Washington’s popular new AD has 18 years of experience with the Huskies and a clear vision of where she wants to take athletics, but executing that vision in the public spotlight will determine success or failure.
Jennifer Cohen observed that one of the biggest surprises during her five-month stint as the Huskies’ interim athletic director was the sheer visibility of the job.
“I can’t go to the grocery store now without makeup on,’’ she joked.
She ain’t seen nothing yet. It’s a powerful position, leading the department that connects athletically to more people in the state than any other. It’s laden with symbolism in that way, but also fraught with a million potential headaches and the daunting challenge of navigating through trying, and complex, economic times.
People will be watching. People will be judging. Goes with the turf. Cohen was playfully miffed by the giant photo of her that was emblazoned on the Husky Stadium scoreboard — “whoever put the picture up on the video board is in big trouble” — but this is, by nature, a job writ large.
The optics were great at Cohen’s news conference Wednesday. The affection Cohen has engendered from her co-workers during 18 years at the university was readily apparent. Her charisma shined through. Heck, Cohen might have been the first AD in history to claim a national championship (in women’s golf) on her first day in office.
But now comes the long, hard slog that will determine whether university president Ana Mari Cauce chose wisely when she tapped Cohen from five finalists that capped a national search.
Proponents will point to her ability to hit the ground running with a vision, a plan, and loads of institutional knowledge. Skeptics might point out that Cohen never has actually run a department, let alone one with a $100 million budget.
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Huskies football coach Chris Petersen, an avid Cohen supporter, falls in the former camp. Let’s be real here: Cohen’s No. 1 job, and the one that will inspire the most feedback, positive and negative, is to keep the football program humming, and fill up the seats at Husky Stadium again.
Do that, and the challenge of working out of a nearly $1 million budget deficit will be untangled much more easily. And it helps immensely to have a coach and AD in simpatico, as appears to be the case. When I mentioned to Petersen that Cohen’s hire might be perceived similarly to a highly regarded offensive or defensive coordinator getting their first head-coaching job, he had a ready answer.
“Being a head coach from being a coordinator is apples and oranges,’’ he said. “A lot of times, they’re missing the mark in terms of what are the true skills. Because to be a big-time coordinator is different than being a really effective head coach, in my opinion.
“What I think is, she’s been doing AD work her entire life. It’s not like she’s been the coordinator. She’s been doing it. Hey, at the end of the day, there’s going to be more decisions that are ultimately hers that she’s got to own, but she’s been doing those jobs all along in her career. I don’t think this is apples and oranges. I think this is someone that’s like, go.”
Cohen believes so, too, though she acknowledges there may be growing pains.
“What I tried to do in the interview process was just demonstrate my vision for this place, and some ideas about a plan, and my knowledge and passion for it. The committee and the president are going to decide whether you’re prepared. Everyone’s got to do it for the first time.
“I know there’s a lot to learn and I’m not going to be perfect and I’ll make mistakes. But we’re going to have a lot of people here working in the right direction, and good things are going to come.”
People who know her say that Cohen is highly competitive, which could come into play in a potential looming decision over the status of men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar. If the Huskies don’t get to the NCAA tournament next season, extending their drought to a sixth straight year, the ax might have to fall on a man who is revered around the department.
Cohen said, in a tone-perfect remark, that she’s 100 percent behind Romar “right now.” How long that “right now” carries the day will depend on the play of the basketball team. But Cohen may get her first test in the stark transition from a role in which she was everyone’s friend to one where the buck stops with her.
It’s part of that visibility aspect. All Cohen has to do in her new job is get the revenue sports to excel and fill up their stadium/arena, fully support the so-called minor sports that often give the UW program its juice on a national scale, and balance the books in a murky time when the entire landscape of college sports is in flux.
Oh, and do it cleanly and scandal-free.
Cohen said at her news conference that “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 Jennifer Cohen opens her eyes, everyone will be watching to see how she gets that done.