The second-year athletic director said she felt bad for players and staff after the Huskies’ first loss of the season, was “extremely disappointed” in ESPN’s broadcast of their win over Cal the previous week and is “super empathetic” with fans who don’t like late kickoff times.
If you took Saturday’s loss to Arizona State hard as a Husky fan, imagine how Jen Cohen felt as that ghoulish game unfolded in the desert.
Washington’s second-year athletic director wandered around the stadium, as she is prone to do. She calls herself “a nightmare” during games, particularly ones not going so well. Cohen found herself, at various times, on the Sun Devil Stadium field, in her suite and visiting with donors, unable to stay put as the upset unfolded.
“I just love those kids so much,” Cohen said Monday during a wide-ranging interview. “They’re like my own. I know them in a different perspective than a fan and alums do. And I’m just blown away by (coach) Chris (Petersen) and who he is, what he means to this place, what he’s done for me personally and developed me as a leader, too. How it’s completely impacted and transformed the culture of this whole athletic department. So it’s extremely personal.”
Cohen found herself fighting to curb her emotions, and not for the first time in recent weeks. And not, she says, because of what the defeat meant for Washington’s business model, but for the personal toll she knew it would take on players and staff. So she worked to maintain an even keel.
“I have a pretty fiery personality,” she said. “It’s something I’m working on. When I first got this job, Chris actually told me, ‘When you’re a leader at this level you’ve got to learn how to manage your passion and use it in a really productive way.’ ”
A week earlier, Cohen had to ponder those words to summon restraint in a similar fashion. During the course of Washington’s rout of Cal, she began getting text messages expressing indignation about ESPN’s broadcast, and the broadsides they were taking at Petersen and the Huskies. When she got home and watched for herself, Cohen had to bite her lip to keep from saying something she would regret.
“That’s not what a leader does when they’re representing a university as classy as this university is,” she said.
A week later, Cohen allowed that she was “extremely disappointed” in the tone of the broadcast and seemed particularly irked at the use of cupcakes to depict Washington’s nonconference opponents.
“I felt more like that was such a disrespectful move for the people we play,” she said. “For those that do this, we do this because we love the kids. These are somebody’s sons, somebody’s brothers. They’re 18- to 22-year-old kids, and so I was more offended, not for us, as I was for our opponents.”
The good news, Cohen says, is that she got a phone call last week from Peter Derzis, ESPN’s senior vice president of college sports programming and events (and a former college associate athletic director), offering an apology, as well as assurance that it had been dealt with and wouldn’t happen again.
“It was a class act, and he made the right call,” she said. “I think Chris and I feel like it’s time to move on.”
Moments before I met with Cohen, the Pac-12 sent out word that UW’s home game with UCLA on Oct. 28 would start at 12:30 p.m. — an announcement, she said, that caused impromptu applause to ripple through the athletic-department offices.
Cohen said she is “super empathetic” with Husky fans who don’t like the late starts — a group that includes her father — but she also recognizes that the Pac-12 television deal has led to greater revenue and increased exposure, as it was intended to do. The bottom line is that there’s really nothing that can be done until the contract expires, so there’s really no avenue to assuage the complaints.
“I’m a leader that’s about making change in places that we can make change,” she said. “And at this point in time, there’s not a lot of influence we have at the school level to create that change. And quite frankly, there isn’t a simple answer to fix it to begin with.
“So what I tell our staff and our fans is that we’re never going to stop listening to what our fans have to say. Our fans, our donors, are twice as much of a revenue (stream) as a television contract. So we don’t want them to feel secondary to TV. But we also have to continue to have robust contracts, not just from a revenue standpoint but because we need to be on TV.”
It’s a complex, interlocking puzzle, made even more complicated by the mercurial nature of the college football landscape. It’s changing “at paces that never have happened in our lifetime. It’s changing in a way that I don’t know how much any of us can predict.”
That makes it hard to forecast what the next television contract might bring for the Pac-12. In fact, Cohen said, the only thing as complicated as navigating television deals is scheduling, which has to be done years in advance. That can lead to unexpected consequences.
Case in point: The Huskies scheduled Rutgers when they were a rising national team, only to have them fall to also-ran status by the time they played their series in 2016-17, thus buttressing the “cupcake” narrative. And Wisconsin backed out of a series that was originally scheduled for 2017-18, then backed out again after it was changed to 2018 and 2021.
“I don’t take any of the scheduling (criticism) defensively, because there’s a huge portion of scheduling that’s all about luck,” she said. “It’s kind of a guessing game when you schedule, and sometimes you get lucky. I think we have shown a little bit more of an aggressiveness in our scheduling in the last 12 to 18 months, adding Auburn (next year), adding Ohio State (a home-and-home series in 2024-25).”
Cohen added that the discussion on the flight to Phoenix for the Arizona State game was about the need to get more Power-5 series done right now to bolster the schedule down the road.
UW has a series scheduled with Michigan in 2020 and 2021, though there have been rumblings that the Wolverines would like to get out of that commitment.
“As far as I know, we’re planning on playing Michigan, and I think it would be just a huge disservice to both programs, their fans, their student-athletes, their alumni bases, to take two storied programs that have had a commitment for a long time that are both battling in high standings within college football, and cancel that series,” she said. “So we’re expecting to play it.
“When Scott (Woodward, Cohen’s predecessor) was here, there were some conversations, I think, with Michigan, about Michigan’s desire to potentially not play that game. I have not heard from their athletic director. I think he’s an amazing guy. I respect him a lot, and I’m fully expecting that we’re playing that series.”
One challenge facing the Huskies in scheduling is that many schools they contact aren’t interested in coming to Seattle, where they might not be recruiting or have an alumni base.
“It has been challenging to always get every opponent that we want to get here, because not everybody sees the value in coming to Seattle,” Cohen said. “That part of the story doesn’t get told: About who we’ve called to try to schedule who’s said no to us.”
Regardless of the debate over the strength of the Huskies’ schedule, Cohen believes if “you take care of business in this conference, you’re still going to have a shot to always be part of the national conversation. And that’s where our focus is.”
It’s too early to tell, Cohen said, if the Arizona State loss will cost the Huskies a berth in the College Football Playoff. Channeling Petersen, she said everyone at UW is focused on beating UCLA, not on the debate over whether a one-loss Husky team is toast.
“Chris Petersen is the best of the best at getting the most of his players and getting them ready,” she said. “We’re process people here. You lose a game like that, it was so frustrating, it was so hard to watch, and yet, here we are, the sun came up the next day, and we’re ready to compete again.
“That’s what competition is. You learn from it, and you move on. Sometimes that costs you, and sometimes you still have a shot. You don’t know, so all you can do is just compete. And so we don’t do a lot of reading of speculation about all that stuff, because it’s speculation and we focus on the work, and the work takes care of itself, or it doesn’t.”