Fundraising and selling football tickets will be Cohen’s top priority — the athletic department reported a budget deficit of $863,136 for the 2014-15 fiscal year.
She grew up during the heyday of the Don James era, infatuated with the Huskies, relishing Saturdays at Husky Stadium with her family and her favorite team.
“My favorite tradition on game day was going down to the tunnel and barking at the opponent. I would legitimately bark,” Jennifer Cohen said. “This place,” she added, “is woven into every fabric of my being of who I am.”
The Husky Marching Band lined a hallway and played the school’s fight song as Cohen took center stage Wednesday, a raucous introduction for Washington’s new athletic director. The gathering featured many UW coaches, athletes, staffers and supporters, and it felt both a celebration of Cohen’s vision of a promising future and a rekindling of the Huskies’ proud past.
Count Cohen among those with eager optimism about what’s to come from Chris Petersen’s football program.
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“We’re going to get this place rockin’ again,” she said while sitting in a fourth-floor conference room at Husky Stadium.
UW’s interim athletic director since January, Cohen, 46, has spent much of the past few months working with her staff on a three-year financial-stability plan for the athletic department, and fundraising will remain her top priority. The athletic department reported a budget deficit of $863,136 for the 2014-15 fiscal year, and Cohen said there will likely be another deficit in the 2015-16 budget.
Some of that shortfall, she said, can be blamed on the declining ticket sales for football. Last fall, Husky Stadium drew an average of 61,919 fans, down from 64,508 in 2014 and 68,769 in 2013. There hasn’t been a sellout at Husky Stadium since 2013, but Cohen expects that to change this fall.
She pointed to the atmosphere for the Apple Cup last November — when the Huskies beat the Cougars, 45-10, before an announced crowd of 70,438 at Husky Stadium — as a new standard for the program going forward.
“That Apple Cup game felt right for a lot of people, and I think it brought back some feelings and some sentiment and nostalgia of, ‘That’s right — this what this place can feel like,’ ” Cohen said. “And we’re really hoping to build off that. … I think we all know that Coach Pete is building something very special.”
Cohen’s promotion was lauded by many in and around the department, including Petersen.
“I’ve been impressed with her since the day I got here — her day-to-day interactions, how she deals with people, how sharp she is, solves problems,” he said. “She knows what this place is about, and she knows where this place needs to go.”
A UW search committee vetted some 20 candidates, and UW President Ana Mari Cauce said she interviewed four or five finalists. Cohen has spent 18 years at UW, working mostly as a fundraiser, and Cauce said continuity was an important factor in Cohen’s promotion.
“She can hit the ground running. She doesn’t have to begin to develop all those relationships. She has a plan,” Cauce said. “Quite frankly, she is the best hire that we could’ve possibly made, and that’s why we did it.”
As part of her five-year contract, Cohen will earn $460,000 annually, with $60,000 in additional deferred payments and another $100,000 in potential bonuses.
Cohen becomes the only female athletic director in the Pac-12 and one of just three among the 65 Power Five conference schools. Cauce and Cohen are also the only female president-AD combination among those 65 schools.
“My entire career, I really haven’t thought a lot about my gender,” Cohen said. “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.”