the entire business development team to the marketing folks to those who work in the cafeteria and equipment room.
Big Ten Commissioner Kevin Warren is coming. Listen for the footsteps.
Warren is on his way to becoming the Bears’ new team president and CEO, ready to replace Ted Phillips, who held that post for 24 seasons. And if you’re willing to take the word of folks who have spent extended time around Warren, understand this first and foremost: The man is a presence. You’ll feel it when he enters the room. And you’ll know it when he leaves.
When Warren first meets you, he will be sizing you up. He is not only driven to surround himself with people who are ambitious, he wants to see “Type A” in your breath.
There are times when Warren will have ideas so big and so bold those around him will instinctively laugh and say “That’s impossible.” But Warren will look them directly in the eye and order them to give it their best effort to make it become real.
This couldn’t be better timed. This is exactly what the Bears need.
New and improved
The Bears are entering a period in their rich history that might be as pivotal and landmark as any they’ve experienced. Yes, much of the excitement within a passionate and success-starved fan base stems from the playmaking electricity Justin Fields generated this season and from the notion that Poles now has a chance to build a more complete roster around his quarterback, thanks to an abundance of salary-cap space and the No. 1 pick for April’s draft.
But there’s also a momentous stadium project underway with the Bears hoping to soon close on 326 acres of land in Arlington Heights to continue their pursuit of a breathtaking new stadium and entertainment district. It just so happens Warren was instrumental in a similar project not long ago, a visionary as the Minnesota Vikings Chief Operating Officer who helped bring US Bank Stadium to life in Minneapolis.
That venue opened in 2016, served as the Super Bowl stage five years ago and will host another playoff game Sunday. An always supercharged game-day experience will ratchet up a few notches. Those who have been inside that building, who have experienced a game day from any number of vantage points, understand that every last detail was considered. That wasn’t by accident, part of a united team effort propelled by Warren that prioritized extravagance and pushed for first-class quality with everything that was done.
So for anyone with grand dreams of what a new Bears stadium and game-day experience can look and feel like? Speak up soon. Speak often. Speak loudly.
As one league source said, “With Kevin, no idea is too big.”
Those are the top bullet points on the Warren scouting report. Thinks big. Is well connected. Makes things happen.
“If it’s a shoe-size contest,” one source said Thursday, “he will find a way to be Bob Lanier.”
When Warren is formally introduced by the Bears on Tuesday afternoon, his enthusiasm will be immediately obvious. But his vision and drive will leave a mark, a lasting impression of a leader who intends to back all aspirations with action.
As one source noted: “With Kevin, there will be an adrenaline rush inside that building all the time.”
In some league circles, the Bears have been considered “a sleeping giant,” an NFL charter franchise with so much potential waiting to be awoken. That means improving the on-field product, the stadium experience, the way the team operates and is perceived.
Warren will walk through the entrance of Halas Hall banging pots and pans and with a bucket of ice water for any pocket of the building still slumbering. Then, just for effect, there will probably be an attention-grabbing fireworks show.
For some, it will be a rude awakening. For others, it will be a stimulating wake-up call, the dawning of a new era in which the bar for the entire organization will be raised. At long last.
Said one source Thursday: “It’s constant. ‘OK. Great. Now what’s next?’ All the time. But it’s almost all for good reason.”
For those who work at 1920 Football Drive, most days will become invigorating. Some will be truly exhausting. Many will be both.
The pressure to produce will feel intense. And constant. But that’s also the fuel for high-level achievement in a cutthroat, billion-dollar industry.
Another prominent league source with knowledge of the inner workings of Halas Hall said Thursday that he thinks Warren’s impact on the Bears will be profound over the next three years, most notably with the stadium project but not limited to just that. “Kevin is an animal with everything he does and everything he’s ever done. The Bears have never had anyone like him in that building. There are going to be people there who absolutely love this. And the people who have been in duck-and-cover mode for all these years? They are going to head for the woods.”
Think of this as a healthy injection of ambitious energy for an organization that could surely benefit from it.
Those who know Warren well have noted he has an almost unmatched zeal for chasing grand visions, for doing so with passion and for creating teams of energetic lieutenants excited to be part of that ride. That helps explain why the Big Ten under Warren’s watch finalized a $7 billion media-rights deal last summer and why USC and UCLA are uprooting from the Pac-12 to join a new conference next year.
Warren has never been OK with things being just OK. Even when things are great, he wants more. There’s a daily push toward all those in his orbit that has been described as an antidote to complacency and stagnancy.
The Bears’ stadium venture, obviously, will be on Warren’s front burner as he takes the baton handoff from Phillips. And everyone in Chicago should be appreciative if not grateful that Warren’s oversight will push that project forward and in all the directions it needs to go. There are connections that need to be made and partnerships that will be solidified and revenue streams that are likely to be opened like gushing fire hydrants.
Eventually, the time will come to bring imagination to life with the actual stadium too. And the combination of Warren’s familiarity with that process and his nonstop push for excellence with every detail will become obvious.
“Kevin has the blueprint,” one league source said Thursday. “He knows all the obstacles. He knows the processes for victories across all those fronts. And there will be no shortcuts.”
Warren will make philosophical changes inside Halas Hall no doubt, which will include personnel turnover, strategic expansion of some departments and a concerted effort to increase the connection of the entire building. He also has an established track record of being initiative driven and undoubtedly will push to enhance the Bears’ community outreach and social justice efforts while bringing new ideas to improve the organization’s diversity, equity and inclusion approach.
As for the football team itself? What about this drought of 12 seasons and counting since the Bears’ last playoff victory? What about those stains on Phillips’ resume, the 206 losses, nine last-place finishes and six postseason appearances over his 24 seasons at the top?
Can Warren change that?
Will a driven team president be able to affect the results that matter most?
Not directly. No. He won’t be involved in scouting draft prospects or scrutinizing film on potential free agents or grading each game that is played. But he will operate with heightened awareness of the entire operation and establish a higher level of accountability for everything that goes on under his watch.
Warren has been given the power to oversee the GM and the Bears front office and will evaluate all that in a much more comprehensive fashion and with a more sophisticated understanding of success and failure than currently exists.
There will also be a constant push to improve the player experience in ways big and small. Facility improvements. Support-staff upgrades and additions. Quality-control touches. He wants the feel of everything to be more Ritz-Carlton than Residence Inn.
In the statement put out by the Bears on Thursday, team Chairman George McCaskey praised Warren as “a proven leader who has many times stepped outside of his comfort zone to challenge status quo for unconventional growth and prosperity.”
“In this role,” McCaskey added, “Warren will serve in the primary leadership position of the franchise to help bring the next Super Bowl championship trophy home to Bears fans.”
A prominent league source called Warren’s hiring by the Bears “transformative,” a move that will bring fresh ideas, new initiatives and elevated goals to a team that has been spinning its wheels in the mud of mediocrity for far too long.
“Let’s be honest,” the source said, “the Bears have been a rudderless ship. For a long time. … This here is about culture change. The first order of business will be Kevin figuring out how to clean up the place. You have to get rid of a lot of dead wood. And that doesn’t happen in five minutes. But you make it happen. And then you have to establish a concrete vision and a development of culture where there has been none for a long, long time.
“It isn’t as if Chicago has been on the map recently as one of the (NFL’s) great destinations. And it is one of the great destination franchises. In all of sports. Let’s face it. It’s a coveted opportunity. But now you are trying to put yourself right back on the map. With relevance and achievement. And that will happen.”
Listen for the footsteps. Warren is on his way.
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