Editor’s note: this is the fifth and final part of a series on the coronavirus’ effect on college football in the state of Washington, featuring interviews with University of Washington athletic director Jen Cohen and Washington State athletic director Pat Chun.
This is not a Husky story or a Cougar story. It’s not a coronavirus story. It’s not an Apple Cup story.
It’s a family story and a friendship story.
Wrapped in a rabid rivalry.
On Nov. 22, 2018 — the day before one of the most memorable Apple Cups in the series’ storied history — Washington State athletic director Pat Chun hosted University of Washington athletic director Jen Cohen, as well as her family and friends, for Thanksgiving dinner in Pullman. Chun tweeted, “Happy Thanksgiving!! Figured if … Native Americans & Pilgrims could spend time together … so could Cougs and Dawgs.”
“My youngest son is a very competitive person,” Cohen explained in a phone interview last week. “He was like, ‘I don’t want to go there! Why are we going there? They’re the enemy!’ I’m like, ‘Dylan, just be nice.’ (Chun) has three daughters and I only have sons, so I bring really nice gifts to his daughters all the time. We send like (UW) slippers and toenail polish. I’ve tried to bribe his daughters from the very beginning. They’re just absolutely darling.
“We have a great relationship … until we play each other.”
Of course, when the rivalry resumed, No. 16 UW defeated No. 7 WSU 28-15 to secure its spot in the Pac-12 title game. Husky senior Myles Gaskin scampered for 170 yards and three touchdowns in an unrelenting snowstorm. Coug quarterback Gardner Minshew’s mighty mustache was limited to 152 passing yards and a pair of interceptions. WSU’s Rose Bowl hopes were unceremoniously smothered in the snow.
Still, the relationship between Chun and Cohen has survived rivalry wins and losses (as well as the occasional slipper bribe). It has survived Chun attempting to recruit Cohen’s oldest son Tyson to the other side of the state. (He applied to WSU but decided to attend the College of Charleston instead.)
This week they’re serving as co-keynote speakers in a webinar attended by roughly 500 athletic administrators. The presentation’s working title, Cohen said, is unsurprisingly “Apples to Apples.”
And, amid a global pandemic, their partnership may be more important now than ever.
“Pat and I have a really fun relationship to begin with,” Cohen said. “His family has been very welcoming to me and my family. We already respected and cared about each other and our universities a lot before this (COVID-19 outbreak) happened. But because we are in the same state it’s really important that we support each other and each other’s schools and our student-athletes. So we share a lot of information — what I’m hearing, what he’s hearing, strategies for how we can make decisions that make sense for both schools in partnership because we’re in the same state.
“He’s just a great person. He’s a very optimistic person, too. He’s very bright. He’s very well-connected. So he’s been a great resource for me.”
Added Chun: “I talk to Jen Cohen frequently. I’d argue Jen’s one of the most respected ADs in our conference. Obviously she has a better understanding of this state and how higher ed works in our state. So she’s someone that I have a great amount of respect for. I trust her opinion. She’s someone I always lean on for a lot of advice.”
They lean on each other.
And, when Cohen needs another sounding board, she leans on the invaluable perspective of Chris Petersen, too.
“He’s the best. I talk to him at least once a week, sometimes more,” Cohen said of UW’s former football coach. “He sends me a lot of articles, too, and we just talk and trade notes. He tells me what he’s hearing. I tell him what I’m hearing. He’s just a really incredible sounding board for me in particular, because he’s led at a really high level and in visible ways and he’s so principled and we have such a value alignment on so many things.
“We kind of laugh about his vision. I’m like, ‘Did you know this thing was coming?! How did you get out of this thing?’ But yeah, (there are) a lot of conversations with him, and he cares deeply about our success still and our students and college football. He really does.”
Few care more deeply than Cohen, a Tacoma native who has worked at UW in some capacity since 1998. The 51-year-old administrator feels responsible for the future of UW’s athletic department, even in the most uncertain offseason in college football history. She said that “I’m a human being and I carry that 20 years (working) here, and I grew up here. So I feel like this program is so important to so many people. It’s hard to not personalize it, right? There have been times where it just felt like a roller coaster, because sometimes it feels like the information we have at the University of Washington is a week ahead of what my peers are thinking or my colleagues at other schools. I think we try to find the little wins.”
For Cohen, the little wins include a consistent daily routine. She spends time with her husband, her kids and her Red Fox Labrador, Big Red. She meditates every morning. She walks. She journals. She writes down daily affirmations; she writes about the people and the things she’s thankful for.
The Apple Cup athletic directors remain thankful for each other — at least, until the next time the rivalry resumes.
“I’m sure Jen will agree with this, that in terms of Washington and Washington State, both universities and both presidents, both athletics directors, we communicate often,” Chun said. “We lean on each other. We’re in this together. We’re fortunate to have partners on the other side of the state that are all in the same boat.
“We want to do what’s best for higher education in the state of Washington, for the students that come to our campuses. We’re wired in a way that, hey, we want to do what’s best for them.”