LOS ANGELES — Jennifer Cohen’s introduction at USC, really, was a heck of a lot easier than her first few days at the University of Washington.
Seven years ago, a room of colleagues in Seattle burst into adoring applause for Cohen, the ladder-climbing longtime department employee beaming with Husky pride, as UW president Ana Mari Cauce announced her promotion from interim to full-time athletic director. There was little time to triumph, though; exactly 16 days later, Cohen was faced with the rather unenviable task of standing in front of Washington’s Board of Regents and explaining how on earth she was going to turn around a budget careening into the red.
The situation was dire. Cohen inherited a departmental cash-flow deficit of $14.8 million in 2016, according to an estimated budget report from UW. As she herself put it, then, in an interview with the Seattle Times: “We’ve never had this kind of debt before around here.”
It was a challenge, she reflected last week. But Cohen stood then in front of the board, freshly minted, and didn’t point fingers. Didn’t pawn off responsibility. She birthed trust, instantly, by presenting a comprehensive plan to restructure debt, also targeting the renegotiation of UW’s athletic apparel contract. And two years later, she landed a bombshell 10-year deal with Adidas.
“Most people would just come in and bring us a problem – she shared with us an issue and also a solution,” said Patrick Shanahan, UW’s former Board of Regents chair and later the United States Secretary of Defense. “And I knew then, we had somebody that was responsible and capable at a very high level.”
Cohen’s philosophy on the role of an athletic director is simple, built from two decades of advancing through the ranks at Washington. She sees herself as a facilitator. As a steward, serving the oft-conflicting interests of several groups of passengers. There isn’t one person that matters more than another in an athletic department, she feels. It was an approach that earned her widespread respect from peers through a track record at Washington with a few missteps (hiring Jimmy Lake) and several big wins (the Adidas deal, hiring Kalen DeBoer to succeed Lake).
And in four short months, it’s earned her widespread respect around USC, too, through a quick turnaround since being announced as the school’s next athletic director in August, just having recently moved into a new home in Manhattan Beach. In one of Cohen’s first tasks, according to associate AD Scott Wandzilak, a group in USC’s department put together a list of 50 high-profile Trojan alumni for her to make connections.
She reached out to all of them individually within two days.
“They don’t see her waffling,” USC President Carol Folt said of the athletic department. “They see her coming in confident, excited, but also pretty determined.”
Cohen may not be staring a $14.8 million public deficit in the face at USC. But she enters Heritage Hall in a critical time for USC, coming off a period of uncertainty – with Mike Bohn’s tumultuous resignation – and attempting to unify a department heading into another period of uncertainty with a move to the Big Ten.
“I just felt like I was ready for a new challenge,” Cohen said. “I felt like everything I’d ever learned in 30-plus years in working in college sports and higher ed had prepared me for USC, and so I wanted to go and try to be the best at SC.”
Washington to USC
Cohen’s roots grew for decades in the Seattle rain, advancing from UW’s development office to the athletic director’s seat after Scott Woodward left – a school, she said, she’d “cared about my whole life, really.”
A window creaked open, though, as youngest son Dylan went off to play football at the University of Montana; suddenly, Cohen was an empty-nester.
“I felt really good about where Washington was and everything we had done there,” Cohen said, “but I had been itching for new challenges, and new opportunities.”
After Bohn’s unceremonious departure left a sudden hole in USC’s department, longtime Washington donor Ron Crockett recalled telling a person in management that the AD role in Southern California was “her job if she wants it.”
“I was thinking about — we need a person that can help us build the best athletic department for the future,” Folt said. “So when I met Jen, just immediately, she is a very bright – she looks forward, she’s filled with enthusiasm. She’s also very pragmatic. So you want someone who has vision in the stars and feet on the ground. That’s very much how Jen is.”
“So I felt like, boy, here is a person that’s going to help build our best department, get us the great foundation we need,” Folt continued, “to take sports through what is clearly a tumultuous and changing moment.”
Sure, when the Huskies came to the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in October for a reunion with her old guard, it was an emotional day, Cohen said. A reminder of an old life, seeing faces she’d battled in the trenches with for years. But at heart, colleagues describe Cohen as a steadfast competitor. And USC lost.
“The only real strong emotion I had about that day,” Cohen said, “was that we didn’t win the game.”
State of affairs
The first priority Cohen’s been focused on at USC across the last three months, she told the SCNG, was organizational health. There are no vague platitudes here; a re-examination of departmental principles was necessary, after a Los Angeles Times investigation found Bohn was being investigated by USC for racial and gender discrimination.
When asked by the Southern California News Group about the departmental investigation that preceded Bohn’s resignation, Folt said she felt they’d done “an excellent job,” and consulted most individual voices in USC’s athletic department through the process.
“Everyone had a chance to talk about things they wanted to see, what they felt they could improve, what they felt was already very strong,” Folt said.
“I think there’s a lot to be proud of, regardless of what kind of ups and downs that happened with leadership prior to my arrival,” Cohen said, when asked about building a department in the wake of the Bohn turmoil. “My personal approach on how to build a culture is that, one, we’ve got to win our culture from the inside out.”
“It starts with how I show up and how I behave … and creating accountability with everyone else in the department,” Cohen said.
What built his trust in Cohen at Washington, Shanahan said, was that there were no secrets. There were no surprises. It was “very clear,” Shanahan said, that she’d protect Washington’s reputation. And Cohen has taken clear steps to mold USC’s department in her image, restructuring leadership under a self-described “deputy model,” bringing in trusted Washington colleagues Jason Cappadoro and Jay Hilbrands as deputies and elevating former interim AD Denise Kwok to another deputy AD role.
“We’ve got to create a purpose for this organization … we are trying to be unmatched, unquestioned destination for top student athletes to come and reach their potential,” Cohen said.
Future of the football program
Cohen didn’t mince words, when asked about a tumultuous football season that ended with USC out of significant bowl-game contention.
“There’s no doubt, because of the goals and standards that we have here, it’s disappointing … we’re in the process of really evaluating every aspect of this program,” Cohen said.
One aspect that hasn’t needed evaluating, it seems, is head coach Lincoln Riley, who Cohen called “a very bright and innovative coach,” and said their relationship moving forward will be collaborative.
“He came here, he came from a great program … the pressure of that together, it’s a partnership,” Cohen said, likening Riley’s move from Oklahoma to her move from Washington.
Everything else is “on the table” in that examination, though, as Cohen said: coaching and support staff, NIL efforts, recruiting. That last topic, Cohen said, needs to be “tireless,” a notable point given that USC’s lagged slightly on the 2024 recruiting trail.
“Your recruiting strategy,” Cohen said, “needs to be constantly prioritized.”
The world of NIL
USC’s current relationship with NIL is complex, as the school’s partnered with official donor-money-based collective House of Victory but also has athletes supported by marketing agencies, such as The Tommy Group and the Conquest Collective, that focus on brokering brand deals. There’s been multiple iterations of such groups; overall, a conservative approach and splintered interests have USC “a little behind than where we could be on the NIL front,” according to one source with knowledge of the situation.
“The NIL space, as we all know, has been a little bit convoluted at USC,” said Spencer Harris, the executive director of House of Victory. “But (Cohen’s) come in with real clear decisions … and has helped us get more aligned, when we really haven’t had that.”
Simply, Cohen has tried to make clear the directive that there’s one collective – HOV – for donors to give to, while trying to eliminate confusion by clarifying that other athlete-supporting organizations function more as marketing organizations.
“I think it has to be front and center in your strategies for how you’re going to build competitive programs. Do I think it’s a long-term strategy? I don’t know,” Cohen said. “I don’t know if anybody knows.”
“For us, I just believe we can be elite,” she continued later. “I think we can be the best, and I think we can also do it with integrity, and my goal is to get everybody aligned with that.”