Washington athletic director Jen Cohen (left) poses for a photo with Kalen DeBoer during a news conference to introduce DeBoer as the new head football coach on Nov. 30, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington athletic director Jen Cohen (left) poses for a photo with Kalen DeBoer during a news conference to introduce DeBoer as the new head football coach on Nov. 30, 2021, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

UW AD Jen Cohen leaves for same job at USC

After 25 years at Washington, Cohen will take over the AD job at Southern Cal vacated by the resignation of Mike Bohn.

By Mike Vorel / The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — On May 24, 2016, Jen Cohen was introduced as the University of Washington’s 15th athletic director during a news conference inside Husky Stadium. The Tacoma product donned a purple dress and sat to the left of university president Ana Mari Cauce, calling the occasion “a dream come true for me.”

“This is truly an amazing experience,” Cohen explained. “I think so many of you know that I grew up a Husky fan. I fell in love with the University of Washington right here in this stadium. I spent a lot of Saturdays here. My dad’s first set of season tickets were in the ‘family fun zone,’ which was located in the west end, which is below where we are today. My favorite tradition on game day was going down to the tunnel and barking at the opponent.”

Like, say, USC.

More than seven years later, Cohen is leaving to accept the vacant athletic director opening at USC, the school announced Monday afternoon.

Cohen was at Washington for 25 years in a variety of roles, and also serves on the College Football Playoff committee. Erin O’Connell — previously UW’s deputy athletic director and senior woman administrator — will serve as the Huskies’ interim athletic director.

Meanwhile, a national search for Cohen’s permanent replacement will soon be underway.

“I’ve worked in college athletics and higher education for the last three decades, and there is no place that has afforded me more opportunity than the University of Washington,” Cohen said at a news conference Monday, sporting a bright red jacket and a USC pin. “I want to take a moment to thank president (Ana Mari) Cauce at UW for, one, believing in me and developing me, caring about me and caring about our student-athletes.

“I loved all of our coaches. I wish them the best — our coaches, our staff, our student-athletes, our fans, our alums. Twenty-five years in college sports … all of the coaches and administrators that are here, you know that’s a long run to be able to do that and make so many memories and create so many special accomplishments together.

“So UW is always going to have a very special place in my heart … except for any time they play the Trojans.”

In Los Angeles, Cohen fills the void left by Mike Bohn, who resigned as USC’s athletic director in May amid an internal athletic department review that uncovered concerns about his behavior.

UW and USC (as well as fellow Pac-12 members Oregon and UCLA) are set to depart for the Big Ten Conference in 2024.

Cohen will oversee that transition … in Los Angeles, not Seattle.

“One of the reasons why we felt so bullish about joining the Big Ten and competing against schools with sold-out stadiums and great brands is that we see Washington in the same light,” Cohen said after the Big Ten move was announced on Aug. 5. “We knew when we made that decision that Husky Nation is going to rally around us and be part of continuing to evolve and grow and elevate this athletic department at the highest level.”

Sixteen days later, Cohen is leaving — and that athletic department has a hole to fill.

But when asked Monday about the balancing act between deciding UW’s athletic future while plotting a separate future at USC, Cohen said: “I know we’re not going to get into specifics here, but I can tell you, when I was focused on getting Washington in the Big Ten, I was 100% focused on getting Washington in the Big Ten.”

Indeed, Cohen and Washington will both be in the Big Ten in 2024.

But not on even footing.

According to a source within the athletic department, UW will receive a partial share of Big Ten media rights revenue — stemming from its deal with FOX, NBC and CBS — worth $30 million in Year 1 and an additional $1 million each year through the contract’s conclusion in June 2030. (The school can borrow up to $10 million per year against future earnings as well, to cover added travel costs and other expenses.)

USC, meanwhile, will receive a full media rights revenue share.

“Leading USC Athletics is not just an opportunity of a lifetime. It’s a responsibility of a lifetime,” Cohen said Monday. “I will lead with integrity and with character and with heart.”

Regarding leadership, Cohen’s notable UW coaching hires include Kalen DeBoer and Jimmy Lake (football), Mike Hopkins (men’s basketball), Tina Langley and Jody Wynn (women’s basketball), Jason Kelly (baseball), Jen Llewellyn (gymnastics), Derek Olson (beach volleyball), Nicole Van Dyke (women’s soccer), Alan Murray (men’s golf), Yasmin Farooq (women’s rowing), and Maurica and Andy Powell (cross country/track and field).

Of course, that group contains both competitive hits and misses. DeBoer produced an impressive 11-2 record in his first season in Seattle … though his predecessor, Jimmy Lake, was fired after just 13 games. Hopkins, too, was named Pac-12 Coach of the Year in both 2017 and 2018 … but is just 53-69 in four seasons since. Wynn was fired in 2021 after compiling a 31-60 record in three seasons at the helm.

During Cohen’s tenure, UW has enjoyed significant success in football (CFP appearance in 2016, Pac-12 titles in 2016 and 2018), men’s basketball (Pac-12 title in 2018), women’s basketball (Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2016), men’s soccer (NCAA runner-up in 2021), volleyball (Pac-12 championships in 2020 and 2021), rowing (women’s NCAA titles in 2017 and 2019, men’s NCAA title in 2021), softball (four Women’s College World Series appearances), baseball (College World Series appearance in 2018) and track and field (men’s Pac-12 title in 2023).

Cohen was born in Arcadia, Calif., 24 miles northeast of USC’s campus, though she spent much of her childhood in Tacoma and graduated from Curtis High. She earned a bachelor’s degree from San Diego State in 1991 and added a master’s in physical education, with an emphasis in sports administration, from Pacific Lutheran University in 1994.

Eighteen years prior to her promotion to athletic director, Cohen joined UW’s athletic department as an assistant director of development in 1998. She later served a fundraising role with the university’s central development office and the university’s regional gifts program, before returning to the athletic department to oversee its major gifts program.

Now, in some ways, Cohen is headed home.

Where does that leave Washington?

“We’re grateful to Jennifer Cohen for her 25 years of outstanding service to the University of Washington, including the last seven years as the Director of Athletics,” UW president Ana Mari Cauce said in a statement. “We wish her success in her next endeavor, and we thank her for all that she has done to make Husky Athletics a thriving program for our student-athletes and our global community of alumni, fans and supporters.

“Under her leadership, the Huskies achieved tremendous success on the field of competition, and her commitment to excellence helped enable our student-athletes to develop and succeed in the classroom, as competitors and as people. We appreciate the solid footing on which she leaves the program, and her extraordinary leadership through the challenges posed by the COVID pandemic.”

Cohen’s successor — whoever that may be — will inherit issues extending beyond the Big Ten transition. UW’s athletic department reported a $5.8 million loss in the 2023 financial year, and that deficit is expected to increase to $7.8 million in FY24.

There’s also the looming debt service increase on the loan that financed Husky Stadium’s renovation in 2012. That debt service was restructured into interest-only payments in FY23, FY24 and FY25, but will balloon from $9.8 million per year to $17.7 million beginning in FY26.

Of course, the Huskies’ agreed-upon haul of Big Ten media rights revenue should help soften that blow. But will it be enough?

The future of the Apple Cup is also uncertain, after UW’s Pac-12 departure left the rival Cougs in Power Five purgatory. Cohen said Aug. 6 that WSU athletic director Pat Chun is “a dear friend of mine and we’re both really committed to this series and committed to this state and all of our fans, not just for football (where there have been 114 meetings) but for all of our sports.”

However, when asked three days later to describe the tenor of those discussions, Chun responded with a single word: “Brief.”

UW’s next athletic director will be tasked with guiding the Huskies out of a 108-year conference partnership, while energizing their fan and donor base and positioning their programs for long term financial and competitive success.

But hey: no pressure.

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