UW President Ana Mari Cauce said she interviewed four or five other candidates for the AD job before settling on Jennifer Cohen. “Quite frankly,” Cauce said, “she is the best hire that we could’ve possibly made, and that’s why we did it.”
Jennifer Cohen was introduced by UW President Ana Mari Cauce Wednesday as the Huskies’ 15th athletic director. Here’s what they had to say during a press conference at the Husky Stadium football offices:
President Cauce: “Today it really is my pleasure to introduce the appointment of Jen Cohen to serve as athletic director at the University of Washington. We conducted a national search for a leader who would be able to lead the University of Washington through the challenges that all programs of our caliber face, who would support our coaches and athletes so that our students could excel on the field and off the field. She really is someone who will put the student-athlete first. We have a truly stellar athletic program and a really stellar university. Again, Jen will really be emphasizing the student-athlete experience, which is so incredibly important to us.
“So at the conclusion of the search, we determined that the very best leader for University of Washington athletics was already right here in Montlake, Jennifer Cohen.
“Jen is Tacoma native and she’s been at the University of Washington for 15 years as a development officer in athletics and undergraduate education before serving as interim AD since January. She oversaw all of athletics fundraising, and in recent years the football and baseball programs have directly reported to Jen. Quite frankly, you can’t visit any of our venues without seeing an example of her work. From the $50 million campaign to renovate Husky Stadium to our really beautiful Conibear Shellhouse. Jen has the experience at the University of Washington, three prior universities, and in national circles, to understand college athletics and to bring the University of Washington to even greater heights.
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“Some of you may be following — (it’s Cohen’s) first day on the job and we may very well have a national championship (with the UW women’s golf team playing this afternoon). How many ADs get announced on the day we’re playing in a national championship? Pretty cool.
“I want to thank the search committee for their thorough, diligent work, and for recommending such an outstanding leader. And now it’s my great pleasure to introduce the new University of Washington Athletic Director, Jen Cohen.”
Cohen: “My staff knows I’m much happier talking about our student-athletes and our coaches than me, so I think they’re going to have fun with this one. And whoever put the picture up on the video board is in trouble (laughs).
“This is truly an amazing experience. I think so many of you know that I grew up a Husky fan. I fell in love with the University of Washington right here in this stadium. I spent a lot of Saturdays here. My dad’s first set of season tickets were in the Family Fun Zone, which was located in the west end, which is kind of below where we are today. My favorite tradition on game day was going down to the tunnel and barking at the opponent. I would legitimately bark. I think it was a sign of future competitiveness in me I didn’t know what coming. After the games I would go down and collect wristbands from some of my favorite players. This place is woven into every fabric of my being of who I am.
“In 1998 I had my first dream come true, which was getting my first job here. I’m one of those rare people that has been able to learn and grow and develop and stay at the school that they’ve loved their entire career, which doesn’t happen very often. So I sit here today humbled and honored to be able to serve this great university and this athletic department that I love so much. It’s fair to say that this truly is a dream come true for me.
“I’d like to first thank my new boss, President Cauce, for this incredible opportunity, and for her support and leadership. She is a tremendous advocate for students — all students, including our student-athletes. So I’m really excited to work under her leadership. I’d also like to thank the Board of Regents and the search committee for entrusting me with a program that means so much to so many.
“I’d also like to introduce my family, because they are everything to me. This is an all-in, all-the-time job and these guys — all three of them — are all-in, all of the time with me. My sons, I want them to stand up because they are looking good today — Tyson is 14, he’s going to be an O’Dea Irishman next year. And Dylan, who is 11. Good job, boys. And my husband, Bill, who I met in graduate school and he knew I had this dream and he supported me along the way and a lot of crazy times — so thanks you guys. Love you.
“So I love being a Husky, for so many different reasons. For me, the biggest one is all about the people and it’s all about the relationships. This place is surrounded with phenomenal people. It’s starts in our department with our coaches – our head coaches and our assistant coaches. I tell them all the time and I’m going to say it again: they are the best in the business. And when I say that it’s not just that they are great coaches, but they’re great people. They have great character. They care about their student-athletes. They are mentors. They develop these young men and women for life after college. They’re phenomenal.
“I do want to give a shout out – I’m not going to recognize anybody else because you’re all so amazing – but I do want to recognize Mary Lou Mulflur, who can’t be here today but is competing for a national championship. What a story! For thirty-plus years she’s been here. Thirty-plus years, dedicating her life to this place and these students. So today is her day to shine and the student-athletes’ day to shine. I’m just so proud of her.
“We also have a number of our staff here today. Husky Athletics has over 200 employees. All these people here, they are really the unsung heroes. They do all the hard work behind the scenes to make sure our student-athletes and our fans and donors have everything that we need. Every person in this room and every person in this department matters. They all contribute to our success now and they are all going to contribute to our success moving forward.
“And then there’s our student-athletes, and they make us all feel in awe. They are unbelievable. I watch these student-athletes — Coach Pete (Chris Petersen) always says ‘you’re going to be abnormal.’ He talks to them about, you’ve got to get ready to be abnormal. And it’s so true. These student-athletes have so many demands placed on them, both in academics and in their competition, and in their personal lives. Time and time again they just surprise us and they are shining right now. We’re seeing it in the classroom. As President Cauce said, we do put the student-athlete first here. And we have record-high team and individual GPAs, record-high graduation rates because these kids are committed to it. But they also are great athletes. Right now we’re fighting being a top-15 team here at the end of this year, and if Mary Lou wins a national championship we might even get higher in the Directors Cup. And so it’s a remarkable balance of what these young men and women do, and they inspire us every single day.
“And finally, this is all possible because of our fans and our former athletes and our Tyee Club donors. I’ve been here a long time, almost two decades, and I’ve seen the impact that fan support has had. Student-athletes come here because of our fans and our donors. Our facilities, our ability to give them the best resources possible are because of our fans and because of our donors and because of our former athletes. This is a special place. Coaches are retained and stay here because of it, and I know for me it was a big factor in me wanting to lead this program because I knew we had the support from all of our alums and our community. So thanks to all of you, I know there’s a lot of you here today.
“I also love being a Husky for what we represent. We are tough. Huskies are tough. We’re gritty, and the thing I love most about being a Husky is that we are determined. We are always charging forward to be the very best we can be. As Huskies we also show great character, and integrity, and heart, and we do the right thing all the time. We call it the Washington way. And as Huskies, we are also one. We are unified, and we work together, and we know we can accomplish so much more as a group than we can by ourselves. So these are the traits and the characteristics as a leader that I bring to this department, and I absolutely know that everybody associated with this department already has.”
“So as we move forward and I take on this role, I’ve got three main objectives that our team’s going to be focused on. The first is that we’re going to positively impact the lives of our student-athletes each and every day. They are absolutely the reason why we’re here. We are all about education, we’re about opportunity, we’re about access – that’s really what we do. And it’s our responsibility to make sure that we’re giving these kids every experience possible, every resource possible, to really, ultimately, become the very best versions of themselves. So that goes so far beyond athletics. It goes into their academic endeavors, their personal development. So that we can prepare these young men and women for life after college, so they can go out and contribute to our society in meaningful ways.
“Second, we’re going to inspire championship culture that fuels winning teams. I never forget the fact that I love to win, and I think everybody here feels the same way. That starts with attitude and effort and a culture that brings great programs that are trying to achieve excellence at the highest level, just like our university, so winning in all of our programs is a priority for us, believe you me.
“Third and finally is that we build and unite our community. I think a lot of us here today love sports because it’s a great unifier. It’s so inclusive. People from all walks of life get to come and be a part of this. And for us, it’s being a Husky. So we’re going to connect with our student body. We’re going to connect with our faculty. We’re going to connect with our alums and our former athletes and our donors, and we’re going to do that by giving them great experiences and great teams that will have Huskies around the world proud.
“Finally, I just want to say it is great to be a Husky. Those that are really close to this program know that we are on the verge of something really special here. We can all feel it. And that being said, there are going to be challenges. This is not all going to be perfect. We’re going to work hard, and we’re seeing all kinds of challenges that are impacting all schools across the country with the evolution of college athletics. It’s changing so rapidly. We see the positive investments we’re making in our student-athletes, increased expenses, the challenges of TV contracts and game times and the competition in the living room, and where that impacts our revenues. So we’re going to tackle that here, and I tell you what, I am totally optimistic about the future. When I close my eyes, I picture this stadium full. When I close my eyes, I picture our student-athletes, more student-athletes than the ones that are competing today, competing for national championships. When I close my eyes and think about the future of Husky athletics, I think of student-athletes walking out of here and saying, ‘that was the best experience of my life.’ And when I picture it, I picture it with us doing it together. So there is no other place I’d rather be than here at the University of Washington. I’m honored, I’m humbled, we are ready to get to work with our talented team. Thanks and Go Dawgs.”
Questions and answers:
Can you tell us about when you heard you got the job?
Cauce: “We were both together at Pac-12 meetings. There were ADs and they call it CEOs, presidents, at the Pac-12, we had a dinner with all of us and after dinner I said, ‘let’s talk.’ And we did. So, on Sunday.”
What was your reaction, Jen?
Cohen: “Elation. We hugged. Obviously this is something I’ve wanted my entire life, so I was thrilled.”
On the interview process after the applications closed:
Cauce: “The search committee … I don’t know when the applications closed, but then the search committee, part of the search committee, flew out and met with 16 to 20 candidates. I can’t remember the exact number. And then they brought a shorter list to me of four or five. I met with all of those, and then made the decision and met with the search committee, met with the leadership of the search committee, I did my reference-checking at the end. They had done some reference-checking, but then I followed up with some more reference-checking. My sense is that this took about three months or so.”
How long did it take after the list was narrowed down?
Cauce: “Three weeks to a month. Probably more like three weeks. You know, you have to go fast at that point because people are already at jobs in other places and you don’t want names to look out, so it was about three weeks. If you let me look back at my calendar I can tell you exactly.”
On how experience at smaller schools shaped Cohen as an administrator:
Cohen: “Absolutely. I worked at two Division III schools in the early part of my career, PLU and the University of Puget Sound, and I always say that I am so grateful that I started off at a small school. We had no resources at those schools. I did every job that you could imagine. I would climb the ladder to fix the shot clock. I’d sweep the floors when I ran the facilities, and I coached volleyball and did all these different types of jobs that really gave me a flavor for all the areas of college athletics, so I go back to those roots of grittiness and hard work and I really credit the Division III experience that I had.”
What does it mean to you to be one of three female athletic directors at a Power Five school?
Cohen: “It’s interesting, because my entire career, I really haven’t thought a lot about my gender. I really wanted to work hard and prove myself on my own merits, which I think I have. That being said, there’s something really special about that. I want women on my staff and folks across the country, I want them to be able to see that women can do it, and if there aren’t women doing it, they’re not going to see that they can. So I take that role seriously, and I’m honored to be able to do that for other women.”
On the balance between revenue sports and non-revenue sports:
Cohen: “That’s one of the things I love about Washington, is that we invest in all of our programs. We invest in every one of these kids like they’re one of my own, revenue or not, male, female, it doesn’t matter. So this place is special that way. Our student-athletes, I just finished doing exit interviews with some of our baseball players, and that’s a traditional non-revenue sport – to a student-athlete, every one of those kids told me, ‘you’ve given me every resource to be successful here. It’s up to us to be able to maximize that.’ So that’s why I love the culture. Our donors, our fans, everybody respects the fact that we’re good across all of our sports. And you see it. The reason why Nabes (women’s basketball coach Mike Neighbors) went to the Final Four this year is because he has the support he needs to have a winning program, and I think every one of our coaches could tell you that.”
On UW being the only Power Five school with a female president and female AD:
Cauce: “It was interesting when we were at the Pac-12 meetings and we were having this dinner. There was about 25 people around the table. There was three women. We were having discussions and at one point, I was trying to say something and other people kept on talking over me, of a particular gender, and Jen and I just looked at each other.
Cohen: “We’re in this one together.”
Cauce: “Exactly. The truth is, we tell students that this is what the future looks like, in terms of the University of Washington … and I look forward to the day when this isn’t unusual, and it’s not worth commenting on.”
President Cauce, when talking with people around the athletic department, what was some of the feedback you got about Cohen?
Cauce: “Well, you saw her. The enthusiasm that not only she has but she that she can really get other people going in terms of, you really need a lot of that enthusiasm and optimism to get through difficult periods. And I think Jen really engenders that. She has a reputation for being present. She’s there. … She does what it takes and she pays attention to people, whether it’s the student-athletes, whether it’s the fans. The supportiveness with which she approaches the tasks — again and again I heard from people that they wanted her to lead.
“I should probably also add that when we were talking to the very final (candidates), there was two of the group that brought me strategic plans, and it was really cool to see the way that she was really analyzing and looking toward the future — ‘This is what we have to do.’ And I really thought that that was a part of it. We need to be strategic as we move forward; we don’t have the resources to just throw around and solve problems that way. That was very much a part of it for me.”
On the value of hiring a Husky vs. an outsider:
Cauce: “With all of these things, there are pluses and minuses to either. It’s not like it always is an internal vs. an external or the opposite, but this particular place at this particular time, when we have an excellent athletic program that is really performing at the highest level and so many things going great, the continuity — she can hit the ground running. She doesn’t have to begin to develop all those relationships. She has a plan. Quite frankly, she is the best hire that we could’ve possibly made, and that’s why we did it.”
On potential changes to the football gameday experience for fans and potential changes to The Zone:
Cohen: “We haven’t made any decisions yet about gameday experience. Our marketing teams are building business plans for next year and so we’re looking at everything. And gameday experience is a top priority for us. We want to get more fans here; we want fans to leave having a great experience here. Pretty much everything’s on the table as far as The Zone and is it open at halftime or not, and a lot of other elements as well. But I want to make sure I take the time to make a thoughtful decision with my staff now that I have this position.”
President Cauce, how influential was Chris Petersen in leading you to this hire?
Cauce: “At the end, this was my decision. We had input from everybody, and obviously the coach is incredibly important. I talked to him, I talked to Coach Romar, I talked to a number of the coaches and staff members as I was doing reference checks. But it really was — this really very much a consensus hire.”
Jen, you’ve been on the job for four months as the interim. Anything about the job you didn’t know before that?
Cohen: “The President has been reminding me, because she was interim first too, but once you’re in it permanently that’s a totally different story as well. I would say the thing that surprises you the most is the visibility of it. I can’t go to the grocery store now without makeup on. It’s a problem (laughs).”
Jen, revenues are at an all-time high for the athletic department but expenses are also at an all-time high. How optimistic are you that you can balance the budget?
Cohen: “I think it’s going to take us a couple years. We have expenses that are on the rise for very good reasons, which is all this NCAA reform that we’ve done to invest back in our student-athletes and the student-athlete experience. And you’re seeing that with some of the success we’re having across all of our sports. Revenues have been down here the last couple years in ‘gate’ (ticket sales at Husky Stadium), but we had a great renewal rate this and we had the highest number of new season-ticket deposits that we’ve seen in a few years here, and I think we all know that Coach Pete is building something very special. So it may take a little time, but I’m fully optimistic that we’ll get there.”
Jen, you mentioned the gameday experience. What else will you address now that you’ve got the permanent job?
Cohen: “I think the biggest thing now is that the gameday experience and the focus on improving it here is all about our fans and getting the fans here. The more fans we have in the stadium, the better experience they have. So I’m excited about the work our team has already started. We have a great new director of ticket sales; we’ve got an unbelievable outbound sales team; we’ve got a retention team now in place. … So there’s all kinds of other things at play that you can do to make things more creative, but ultimately it’s a full stadium that gives fans and our student-athletes what they deserve.”