When Scott Woodward announced his departure from the University of Washington to take the athletic director position at Texas A&M, one potential replacement immediately came to the minds of UW insiders: Jennifer Cohen.
So her hire in May as UW’s new athletic director — after she had served since January as the interim athletic director — surprised few people.
Cohen, a Tacoma native who grew up attending UW football games with her dad, has worked at the school since 1998, mostly in an advancement and fundraising role. She was the only person to accompany Woodward to Boise in pursuit of football coach Chris Petersen in December 2013.
As UW men’s basketball coach Lorenzo Romar put it, “She knows where all the trapdoors are.” The promotion made sense.
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Here are six things to know about Cohen’s background, how she got here, and what challenges await her as the new leader of UW’s athletic department.
1. Cohen wasn’t much of a volleyball coach.
Actually, Cohen is a little harder on herself than that.
Her words: “I was a terrible coach. I might have been the worst Xs and Os coach ever.”
It was the early 1990s, and Cohen was completing her master’s degree in physical education, with an emphasis in sports administration, at Pacific Lutheran University. And the PLU volleyball team needed an assistant coach. So, she did it.
Cohen admittedly knew little about the game. But her stint with the volleyball team taught her some valuable lessons, and those years inspired an attitude that no job was beneath her.
“My foundation to what kind of person I was going to be at work,” she said.
The volleyball program had no budget. The players and coaches sometimes slept in churches on the road. Cohen drove the team van in the middle of the night to destinations throughout the Northwest Conference.
“We worked our tails off,” she said.
She might not have taught her players much about how to block against a big hitter. But she was surprised to learn years later that she at least made some kind of impact: When a player she coached was later inducted into the PLU Athletics Hall of Fame, she asked Cohen to speak at the ceremony.
“I just couldn’t believe that, because I was, again, not a great coach,” Cohen said. “But I think it just reminded me that relationships, that’s the most important thing.”
2. Cohen’s family moved to Tacoma from San Diego when she was young.
When she was in elementary school, Cohen’s father bought a mini-mart in Tacoma and moved their family from San Diego to what is now University Place.
It was a difficult move, Cohen said, particularly for her mother. It took a while to adjust to the weather. Some family friends moved with them and purchased a gas station in Auburn.
But Cohen grew to love Tacoma. She graduated from Curtis High School in 1987 before completing her undergraduate studies at San Diego State in 1991. It was in Tacoma that she met her husband, Bill, who attended PLU and worked as an assistant baseball coach at the University of Puget Sound. (Bill is now a vice president for sales for a company called First Data.)
“I love Tacoma in general, all aspects of it,” Cohen said. “We get down there for various reasons. I just have a special place in my heart for that experience there. It was a great place to grow up.”
3. Cohen wanted to attend UW, but …
Cohen said she applied to three schools for undergraduate studies: San Diego State, Arizona State and the University of Washington.
UW put her on a waiting list — she eventually was admitted — so she wound up choosing to go back to San Diego, which she refers to as her “second home,” for college.
“I was really heartbroken when I didn’t get in right away here,” Cohen said. “I was a good student, but I’m more of a street-smart girl than I probably am anything else.”
4. Cohen worked her way up.
Robin Hamilton had to laugh when she heard her good friend retell this story in May at her introductory press conference.
Before joining UW’s athletic staff in 1998, Cohen worked in a variety of roles at the University of Puget Sound. When she started there, she was the facilities coordinator. And when the shot-clock malfunctions during a basketball game, guess who has to get out the ladder, climb to the top of the backboard and fix the antennae?
“She did what she had to do and knew what she had to do,” said Hamilton, an associate athletic director at UPS who coached softball for 22 years. “We laugh about that all the time, like, ‘you do it all,’ and she was willing to.”
UPS later promoted Cohen to the newly created position of football recruitment coordinator, Hamilton said, mostly in an effort to keep her from leaving.
“The thing about Jen is, even when she took over recruitment for football, she standardized a lot of systems,” Hamilton said. “The organizational detail she had was just transformative in terms of how we operated. Same thing with overseeing the facilities, She just was impactful from the beginning.”
Cohen started at UW in 1998 as an assistant director of athletic development, her first external, fundraising-related position. She got that job, she said, because her husband was coaching baseball at the time for Herb Chaffey, a UW benefactor who had the field at Husky Ballpark named after him. Chaffey served as Cohen’s connection to the UW athletic department.
In the 18 years since, Cohen has spearheaded several major fundraising projects — including the Campaign for the Student Athlete and the Drive for Husky Stadium — and led UW’s renovation of several other campus facilities.
She has worked for several years as the sport administrator for football, during which time she developed a strong relationship with coach Petersen, another one of her biggest supporters.
“I was able to run development so effectively because I worked my way up through every job,” Cohen said. “I’ve done every part of that. I think that’s important.”
5. Cohen is popular with donors.
Ron Crockett has a simple explanation when asked what makes Cohen so deft at coaxing donations from UW supporters.
“Just be with her for five minutes,” Crockett said, “and watch her personality, and you’ll understand it.”
Endorsements by Crockett and other high-profile UW boosters surely did not go unheeded during the hiring process.
Crockett, the founder of Emerald Downs racetrack, was a member of the 14-person search committee assembled by UW president Ana Mari Cauce. He is a member of the Tyee Club Executive Committee, and has long helped raise funds for the athletic department.
Among UW’s donor base, Crockett said, “you won’t find a detractor of Jennifer Cohen. Not one.”
Cohen is quick with a joke or a laugh, always happy to see whomever she’s speaking with. She has a way of relating to people. And, perhaps most importantly, she has developed a reputation for being “present,” as Hamilton puts it.
In other words: she won’t look over your shoulder during a conversation for someone more important to chat with.
“When she’s talking to you,” Hamilton said, “you know there’s a lot going on in her world, but she doesn’t let that creep in.”
Said Crockett: “She’s got an infectious personality that just resonates with people. She’s bright, hard-working. You just wait and see. Come back five, six, seven, eight years from now to see what she does in this job. She’ll be tremendous in this job. Believe me. She has all the tools to be a top-notch AD.
“It’s been known that I’ve been a backer of her for many, many years, no question about it. She was the first person that came to mind, and I was quite confident she would get that role.”
6. Cohen is inheriting a department that just recorded a nearly $15 million budget deficit in the 2016 fiscal year.
Whether Cohen can help return UW’s athletic department to financial solvency will largely determine whether her tenure is viewed as a success. Fewer than two weeks after she was appointed to the full-time athletic director position, the school announced a projected $14.8 million deficit for 2016.
That announcement was accompanied by a PowerPoint document outlining UW’s plans to get back into the black, which it hopes to come close to by 2019.
Most important, Cohen said, is selling more tickets for home football games at Husky Stadium — the renovation of which, by the way, is costing the school $17.5 million per year in debt service payments.
“Our ability to fill this stadium is the single-most important thing we can do for all of our programs to be successful,” Cohen said in April. “So that is my job, 24/7, is to be thinking about that, focusing on that, and certainly if we could improve that situation over the course of the next couple years, our financial outlook will look different than it looks today.”
Crockett’s faith in Cohen’s ability to balance the budget remains steadfast.
“I’ll tell you exactly what she’ll do,” Crockett said. “She’ll crank up an annual fund, which we have not really had before, as far as fundraising. She’ll reduce costs to run her department, which she’s already started to do. She’ll work with upper campus. It will all work out, and she will master the deficit. I’ve got great confidence that she will.”
Cohen on Friday announced the hiring of Kate Cullen, UW’s new chief financial officer, and Roy Shick, a senior associate director of athletics who will oversee external affairs such as advancement, marketing, communications and the ticket office.
Lance Lopes, a senior associate athletic director who was in charge of ticketing, marketing and communications, is no longer with the school. His position was eliminated.
“I think it’s going to take us a couple years,” Cohen said of balancing the budget. “We have expenses that are on the rise for very good reasons, which is all this NCAA reform that we’ve done to invest back in our student athletes and the student-athlete experience. And you’re seeing that with some of the success we’re having across all of our sports.
“Revenues have been down here the last couple years in ‘gate.’ But we had a great renewal rate this year, and we had the highest number of new season-ticket deposits that we’ve seen in a few years here. And I think we all know that Coach Pete is building something very special. So it may take a little time, but I’m fully optimistic that we’ll get there.”