Big Ten decentralizing decisions on COVID-19

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Big Ten is taking a "decentralized decision-making process" toward handling COVID-19 issues heading into the fall athletics season, and will soon determine how outbreaks will impact competition.

Commissioner Kevin Warren on Thursday said league presidents and chancellors last month agreed that each institution would determine its policies for dealing with COVID-19. Several Big Ten schools are requiring all students to be vaccinated before the start of the academic year, while others are not.

"Our schools are finalizing their proposed policies and procedures for the fall," Warren said at Big Ten football media days at Lucas Oil Stadium. "We'll get that information in early August, we'll combine it, and then we'll get together with our chancellors and presidents and other key constituents to make the determination as far as how we handle the fall. One of the things I did learn last year is that we're as methodical as possible, that we bring people together."

Other leagues such as the SEC are not planning to reschedule games for COVID-19 outbreaks and could have teams forfeit if they cannot compete on certain dates.

The Big Ten in 2020 initially canceled its fall football season, before bringing it back under very stringent COVID-19 protocols for players who test positive. Several key games were not played, including Ohio State-Michigan, and Ohio State advanced to the Big Ten championship despite playing only five regular-season games.

The Big Ten soon will announce the hiring of a chief medical officer for the season. Ohio State team physician Dr. Jim Borchers played an integral role in the Big Ten's return-to-play medical policies following the initial cancellation in 2020.

Warren, delivering his first media days speech as league commissioner after last year's event was canceled, described 2020 as a challenging year but one he's thankful for, as it helped him build and strengthen relationships in the conference. He said that while there were disagreements within the league, he still would have made decisions with the health of athletes at the forefront.

"If we put them at the epicenter of our decisions, we're going to be OK," Warren said. "And we did that last year at the Big Ten. Maybe the communication wasn't as clean and perfect as it could have been at times."

Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck, who was Warren's neighbor when Warren worked for the Minnesota Vikings, called the commissioner "an incredible communicator."

"He's got a huge heart, he's a really good person and he's our leader," Fleck told ESPN.

Asked about Texas and Oklahoma possibly looking to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, Warren said the Big Ten has had internal discussions about items such as realignment, noting that the league is in the information-gathering stage. The Big Ten in 2010 set off the last major round of realignment in college, which included adding Nebraska as a member.

Warren on Thursday also announced former Wisconsin coach and athletic director Barry Alvarez will be joining the Big Ten as a special adviser for football. Alvarez coached Wisconsin from 1990 to 2005, winning three league titles, and served as the school's athletic director from 2004 until retiring on June 30.

Warren has known Alvarez since Warren's time as a Notre Dame law student, when Alvarez served as Notre Dame's defensive coordinator.

"I trust Barry Alvarez implicitly," Warren said. "He means everything to this conference. We're so grateful he's agreed to join the conference office."