The Washington athletic director showed guts in firing basketball coach Lorenzo Romar and orchestrated a quick turnabout in her department’s finances. With this new apparel deal, the Huskies could be on firm ground for the next decade.
She arrived in the job with an impeccable reputation but the inevitable question: How would an 18-year underling handle the responsibilities, pressure and complexity of being Top Dawg in Washington’s athletic department?
Well, just shy of two years into her ascension to the athletic director’s position at UW, Jennifer Cohen has provided an emphatic answer. Brilliantly.
The Huskies program right now isn’t just humming, it has been Pavarotti singing arias. And the latest masterwork, soaring to the top of Cohen’s greatest hits, is the apparel deal announced Tuesday that thrusts the Huskies among the heavyweights in college athletics in this important realm.
The Huskies will earn $119 million over 10 years from Adidas. That nearly quadruples the $3.5 million in products and cash they had been receiving from Nike. As detailed by Adam Jude, the influx includes $5.275 million annually in cash, $5.58 million annually in product, and $1.1 million annually for marketing. That’s in addition to hefty bonuses for success nationally by the football and basketball programs.
That puts the Huskies fifth in the nation (per year) for apparel deals and second in the Pac-12 behind the whopper UCLA signed with Under Armour. And it gives them a partner in Adidas that has far fewer college clients than powerhouse Nike — about a dozen, compared with more than 50 — and thus would seem motivated to cater to their whims. The fact Nike, so closely associated with archrival Oregon, is now out of the equation is the piece de resistance to many Husky fans.
Yes, there is something inherently distasteful about a shoe and clothing company wielding such power. But that’s the landscape in college athletics, and you have to play along or get left in the dust. Much like the Huskies realized that they needed to upgrade their facilities and amenities to keep up with the opulent Oregons of the world, and thus completed the $282 million renovation of Husky Stadium in 2013 (a project that was spearheaded by Cohen’s fundraising).
Yes, it would be nice to see some of these huge cash windfalls trickle down to the players, and I remain convinced that someday the NCAA will have no choice but to figure out some way to pay the athletes that are the driving force behind the massive revenue streams. That day is not here yet, so it will have to suffice that deals like this will help keep the so-called nonrevenue sports, such a critical part of the fabric at UW, afloat.
And yes, there is more than a little bit of trepidation in seeing Washington hitch its wagon to the company currently embroiled in college basketball’s bribery scandal.
In fact, on Tuesday, the very same day this apparel deal was announced to great fanfare by UW, a federal indictment was released in New York alleging that Adidas officials paid parents of athletes willing to commit to Kansas and North Carolina State. An Adidas executive and two Adidas consultants are facing federal bribery charges.
The Huskies believe they are covered by a “mutual ethics clause” that gives either side a chance to revisit the terms at any time. That topic will no doubt come up on Thursday when the UW Board of Regents meets to approve the terms of this deal. I’ll be interested to hear how Cohen justifies doing business with Adidas while the company is under siege.
Yes, it could come back to bite them, but it also shows, once again, that Cohen has the requisite guts to go with her guile. She had to have known that dealing with Adidas now would raise some eyebrows, but also that it would achieve the ultimate goal of thrusting the Huskies forward in the revenue that is lifeblood to athletic departments.
She showed similar guts last year in making the tough decision to fire men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar, a Husky icon (albeit one with a rapidly declining program) and paying him $3.2 million in buyouts. And then hiring a virtual unknown (except among hard-core hoop aficionados) in Mike Hopkins, which has turned out to be a home-run hire.
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Remember also that Cohen was instrumental in luring Chris Petersen to Washington, and has developed a close working relationship with the coach that put UW back into national football prominence. It’s conceivable Cohen, who is a Husky through and through since her childhood in Tacoma, and Petersen, who covets stability and doesn’t seem burdened by wanderlust, could retire in their current positions. That kind of stability is how you sustain winning football programs.
Cohen’s most vexing issue upon being hired in May of 2016 was the projected $15 million department deficit she inherited. Putting into action her three-year financial-stability plan that went a long way toward convincing university president Ana Mari Cauce to change Cohen’s designation from interim to permanent over 20 initial candidates following the departure of Scott Woodward, the Huskies are now projecting a $1.4 million surplus for the 2018 fiscal year.
That’s a huge achievement, and this apparel deal helps set them up for financial stability for the next decade, at least.
On the day Cohen was hired, I wrote about the huge challenges facing her. “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.”
The skeptics are rapidly running out of material.