Kevin Warren’s last day as commissioner of the Big Ten is April 17. A day later, the final moves of the ever-changing college football landscape will begin.

The question is, who will lead the Big Ten into the new college athletics frontier?

Know this: The Big Ten won’t make any potential expansion move until Warren has left the building.

“Nothing will happen until then,” an industry source said. “It’s hold mode right now.”

So while the Big 12 could continue reshaping itself, and the Pac-12 could continue to chase media rights dollars that aren’t there, the Big Ten needs a new leader.

It needs someone who will work with, not against, the SEC. When former Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and former SEC commissioner Mike Slive ran college sports, they were rivals, but they shared a genuine respect for each other — and a desire to work together to solve the problems of college sports.

That respect and ability to work together ended between the SEC and Big Ten commissioners in the summer before the COVID season, Warren’s first year on the job.

It was then, another industry source told Saturday Tradition, that Warren — while the Power 5 commissioners were on a conference call trying to figure out nonconference games between the leagues and the safest way to move forward in 2020 — declared that “someone had to lead” and the Big Ten was doing it.

He pulled the Big Ten from nonconference scheduling, and soon after, canceled the Big Ten season — which was later resuscitated with a shortened season amid pushback from Big Ten member institutions after the SEC, Big 12 and ACC moved forward and played.

While the pandemic was a once in a lifetime event, the Big Ten can’t get caught in such a challenging sport-wide event again — and look so ill-prepared.

That’s what makes this hire so important, and critical to the strength of the conference — and college football — moving forward. The top 5 candidates for the job:

1. Mark Silverman, president Fox Sports

Does he want it, and would he be invested long-term? Warren will be the new president of the Chicago Bears, but that wasn’t the first job he chased in his 3 years at the Big Ten.

And while many point to Warren as the key to Big Ten expansion and its record-breaking multi-billion dollar media rights deal, Silverman had as much or more to do with the Big Ten landing USC and UCLA (and the massive media rights deal) as anyone.

USC needed to get out of the Pac-12 any way it could (independent, or another conference) — but would only leave for the right monetary deal. Multiple industry sources told Saturday Tradition earlier this month that the Big Ten will expand to protect the investment it made in USC and UCLA, and that it’s only a matter of how many teams (2 or 4) from the Pac-12.

Silverman was the president of Big Ten Network from 2007-2018, when he joined Fox. Silverman created Fox’s Big Noon pregame show, and the idea of packaging the Big Ten’s best game at noon — branding the widely undervalued time slot as Fox’s commanding stage.

2. Gene Smith, Ohio State athletic director

Big ideas, big personality — and everyone in college sports loves him. What’s not to like?

He’d be a perfect conduit between the presidents and athletic directors, and he and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey could push the sport to unthinkable heights over the next decade.

Last year Smith floated the idea of the top football schools breaking away from the NCAA and forming their own league. Those universities, he said, who were “invested” in football would be part of a group of schools that could have their own postseason, rules and bylaws.

While we’re teetering toward that reality right now with the Pac-12 in danger of falling apart, the biggest change in that new league — whatever you call it — will be pay-for-play. Smith’s experience running a top 3 revenue-producing athletic program would be invaluable in any future pay for play decisions.

3. Jim Phillips, ACC Commissioner

He’s barely 2 years into his ACC gig, and wanted the Big Ten job last time around when Warren was named to replace Delany.

Would he take it? Of course he would. For years, as the Northwestern AD, he was considered the commissioner-in-waiting by many in the league. Then Warren won over the presidents at the 11th hour, and Phillips eventually left for the ACC.

Now he’s dealing with revenue issues from a poor media rights deal he inherited (and can’t get out of), and his 3 biggest properties (Florida State, Clemson, North Carolina) want revenue distribution based on value to the conference.

One more thing: Don’t believe that pollyanna NCAA talk Phillips tried to use during the Alliance days (remember that Warren catastrophe?). While Phillips, like Sankey, believes in the amateur model, he (like Sankey) realizes college sports long ago crossed that bridge. Finding the best path forward is the only way through the maze.      

4. Bernard Muir, Stanford athletic director

He loves his job, and he and his family love where they live.

He could’ve had the Florida AD job in 2016 — which would’ve placed him as the AD of the most successful sports program in the best conference in college sports (and brought him home to Gainesville) — but chose to stay at Stanford.

Stanford is far and away the strongest all-sports program in college sports, having won the Learfield Cup 7 times in Muir’s 11 years. The Big Ten values academics. It also values success in non-revenue Olympic sports, where Stanford crushes competition nationally.

The instability of the Pac-12 might just be enough to get Muir to take the job if offered.

5. Kerry Kenny, Big Ten senior vice president of television

A long shot, yes. But a heck of a candidate/resume for the job. Kenny has worked closely with Delany and Warren since he joined the conference 15 years ago, and would be an ideal choice for Big Ten presidents who want a combination of Delany and Warren.

He’s young (37), and would be a face of the conference for years to come. He worked deep in the weeds with Silverman and Warren on the record-breaking media rights deal and is trusted by many in the television and streaming world. Nothing is more important to the future health of the conference.