Maybe we should start first with Kevin Warren’s starter home in Overland Park, Kan., way back in the early 1990s when he was just out of law school and getting his career off the ground as an agent. At the time, Warren admits, the yard outside the house he and his wife, Greta, shared was far from special.
But then word began trickling around that the neighborhood was awarding a “Yard of the Month,” complete with a sign to honor the winner. At that moment, Greta knew what was next.
“She looked at me and said, ‘I know what’s going to happen here,’” Warren said. “Our yard was OK. But once I saw that sign up? I got the mulch, I was bringing out experts, I’m cutting the yard.”
Some 30 years later, the pride in Warren’s voice remains obvious.
“It was beautiful too,” he said.
The secrets to the operation?
“You know what?” Warren said. “It was fertilizer and water. A lot of people don’t do that enough. But my wife knew I was serious. I said, ‘OK, this has to happen.’ And I’ll never forget it. I went and talked to a guy named Cornelius and said, ‘What can I do here? I want this (yard) looking like Augusta National.’”
Cornelius advised Warren on the best ways to use straw to keep the lawn healthy when the seasons were changing and gave him pointers on how to mow. And when that knock on the front door finally came?
“I was so happy,” Warren said. “That was our sign. ‘Yard of the Month.’”
He laughed. “Then I started getting into the mindset of ‘Can you go back-to-back?’”
Warren was formally introduced Tuesday as the new president and CEO of the Chicago Bears, a post he will take over in the coming months once he has jetted up the off-ramp of his current job as Big Ten commissioner.
His excitement for replacing Ted Phillips and taking over one of the NFL’s charter franchises at such a pivotal moment could hardly be contained Tuesday. But that’s Warren. A bundle of energy. Overflowing with big ideas. Constantly thirsting for the next conquest.
“This is a special time in the NFL,” Warren said. “But most of all, it’s a special time for the Chicago Bears. Everything is ahead of us. All we need to do now is go and grasp it.”
And if that “Yard of the Month” experience signifies anything, it’s that Warren will operate with a laser focus and obsessive attention to detail to go after all of his goals — big or small.
“That was just a lesson of, one, being competitive, and two, just leaning into it,” Warren said. “That’s just how I approach life. Whatever you’re doing, be passionate about it.”
With the Bears, Warren will inherit an organization that is more than a decade removed from its last playoff victory and 35 years separated from its last stretch of three consecutive winning seasons. The franchise also is exploring a potential landmark stadium project in the suburbs as it works to close on the 326-acre property at Arlington Park in Arlington Heights.
The idea of pursuing two grand ventures at once — a dazzling new stadium and a shiny Lombardi Trophy — hits Warren’s sweet spot.
“It’s just the opportunity to create greatness,” he told the Tribune on Tuesday. “We’re at a point in time with the Chicago Bears where the things that we can do over these next couple years, I want people 20, 30, 40, 50 years down the road talking about them.”
This is more than revitalizing and beautifying a lawn, of course. But the approach will be similar. Tend to every blade of grass with care and purpose, then watch the results. Plus, Warren doesn’t mind inheriting a few weeds or brown patches.
“I’m a big believer in challenges,” he said. “I wouldn’t want this if it were easy. If all the elements were in place, it would not have been as attractive. The main thing is the challenge.
“I believe that in every organization there are certain inflection points. I think the Chicago Bears are at that point — from a positive standpoint.”
A winning resume
One of Warren’s biggest responsibilities will be overseeing the Bears’ stadium project, a task he can attack with experience after helping the Minnesota Vikings get from start to finish with their project to build U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis.
“I had all these boxes of binders,” Warren said. “And many people said (when that stadium was done): ‘You can get rid of those. You’ll never use those again.’ I’m glad I saved them.”
Those binders, that vast knowledge, those experiences helped set Warren apart for the Bears during a search that Chairman George McCaskey said included interviews with more than 20 candidates. McCaskey said he was impressed with Warren’s leadership traits, intelligence, decisiveness and ability to communicate. But having that successful stadium project on the resume didn’t hurt.
“That wasn’t something we were specifically looking for,” McCaskey said. “It was an asset that Kevin brought to the table.”
Warren also will be tasked with overseeing general manager Ryan Poles and providing the support and resources needed for Poles to green up the football team, a group that lost a league-high and franchise-record 14 games this season. To that mission, Warren also brings valuable perspective.
His NFL roots were planted in 1997 when he joined the front office of the St. Louis Rams, a floundering team that lost 11 games during his first season and a dozen more the next year. In 1999, however, the Rams launched “The Greatest Show on Turf” and rode a super-powered offense to the champions stage at Super Bowl XXXIV.
Warren recalled sound advice he got from then-Rams coach Dick Vermeil before that team’s rise began.
Said Vermeil: “Once people in this building realize that, not if, but when we win the Super Bowl, all of our rings are going to be the same, they’ll put their egos to the side.’”
That resonated with Warren. “It was interesting,” he said. “At the ring ceremony, he was right. My Super Bowl ring looks like Kurt Warner’s, looks just like Marshall Faulk’s, like Orlando Pace’s, Torry Holt’s and Isaac Bruce’s. It looks the same.”
That’s a big part of what Warren is after inside Halas Hall, a united effort from every person in every department to produce winning contributions every day.
At the outset, Warren has earned McCaskey’s trust.
“We have complete confidence in him to lead this franchise back to greatness,” McCaskey said.
Power of suggestion
Warren is not exaggerating when he says he plans to meet with every Bears employee in the months ahead to get a better understanding of the organization’s inner workings. He is looking to strengthen the strong points and identify the weaknesses. He has a handful of simple questions to ask — to everyone.
“If you were a member of the McCaskey family, what would you do to bring us a championship?” Warren said. “What can we do to help you on a daily basis? Tell me one thing we can change to make this an incredible place.”
Most of all, Warren wants to hear new ideas.
“I’ve learned in life that the power of one suggestion can really change the trajectory of an organization in a positive manner,” he said. “One thought process, one idea. So the whole conversation of sitting down with our staff is to really figure out what can we do here.
“Then all of a sudden, if you get 300 to 400 different ideas that you can implement at the appropriate time, you get better.”
That may sound like a grand and exhausting undertaking. But that’s Warren.
“Minor details are major,” he said. “You can put the smallest pebble in your shoe and it may not be bad if you’re walking around the house. But go try to run a marathon. So that’s why we have to make sure that we’re very organized in the details, that we are methodical. I believe in no missed steps.”
Again, Warren uses that championship Rams team as an example, pointing out its voyage wasn’t completed until linebacker Mike Jones tackled Tennessee Titans receiver Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line as time expired in the Super Bowl to preserve a 23-16 victory.
“We had a successful season in St. Louis,” Warren said. “The Greatest Show on Turf. We won all these games. We were only behind for 4 minutes, 24 seconds the entire year.
“And it still came down to one tackle at the 1-yard line. With five Hall of Famers (on the roster) and a Hall of Fame coach. So that tells me you’ve got to have your stuff together.”
‘Too much to do!’
The responsibility for getting the Bears’ stuff together now falls squarely on Warren’s shoulders. But throughout Halas Hall, there’s already a buzz about how his leadership skills and approach will awaken the building.
“He’s a high-energy guy who has an incredible work ethic,” Phillips said Tuesday. “I’ve never met anyone who probably works as hard as he does. … When we began the search I said to George, ‘Let’s get someone who can reenergize the staff.’ He will bring a new energy and a new perspective. He’ll hold people accountable and challenge people in a way I think will be great for the organization.”
For those who wonder about Warren’s ability to help the Bears attain consistent success on the football field, much of that will depend first on the working relationship he can build with Poles, how they can set and retain a shared vision and how Warren can provide productive guidance and oversight.
Poles highlighted Warren’s infectious energy and said he looks forward to collaborating closely with a boss who has more than two decades of NFL experiences in the front offices of three teams.
“There’s a ton of knowledge there that’s going to help us,” Poles said. “Everyone has blind spots. And when you have someone from a different background who has been through a couple different organizations, they can give you a little bit of information if maybe there’s a blind spot you didn’t see. It’s challenging decisions just to make sure you’re making sound decisions.”
To hear Warren tell it, his ideal days start when the alarm goes off, his eyes pop open and his brain starts spinning like a waterwheel. He already senses a flood of those days ahead.
“That’s what intrigues me,” he said. “I always want to have something where, when you get out of the bed in the morning, you say, ‘There is too much to do!’ Because with that, what I’ve learned in my life, that’s when I know I’m in my sweet spot.”
Warren can’t wait to get started. The Bears share his excitement.
“There’s no greater opportunity in the world right now in sports,” Warren said. “And to have that here in Chicago, with this incredible fan base and this history and tradition, it is truly rare and unique.”