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How Jennifer Cohen, the Pac-12’s only female athletic director, rose to the top of UW sports

She didn't attend the University of Washington, wasn't a star athlete and never coached. Now she's guiding success on the field while setting an example for other women executives in the NCAA.

University of Washington Athletic Director Jennifer Cohen flashes a “W” sign at Husky Stadium.

University of Washington Athletic Director Jennifer Cohen flashes a “W” sign at Husky Stadium. (Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

When Jennifer Cohen was in the fifth grade, she wrote a letter to then University of Washington football coach Don James to tell him she planned to replace him when he retired. The Tacoma native had fallen in love with UW football, attending every game wearing a collection of UW buttons, standing next to the tunnel when the players ran onto the field and happily barking at opponents.

She received a kind, but incredibly pragmatic, note back from the now-legendary coach. James commended her for her aspirations, but let her know that there weren’t a lot of opportunities for girls to coach football. A career in the business of college sports, he told her, might be a better option.

Cohen, now 50 and married with two teenage sons, said she wasn't discouraged by James’ note. Instead, she believed she had received proof that her hero believed in her.

“I felt like basically he showed me a door that was still not that open to women and quite frankly still isn’t to the level it should be and that was 40 years ago,” she said. “So 40 years ago, a football coach took the time to write me back and tell me, ‘Hey, girls are starting to get more into this business.’ ”

Three years ago, Cohen unequivocally walked through that door. After more than two decades of working a handful of jobs at the UW, she was named the school’s athletic director. In her short tenure she has helped to bring in and retain talented coaches, stabilize a struggling budget and foster a departmentwide culture centered on developing student athletes into productive citizens.

But during the course of two long interviews where Cohen spoke quickly and paused very rarely, she made sure to point out that there has been nothing storybook about this journey. In her path to becoming the only female athletic director in the Pac-12 and one of four female leads in a Power Five conference, she has faced plenty of challenges and setbacks. She has experienced self-doubt and felt guilt about splitting her time between raising her children and working in a demanding arena. She said she can’t begin to count the number of times people asked her who is raising her kids.

“There were plenty of times where I didn’t think I wanted to do this, nor did I even believe in myself that I could,” she said.

“I don’t want young women to think that it was just this upward path that all made sense, and that I just knew I could do it,” Cohen added. “That’s not true at all.”

Even now, the challenges and doubts have not disappeared. But, Cohen said, she doesn’t notice them quite as much. She has developed coping mechanisms, such as making sure to do things away from her job and building her own identity separate from her career.

Last summer, Cohen traveled to Charleston, North Carolina, to meet with about 25 other women who are contending with some of those same challenges.

The meeting was organized by Women Leaders in College Sports, a 3,500-member organization that helps to develop, advance and connect female leaders, and brought together female Division I athletic directors and commissioners from across the country.

They discussed transitions between school presidents, hiring and firing coaches and how to be creative with coaches’ contracts, said Patti Phillips, CEO of Women Leaders in College Sports.

When the topic of contract negotiations came up, Cohen told the group about her own recent negotiating experience. She previously had a contract “with the lowest annual guaranteed compensation relative to departmental expenses” of any athletic director in the Pac-12, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and SEC, according to a report by Athletic Director U. With the help of a lawyer, she renegotiated and signed a contract amendment that took effect July 1, 2018, extending her post until at least 2024 and, according to The Seattle Times, bumping her base salary up by 63% to $750,000 annually. 

“She was really honest and open about her personal experience, so that other women can learn from that,” said Phillips.

“She’s still quite frankly underpaid for how good she is,” Phillips added.

During Cohen’s first three years as AD, the department has seen some major successes. UW’s football team brought home two Pac-12 titles, its baseball and softball teams both made it to the College World Series (a first for the baseball team) and last summer its women’s rowing team brought home the NCAA Rowing Championship. Cohen helped the department hire men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins, women’s gymnastics coach Elise Ray-Statz and women’s rowing coach Yasmin Farooq, all of whom have since received Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors.

The UW's 22 sports programs, made up of 650 student-athletes, also have had academic success under Cohen. In May, the school reported an Academic Progress Rate, which is the NCAA system for measuring student-athletes’ academic performance, of 987. Teams only need a four-year average rate of 930 to compete in championships. And in the Wall Street Journal’s well-known Grid of Shame, which rates college football programs based on their level of dominance and admirable qualities, UW was among the very best for both.

But there have also been challenges. In June, The Seattle Times published an article detailing a former UW volleyball player’s report of being sexually assaulted in 2017 by a school official. The official resigned and the school ultimately reached a $20,000 settlement with the student, but it has received some pushback over how it handled the allegation. Cohen said for legal and other reasons, she was unable to comment on what happened.

The athletic department also has dealt with financial challenges. In the 2016 fiscal year, it reported a $5.8 million deficit. It entered the following fiscal year with a projected budget deficit of $5.6 million, but ultimately came away with a $1.9 surplus.

And thanks in part to Cohen helping to secure a 10-year, $119 million apparel partnership with Adidas that launched this past summer, the department is expected to have another good financial showing in fiscal year 2020.

Cohen would be the first to admit that she does not look or sound like most of the people leading college athletic programs. In addition to being a woman and mother, her personality is also unique.

“I’m very vulnerable, I’m very emotional, I’m very real, I’m very authentic,” she said.

When we spoke soon after UW football’s narrow loss to the University of California, Berkeley, in early September, her voice was nearly gone. A severe thunder and lightning storm had caused a three-hour delay to the game, and she had cheered, high-fived and thanked all of the fans in the front row who stayed for the game.

UW President Ana Mari Cauce said what sets Cohen apart from other athletic directors is both her courage to make difficult decisions — such as her decision to fire longtime men's basketball coach Lorenzo Romar and hire Hopkins — and her compassion.

“She’s not afraid to have tears in her eyes about a difficult experience for a student or tears of joy because something wonderful has happened,” said Cauce. “Some people think of compassion, especially in a woman, as being soft. There’s nothing soft about her.”

Cohen’s journey to UW was similarly nontraditional. In her youth, she played softball and volleyball, but she said she was average and never played in college. And despite her virtually lifelong love of UW, when she applied to the school she was wait-listed.

She ultimately attended San Diego State University and then went on to Pacific Lutheran University, where she earned a master’s degree in physical education with an emphasis in sports administration. It wasn’t until 1998, after working in intercollegiate athletics administration at Pacific Lutheran, the University of Puget Sound and Texas Tech University, that she found her way to UW as an assistant director of development in the athletic department.

Years later, Cauce appointed her interim athletic director. The school’s president then put together a search committee to select the official program director. The process involved a monthslong national search in which the candidates – including Cohen — flew to Chicago for the first round of interviews.

Cauce said they selected Cohen because she could hit the ground running and because of her vision of boosting athlete performance on and off the field.

The president said she has since seen this vision repeatedly employed in real life. She gave the example of Cohen and UW football coach Chris Petersen talking to players about career plans outside of the sport, and bringing in someone to talk about sexual assault and #MeToo.

“They really do think about what is it that these young men and women need to be thinking about; what is it that they need to learn to be successful in life,” Cauce said.

Cohen has also made sure to not leave behind her hero as she leads the athletic department. Within her first six months in the position, she brought together a handful of administrative officials to determine the department’s overarching purpose and values. She said Don James was a huge inspiration during this process and his legacy helped them settle on such departmentwide values as grittiness, humility and “growth mindset.”

“Those are all qualities that are part of my leadership style, that were part of his leadership style, that are part of the leadership style of every head coach we try to hire here and retain here,” she said.

Decades after her letter to James, the legendary coach died from the effects of pancreatic cancer. In 2017, Cohen stood in front of a crowd of people in a purple shirt for the unveiling of a statue of James in front of Husky Stadium. She told the audience about how he was the inspiration behind her life’s work, and then fondly watched as her hero’s likeness became a permanent fixture on her school’s campus.

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How Jennifer Cohen, the Pac-12’s only female athletic director, rose to the top of UW sports

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