Jen Cohen: "I think for the first time in a long time Husky fans know that this is a sustainable model" for the football program.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of Jennifer Cohen’s hiring as the Washington Huskies athletic director. Cohen sat down with The Seattle Times recently to discuss her first year on the job, the turnaround of the football program under Chris Petersen, the early stages of Mike Hopkins’ “Operation Stop The Bleeding” and more.
Note: Coming later this week, we’ll publish a breakdown of how UW’s athletic department went from a deficit of $7.6 million in 2016 to a break-even point this year.
Times: You’ve been the AD now for one year. What’s the most significant thing you have done as a department in the past year?
Cohen: There’s a couple things that stand out. First is just the general culture of our program and our department. We really made it a priority with our leadership team coming in — we have an almost entirely new leadership team here — was to go back to the basics. What’s the foundation of this place? What does this place stand for? How are we going to behave? What are our priorities, and how are we going to hold ourselves accountable to them? It might sound kind of silly, but that stuff’s really important. We feel like alignment is everything with what we do. With 22 teams, 250 employees, 10,000 donors and the campus community — we have to be aligned. So just that general feeling of, if you work here you know you’re here to serve students. That there’s behaviors we expect out of you and we’re going to hold you accountable to that. I’m really proud of that, and I’ve been lucky to be able to bring new people into the organization that demonstrate that. We’ve already hired five new coaches (women’s gymnastics coach Elise Ray; women’s rowing coach Yasmin Farooq; men’s golf coach Alan Murray; men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins; and women’s basketball coach Jody Wynn), and it’s good to have the foundation of the kind of culture we want to have because that informs your decision on how you hire and all that, and that’s obviously an ongoing process. Now we get to take that foundation and really build a bigger vision for Husky athletics long-term.
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And secondly, our No. 1 priority that we went into this year with was to improve the financial stability of the athletic department. Every employee knows that. They get a financial update in every staff meeting. Every decision we made was built around our ability to increase revenues, manage expense and align. So to be able to go into this year with a projected deficit and cut that and operate with cash flow this year is significant. It’s not going away; we have a lot of work to do still. It will never go away. I think this is going to be a challenge we’re always going to have. So to just get everyone’s heads around it and understand that this is a big part of what we’re doing and if we do that well, then our teams will be competitive and our students will leave here better off because of it. And that’s what we have to keep fighting for.
Times: How much did the decision to dismiss Lorenzo Romar consume your first year?
Cohen: Basketball is one of our two revenue sports and it really impacts our brand and our visibility, so, yeah, I spent a lot of time on that. It was tough because there were so many emotions and so many complexities around the decision with Lorenzo that were I think in many cases pretty unique. You don’t always see it look like that at a lot of schools. If you were at some place else in the country you would look at this situation and not think it was that tough of a decision. I can tell you that because I talked to a lot of people in the industry. But we know our culture here, and there was a lot of time spent on that. It was pretty consuming. Any time you have a high-profile situation going with a sport, it tends to take a lot of your time. Thankfully, I had a lot of people here I could trust and lean on to give good counsel.
Times: Two months later, do you still feel strongly about the decision to hire Hopkins?
Cohen: Absolutely. I was just over there a couple days ago and the culture is just so positive. It’s so family-oriented, and a lot of our coaches’ families are in there, and the guys really respond to that with the interaction they have. Two things I’ve noticed from the players: One is confidence. These guys are really starting to believe in themselves because they have people around them who are going to force them to believe in themselves. When you have a season like they did and only win a couple Pac-12 games, you can’t underestimate how much deep down these kids start to doubt themselves. And so you have to instill that confidence that with this team right here, right now we can work to get better every day. And if we do that, we’ve got a shot. And you can just see it. And, second, you can see their bodies transforming. They’re working really hard in the weight room. He’s a hands-on coach; he’s right by their side. I think he’s developed a lot of trust. He had a tremendous amount of energy with them. The skill work that they’re doing right now with the individual workouts they can do, I’m hearing from the student-athletes that it’s all overwhelmingly positive. He calls it Operation Stop The Bleeding. That’s kind of what it was like initially, and it still probably will be for awhile.
Times: What have you learned about Hopkins in his first couple months?
Cohen: There haven’t been any major surprises with him. I think what we knew about him has proven to be true: high-level energy; really low ego; definitely an emotional relationship; highly competitive; works really hard. And all the things you ask when you hire a first-time head coach, how is he going to handle all that? How does he prioritize all that? How does he manage his time? All those things are things he’s learning, and those are all things we expected to see him be learning, which is part of the process.
Times: With a first-time head coach, what are some reasonable expectations for men’s basketball next season?
Cohen: To me, it’s all about that culture. It’s all about setting a dream and a vision for your program — making decisions that hold student-athletes accountable to that; recruiting kids who fit that vision; and then making sure they have a dedication for constant improvement. I don’t put any numbers on it — I never will. I’ve never done that with any of our sports here. It’s all about our ability to get better and the process, and so I expect that and I expect some consistency around decision-making about that and accountability and discipline around that.
Times: Romar, in his last few years, altered his recruiting strategy and was able to get some “one-and-done” talent with Markelle Fultz, Dejounte Murray and Marquese Chriss. Would you like to see a shift away from that, or do you have a preference either way?
Cohen: We’ve talked about it quite a bit. I’m not discouraging a coach to go away from a really talented player that’s a one-and-one, but what I am encouraging — and I know ‘Hop’ believes in this because it was part of our discussions when we were hiring him — is that you’ve got to make sure you complement that talent with enough of a bench and have a strategy so when you do bring somebody into your program like that you don’t have a drop off afterwards. So I think there is a way to do it; I think it’s very complex; I think schools are really struggling with this. But he knows he needs to have enough players that have heart and soul in this place for more than a year to be able to build a sustainable model. It’s hard for everybody; it’s not just hard for the program. It’s hard for fans to get connected. I look at Markelle and he’s such an unbelievable kid. He is a doll. And he loved being a college student. He came to all the other games and he was around. And you could never say he’s doing what he’s doing (entering the NBA draft) — of course he should. But what I would do to see Markelle and Dejounte and Marquese — what they would look like as college players and college students had they had the chance to stay. I’m not naïve; I get it. But I think you have to be really targeted and specific and you have to have a plan for your program that is so much bigger than that.
Times: You were a big Husky fan growing up in Tacoma. With the football team’s success last season, is it starting to feel a bit like it did when you were a kid — that Husky Stadium is the place to be on a fall Saturday?
Cohen: No doubt. We noticed it last season — people are wearing purple more. You go to the airport and more people are wearing Husky stuff. We were just down in Portland with Coach Pete to talk to some alums, and the place was packed. Everywhere we go with him, in particular, the place is packed. And the key for all this is, I think for the first time in a long time Husky fans know that this is a sustainable model he’s building. We’ve had moments since Coach James left to now, where we’ve had some really cool moments for Husky football. But they never felt like they were sustainable. The way he does it and how he does it is just very aligned with what Husky fans believe in and what this community is all about. So I think that gives people a lot of confidence — like, oh, I can finally embrace it. It used to be like a third down and Oregon’s got the ball and you’d cheer and they’d still get the first down. It could be like third-and-40 and they’d still get the first down! And you’re just so deflated. There was this feeling that, oh, I don’t want to let myself emotionally commit because I don’t want to get let down. I think last year got a lot of people over the hump. I’ve been around it long enough — and I’m kind of one of them — so I know what that feels like.
Times: From your vantage point, what is it about Petersen’s approach that makes this a sustainable model?
Cohen: He’s obviously and incredibly talented coach and he’s got a really good teachers and coaches on this staff. He had a specific philosophy for his expectations for how you coach kids, how you connect with them emotionally, how you teach and train them, how you have fun with it. And he’s very clear on that, and that impacts then the coaches’ ability to teach and develop trust with players. So when you have the ability to get the best out of the kids, you’re always going to have some success. I think the thing about Chris is he’s really different. And his difference is what makes him really special. And he gets to be different here, and it resonates. He gets to live Built for Life every day and not have people not get it. We’re building our whole athletic department the same way — that is our ultimate goal, to get kids ready for life after college. We fail kids if we don’t. And that doesn’t resonate everywhere. He could still win some place else, but he probably wouldn’t have as much fun doing it if people don’t embrace that. His approach to how he does it, it’s not what other kids hear. It’s not what they hear when they’re being recruited; it’s not what they see when they get to other schools, and you have to differentiate yourself from everybody else. And he’s different.
Times: After winning the Pac-12 and getting to the College Football Playoff, has the bar been raised for the program in your eyes?
Cohen: I look at it kind of like he does. One, it didn’t take him very long to build the culture here and to get the results he’s looking for. But I also know how hard it is, and what a grind this thing is and that you can’t anything for granted. It is so much about the work every day and you cannot get caught up in the outcomes. It doesn’t matter who you talk to in this department, you will rarely hear us say, ‘We’re going to win this.’ The biggest thing I’ve learned in this job is you can’t be here (raises her hand above her head) and you can’t be here (lowers her hand to the table). You have to be in the middle, which is no different than any of our coaches. They have to learn to do that too, and that’s how I’ve responded to football’s success. It’s awesome and this how it should be — this is Washington and we expect to perform at a high level. But there’s no different expectations. If anything, don’t start compromising who you are to start trying to get to a certain place that everybody else expects you to be at. So we’ve really stayed focused internally about who we are and we just take it day by day.
Times: Any update on the scheduled home-and-home with Michigan for 2020 and 2021? There have been some rumblings that Michigan wanted to back out of that?
Cohen: I haven’t heard anything. We’re moving forward and planning to play Michigan in 2020. I haven’t heard anything otherwise from them.
Times: UW’s 10-year contract with Nike expires in 2019. Where do things stand with that?
Cohen: Nike has first right of refusal, so it’s kind of based on their timeline first and what they’re thinking and where they are. We’re hoping to hear something from Nike in the next six months and see where things stand from there. Nike’s been a great partner and they’ve been with our coaches and our programs. We’ll just have to see where they are and where their commitment is to us. But I’m always going to be open minded to partnerships that are aligned with the values and the best interest of Husky athletics. That’s my job, to make sure that we do that. The more information the more I’ll know where we stand on this deal. Washington is a strong brand with the success we’ve had with Husky football — and will continue to have. We have 22 sports that are kicking butt right now; our programs are extremely successful and we’ve got a great market and an incredible city and an unbelievable fanbase. So I think we’re in a good position and are a valuable school to be working with.
Times: What was your reaction to Bob Rondeau’s retirement announcement? And how involved will you be in finding his replacement?
Cohen: Oh, how do you replace Bob Rondeau? I feel sorry for the next guy. We will be very involved. The voice of the Huskies is one of the biggest brand pieces we have. We kind of knew Bob was inching closer to this, but I think I’m still in denial. He’s all I’ve ever known. It’s going to be really hard to find someone who’s good at both football and basketball, and I think a lot of people don’t recognize is the grind it takes for him. It’s not just that he’s so good at it; the preparation it takes for him to do what he’s done for both sports, the amount of time he’s put in. So we’re really excited to honor him and tip our cap to him this season. Our marketing team is coming up with some ideas. This fall we’re going to have two really big ways to celebrate some of the history of Husky football: One is how we send off Bob throughout the season. And the other is to finally install and celebrate the statue of Coach James. We’re still working on the game day, but that will happen during the Pac-12 season this year. We’re excited about that. The statue is actually being sculpted right now. It’s going to be really cool.”