On Monday, Jennifer Cohen will formally begin her job as the Huskies’ interim athletic director, with her seemingly as the top candidate for the permanent job. According to sources close to the UW athletic department, Cohen has the support of many influential donors.
The letter, penned by a rabid young Husky fan decades ago, has been lost to time. The inspiration that blossomed because of it has endured for Jennifer Cohen and the University of Washington.
Cohen was a fifth-grader living in University Place, near Tacoma, when she mailed the letter to her idol, Don James. In it, she told James she was going to succeed him one day as the Huskies football coach.
“That is a really great idea,” James wrote back to her, as Cohen paraphrased during a recent interview in her corner office at the UW athletic department. “But girls are not really getting that opportunity very often … but they are going into the business of sport.”
The search for the Huskies’ next athletic director is under way. A look at potential candidates.
Ties to UW
Gary Barta: Now in his 10th year as the athletic director at Iowa, which is enjoying tremendous success in football and basketball; as senior associate AD at UW from 1996-03, oversaw campaign to build Dempsey Indoor practice facility and renovation of Hec Edmundson Pavilion.
Jennifer Cohen: UW’s interim AD and a UW administrator since 1998; a top fundraiser for the department and was heavily involved in Husky Stadium capital project; has overseen football for past three years; has strong support from benefactors and football coach Chris Petersen.
Jeff Compher: A UW executive associate AD from 2004-08, now in his third year as the athletic director at East Carolina; was AD at Northern Illinois from 2008-13.
Stephanie Rempe: One of UW’s senior associate ADs since 2008; has oversight of basketball programs, among others, and was also heavily involved in Husky Stadium project.
Outside the box
Karen Bryant: Former president of the Seattle Storm played basketball at UW in 1990-91.
Patrick Crumb: President of DirecTV Sports Networks/ROOT Sports and president of UW Alumni Association since 2004.
John Currie: Athletic director at Kansas State since 2009; recipient of two AD of the year awards in 2013.
Solly Fulp: Executive director of California-Berkeley’s business partnerships program and former vice president for IMG College, where he managed multimedia rights deals for many Pac-12 schools, including UW.
Doug Knuth: Athletic director at Nevada since 2013 and viewed as one of the bright, up-and-coming administrators in college athletics.
Rick Welts: President of the Golden State Warriors is a longshot for UW, but he is a Seattle native and UW alumnus. Worth a call, at the very least.
That was all the motivation she needed.
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“I had this crazy idea as a kid that I was going to work here,” she said.
Cohen never got to coach the Huskies, but Monday she will formally begin a job that is the next-best thing: the Huskies’ interim athletic director. And the idea she could soon be permanently named to the post isn’t crazy at all.
According to sources close to the UW athletic department, Cohen has the support of many influential donors, and football coach Chris Petersen has already given a strong endorsement of Cohen to new university president Ana Mari Cauce.
A search committee is being formed to find the next athletic director, after Scott Woodward left Washington earlier this month to be the AD at Texas A&M. A UW spokesman said there is no timeline to find the Huskies’ next AD; it’s likely the process will go into the spring, if not longer.
“Jen is a really great gal. I couldn’t be happier that she’s the interim right now,” Carol James, Don’s widow, said in a phone interview from her Palm Desert, Calif., home.
Cohen’s correspondence with Coach James didn’t stop with that one letter. The coach, Carol recalled, tried to respond to every fan letter, but he grew fond of the young fan from University Place who would always track him down for a photo op during UW’s annual Picture Day before each season. They kept in touch over the years, and more so after Cohen began working in the UW athletic department as an assistant director of development in 1998.
She now keeps a framed picture of her and Coach James, taken at Husky Stadium during her first week on the job, on her office wall.
“What is so great is, she’s a Husky,” Carol James said. “It’s nice to have somebody (in that role) that is a Husky and wants to be here and is not using it as a steppingstone. We deserve better than that.”
Jennifer Cohen file
Hometown: University Place
Education: San Diego State, 1991 (undergraduate degree); Pacific Lutheran, 1994 (master’s degree in physical education with emphasis in sports administration).
Previous stops: Pacific Lutheran, University of Puget Sound, Texas Tech.
Cohen, 46, joins exclusive company as a female athletic director. Of the 327 Division I athletic departments, 29 have a woman in that role, according to the NCAA’s latest reported statistics. And among the 65 schools in the Power Five conferences, just two athletic directors are women.
Of the gender issues, Cohen said, “There will hopefully be a time when this isn’t even a conversation.”
In nearly 18 years at UW, Cohen has made her mark most notably as a fundraiser, and that will remain a priority for her and the department in the short term. The Huskies, as many major-college programs, are searching for additional revenue streams to help with the new costs brought about by recent NCAA legislation that is providing more benefits for student-athletes.
This summer, UW will launch a fundraising campaign toward that end.
The Huskies’ AD job figures to be an attractive one for a number of wide-ranging candidates (see breakout, at right), based on the university’s overall growth, the strength of Seattle’s tech industry, the completed rebuild of Husky Stadium in 2013 and, perhaps above all, the growing optimism surrounding UW’s rejuvenated football and men’s basketball programs, the traditional breadwinners for any athletic department.
Cohen, who as a senior associate athletic director has overseen the football program for the past three seasons and who helped lure Petersen away from Boise State in December 2013, is as confident as anyone about the direction of the football team.
“When I look at what this place stands for as a university and as an athletic department … and then I look at Chris Petersen, I just can’t picture somebody that’s a better match,” she said. “He makes everybody around this place better. Personally, he has made me a lot better. He has high expectations every day for every person, starting with himself. And he is so consistent with that and he is so thorough with that and so thoughtful with that and he is so unselfish with it, and you can see that style and that approach already reaping benefits.”
Many have compared Petersen’s style to that of James, the coach Cohen grew up idolizing. Some of her best childhood memories are trips down Interstate 5 in the family van to follow James’ Huskies in their Rose Bowl appearances. Her father had gotten the family season tickets for Husky football games starting in the late ’70s, and it was at Husky Stadium that she fell in love with the team and, more meaningful to her job now, what it could do to bring the community together.
“I still remember the first day I drove in (for work at UW in 1998) and just the goose bumps of, gosh, this childhood dream come true. A naive one, but it ended up being my life’s passion,” she said. “I feel really lucky.”
Lucky, too, to have the connection she did with Coach James, up until his death in October 2013, and the enduring inspiration he helped provide a young fan.
“Any time you get to be around your childhood hero, and then know them personally, you just hope you do right by whatever that connection was,” she said. “It’s a pretty special thing.”