Just as there are hot coaches, so are there hot athletic directors. Jon Wilner chatted with the University of Washington's AD on a hot streak, Jen Cohen, about her management style, the Husky culture and more.
Just as there are hot coaches, so are there hot athletic directors. In two years on the job, Washington’s Jen Cohen has produced a sizzling string of successes:
- Of her five coaching hires, three were named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in their first season: Mike Hopkins (men’s basketball), Yasmin Farooq (women’s rowing) and Elise Ray-Statz (gymnastics).
- In the 2017-18 sports season, football reached the Fiesta Bowl and earned the highest APR score in the Pac-12, baseball made the College World Series for the first time, softball reached the WCWS final, and both rowing teams were national runners-up.
- That $15 million deficit? Gone.
- Oh, and Cohen steered UW away from longtime partner Nike and into one of the most lucrative apparel contracts in college sports history: The recently-announced $119 million deal with Adidas.
The Hotline chatted with Cohen earlier this spring about her management style, the Husky culture, Petersen, Hopkins, her hiring matrix and more.
Pac-12 Hotline: When it comes to hiring a head coach, do you draw on a particular model? What’s the calculation when deciding between candidates A, B and C?
Jen Cohen: The first thing is that we believe we exist to develop kids, that we’re in the people development business. We go back to that every day, so I look for coaches and staff that share that passion. But that one thing, in and of itself, isn’t enough.
You have to define the profile. A lot of times, we get caught up in the noise and the sexiness of all the other things that might be interesting about a hire. What’s most important is to know the person you’re looking for: Everything from their experiences to their interest in your school as a destination and also to the value alignment.
We’ve been able to do five head coaching hires, and the matrix always goes back to the same things: That they’re service-oriented; that they’re humble — look at (Petersen), look at (Hopkins); that they have a growth mindset, because you have to be hungry; and that they’re gritty.
People laugh when I say (Seattle) is kind of a blue-collar town, but that’s kind of the roots of it all. Even though it has evolved and is one of the most educated cities in the country, all that gets combined with, ‘I’m going to roll up my sleeves, I’m going to out-work you, out-think you and be tougher than you.’ So there has to be a toughness and a grittiness to the people we hire.
There’s also that instinctual, gut feeling. You’re always rolling the dice. People will tell you that they know for sure (about a hire), but it isn’t like that.
But if you roll the dice with those values in mind, values that are true to you and your school and not somebody else, and if the people feel like they’re partnering with you, that gives you the best shot at being successful. And that’s really all you can control.
The humility is one trait that’s easy to spot in the matrix, considering the nature of your two highest-profile coaches.
That gets to our constituents: It’s not an athletic department value; it’s an entire region’s core value. We’re not trying to create a Husky athletic entity that’s so different, and we’re not trying to be aspirational in ways that don’t make sense. We’re trying to be aspirational in ways that are true to a place that’s much bigger than us.
We recognize this is one of the best universities in the world, that we’re a sliver of an amazing operation, and we need to know where we fit into that.
People that have that mindset — that are understated but overachieve — those are the types that do really well at UW.
At what point in the hiring process did it hit you that Hopkins was the guy?
(Laughing) I shouldn’t say this because it will come off bad, but it was love at first sight; it was a connection.
I was really intrigued by him. I had been doing my homework all year, basically preparing for two scenarios: Keeping Lorenzo (Romar), and at the same time thinking about the profile and studying who was out there.
He was intriguing to me, but I didn’t understand why he would leave (Syracuse). I had a conversation with him and flew out and met him, and he did pushups in the middle of the interview.
He did pushups during the interview?
He was excited, and we talked about a lot of ways to improve the program, and he was hungry, and hungry people are huge for our culture.
He was so hungry for the opportunity that he was talking emotionally about it, so he dropped down and did the pushups. He does this sometimes, apparently.
What role does Petersen play in setting the tone for the department?
We don’t talk about culture; we work on it. People say, ‘What do you do as an AD?’ I’m a culture manager: Every day, my job is to manage the culture of the place and people and our actions.
And it’s hard to create a high-performing culture that’s built on the values I described if you have a very visible person or program that doesn’t live those values. It doesn’t work.
Chris actually inspired the culture within our department. He has taught me a lot about leadership. I was the sport administrator for football and got to be on the ground level with him and got to watch it, and I emulated a lot of the things I learned from him throughout the department. It’s huge.
And when (Hopkins) came on board, Chris cared about Hop’s success and that was an appealing thing for Hop.
You always wonder, ‘Can you get basketball and football together? Can you win championships in both?’ I think we can, but you have to have the right low-ego people together.
Once you get them, though, you have to keep ‘em.
Keeping the talent that creates the culture is what keeps me up at night. I worry about that all the time. December, for football, you don’t sleep.
But it starts with having an open and supportive relationship with your coaches. I’m clear in my role: I work for them. Our job as a department is to remove every obstacle in their way and create the opportunities for them to reach all their dreams and goals — for them, for the kids and for the university.
Each coach is different. Chris has own style. I know what’s important to him and what’s not important to him, and we prioritize accordingly. That means having an ongoing dialogue, conversations about short- and long-term goals. It’s showing a continuous commitment … to make their lives easier and better, and we have to get creative around that.
It’s also not offering things that don’t matter to them. You have to know what they care about … and then not offer things that don’t matter.
That’s why financial stability is so important. We aren’t an over-the-top, bells-and-whistles place. We have a lot of substance in a way that you don’t need all of that, but you need some of it. So we have to keep investing in coaches and facilities and staff and obviously the student-athlete experience.”
So when Petersen comes to you and says, ‘We have to keep (assistant) Jimmy Lake,’ how do the two of you handle that?
We always have conversations around where we need to invest in football. It’s such an ongoing thing that, while it might not have ended up at exactly the salary I thought originally” (laughs) “that we knew it was coming.
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We’re always talking about where the market is going and what’s the strategy. I try to plan in the budget for increases in salary for football and basketball to offset the shock when it happens. That’s why fundraising is so important. It has helped us absorb the growth in football. And rightfully so, because we have to invest there.
We’re not going to compete against the SEC. Everybody in the department knows that. If it’s just about (money), you might as well just go.
But there are tradeoffs in every environment, and there’s a value that’s not just salary that’s part of the tradeoff. And we try to weigh that and make ourselves stand out.
And your hiring matrix would naturally lead you to someone who’s not all about the money?
Yep, that’s all part of it.
What are your priorities on the facility front?
We have some opportunities that we need to start to tackle. Our basketball playing environment is incredible, but we don’t have a basketball-only practice facility.
We need to build a practice facility for men’s and women’s basketball and likely tie that with a renovation of our performance center. We’d love to have strength-and-conditioning, wellness, training and nutrition — for the sports other than football — all in one place and tie that to the basketball facility.
The next step is what kind of philanthropic campaign should we have? We can’t borrow, so what should we do to get cash in hand?
In the next five years, that will be the most important capital project for Husky athletics.