Jen Cohen’s job has never been more hectic.
In the past 12 months, UW’s athletic director has encountered the catastrophic effects of an ongoing pandemic, an unexpected economic downturn, a social justice movement, widespread cancellations, a truncated Pac-12 football season, a pair of underachieving basketball programs, staff departures, layoffs and the increasingly crucial search for the conference’s next commissioner.
In a phone interview Friday, The Times attempted to ask about it all.
Here’s the first of a two-part Q&A with the Husky athletics leader.
What does the Pac-12 need in its next commissioner?
“I think there’s a few things. I think this is a great time for change, because one, the landscape of college athletics is going to continue to change. We have a lot of monumental things coming our way. So I’m looking for a leader that understands the complexity of some of those issues we’re going to be tackling and has a vision around it. I think (the next Pac-12 commissioner needs) an understanding and a passion for the development of kids and how higher education and college sports intersect. Equally important is someone who wants to win — a competitor who is going to work on behalf of all of our 12 schools. That being said though, I think there’s too much focus always spent on one person. The strength of our conference is going to be all 12 of our institutions and our students and our coaches and our fans and our communities. This league is about that. It’s not about one person.”
Well, I’m still going to ask you about one person though. I’ve heard your name pop up regarding the Pac-12 commissioner job. Have you been approached about it and would you be interested in that job?
“I have not been approached, and my focus is 100% on the University of Washington. As you know, this has been … challenging would be an understatement of what the last 12 months have been like for our student-athletes and coaches and teams. We have a lot of momentum to rebuild, dating back to the pandemic and a variety of circumstances around that. So my energy, my heart, is here at UW.”
On that same subject, how would you evaluate the current state of UW athletics?
“One, we’re doing what we were always supposed to be doing, which is serving our students. It’s just been such a change for all of us, because when you don’t have a full football season it’s hard to evaluate everything. Obviously in basketball, I love our kids, I feel for them and I think we would all agree that we’re not competing at the level that we expect and want to be. Every one of our other sports (excluding football) is starting competition now, so we almost have all these teams competing in nontraditional times. We want to win at everything and we’re so competitive, but at the end of the day the athletic department exists to develop students, and we’re doing a hell of a job at that.
“We’ve kept all of our sports. We have a model to allow for all of our sports to train. We have student-athletes that achieved unbelievable academic success in the fall. We’re going to be able to fulfill all of our commitments to all of our other teams this spring. We’ve learned a lot in the pandemic that will help us be prepared for spring football. So as hard as it’s been to not be able to be with the kids or be with fans, every time I talk to a student-athlete I’m reminded that we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing, which is serving them.”
From a football standpoint, there’s been staff changes with defensive coordinator Pete Kwiatkowski’s departure and Bob Gregory and Rip Rowan’s promotions. Jimmy Lake has talked about his philosophy about rewarding staff members with promotions, but was money or budgetary limitations a factor at all in that hiring process?
“Absolutely not. Football is the engine that’s going to actually give us the ability to come out of this pandemic and stabilize. So we’ve always been invested in football salaries. At one point in time we were top five in assistant coaching pool salaries. Those numbers went down not because we wanted them to, but because of Jimmy becoming the head coach. Those (salary pool numbers) were lowered. But Jimmy knows. He’s heard from me directly. We met again today on a number of topics. And as challenging as the financials are, we have to invest in football, and I don’t see limitations there. I do think there are definitely some schools that even 10 years ago, five years ago, it’s always hard to compete with them just with the (level of financial investment) in general. But we’ve always been in the range and we will be. There’s no limitations there.”
On a similar note, considering the revenue disparities between the Pac-12 and other conferences, do you believe Jimmy Lake and UW football has the budgetary resources to compete on a national championship level?
“I do. We have a history … we’ve had several schools within our conference that have had a history of success. In football, you can probably point to us, USC and Oregon as the three schools who have been up there. USC went on that long stretch for a long period of time when coach (Pete) Carroll was there. So I do. I think we need to win the games when they matter the most. We all watched Alabama. They were a machine. I think the system is set up to perpetuate that a little bit, with the way the (College Football Playoff) works. I do think that, when it comes to recruiting and other things, I’d like to see (CFP) expansion, because I’d just like to see the opportunity for (all Power Five) conference champions to have a chance for a national championship. If you look back and study even the success we’ve had at the University of Washington for long periods of time, coach Pete (Chris Petersen) had us in three New Year’s Six bowls back-to-back-to-back, and there was almost a sentiment like it wasn’t good enough based on the past. Yet you study our time when I grew up going to games, and we had our Rose Bowl and our national championship in 1991. But if you look at how many other years where we had awesome teams and we were going to Rose Bowls and it was so incredible, we had so much (national) respect. But how many of those years were we in the top four? Not that many.
“So I just think that the system doesn’t work. It has worked for a while, but I’d love to see (CFP) expansion. I’d love to see more equitable scheduling. I just think (we need to look at) all those things that play into giving teams a chance and diversifying, so you can have a shot. That impacts how you schedule, how your fans feel about your games, and it impacts recruiting.”
Back in September you presented a budget projection that included a goal of an additional $15 million in fundraising via the Huskies All In campaign. How have those efforts gone and do you have an updated projection of what the deficit will be in FY21?
“One, our donors have been fantastic and that’s not a surprise, because Tyee (donor) support at the UW has been strong since the ‘70s. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve been able to have a competitive football program and competitive sports. The overall goal in our budget this year for fundraising is $32 million, and we have about $11 million to go. A higher percentage of that $11 million though is actually tied with donations for next football season. So we’re plugging away on the philanthropy piece of this thing. If we don’t reach our goal, it would only be if there were issues with being able to have fans in the stands next fall. It’s going great.
“There’s nuances to our budget that can get a little bit confusing, but the original projection was about a $30 million deficit with those aggressive fundraising goals. But we also had debt deferral for a year (on the $14.3 million annual loan that paid for the Husky Stadium renovation). So we’re projecting a deficit somewhere between $17-20 million that we’ll be covering through our reserves. But it would have been higher had we not had a year of deferral on our debt.”
Coming Saturday online and in Monday’s paper: the second part of The Times’ Q&A with UW athletic director Jen Cohen.