Canzano: USC makes scary-good AD hire in Jennifer Cohen
Washington AD leaving for USC.
Athletic director Jennifer Cohen likes to tell a story about attending University of Washington football games as a kid.
Her father would hold her hand and walk with her over Montlake Bridge. They’d stand for all four quarters at the Huskies game. Then, on the way home they’d talk and recap what they saw. The following day, they’d watch “The Don James Show” on television to see what the UW football coach had to say about the game.
Cohen will be announced today as the athletic director at USC. It’s a terrific hire by the Trojans and a good career move for Cohen. I had her pegged to someday become the president of the NCAA and save college athletics.
Maybe she still will.
First, though, Cohen will do this USC thing.
I’ve talked with the AD several times over the last couple of years about college athletics and conference realignment. We’ve discussed leadership, the college football playoff, social-media strategy, season-ticket sales, football coaching hires, and the slippery slope of NIL.
We’ve also talked about my three daughters, her two sons, and how a pandemic interrupted their respective school experiences. Her oldest son, Tyson, is a baseball player turned golfer at Spokane Falls Community College. Her youngest, Dylan, will be a freshman on the football team at the University of Montana.
“The baby leaving hits different,” Cohen told me last May.
USC just did the most un-USC thing ever: It hired a humble, smart, relatable, qualified, living, breathing human being, folks.
The Cohen hire anchors the Trojans athletic department in a way that it never felt under any of the last three ADs — Pat Haden, Lynn Swann and Mike Bohn.
Haden and Swann were perfectly inept. And I’ll never forget the tone-deaf bluster of Bohn as he announced the hire of football coach Lincoln Riley in November 2021. The USC marching band was summoned to play the school fight song at the news conference. The university Song Girls were trotted out to perform a choreographed dance.
Then, Bohn took the stage and declared: “It was never our goal to change the landscape of college football with one of the biggest moves in the history of the game — but we did exactly that!”
Cohen had a football vacancy at the same time. She hired the guy from Fresno State. No band. No choreography. No “we’re so f***ing awesome!!” declaration to the world.
All Kalen DeBoer did was accept the job, shake Cohen’s hand, win 11 games and finish the season playing the best football in the Pac-12. I reached out to Cohen after last season to congratulate her on getting the hire right.
Cohen’s first words about DeBoer: “He’s also such a great human.”
USC has deep resources, fertile recruiting geography, football momentum and loads of history. It’s well positioned to matter in this new-world of college athletics. The Trojans will be scary-good under Cohen’s command.
Bohn’s Trojans were easy to root against. He was an entitled snob. Also, apparently unprofessional. He reportedly made inappropriate remarks toward female employees at USC and treated his staff poorly when he was at Cincinnati. His resignation made me wonder if the Trojans were simply doomed for eternity to trip over themselves trying to get it right.
Monday’s AD hire is a deviation from that. Jen Cohen is a unifier. She brings people together. Ask the die-hard football fans who root for Washington. They always felt like their AD was in it with them, even when things didn’t go right. So did the softball team, the rowers, the gymnasts, the basketball programs and just about everyone else at UW.
Cohen was born in Southern California, but grew up in Tacoma. In the fifth grade, she wrote a letter to UW’s football coach. Cohen told Don James she wanted to succeed him and become the first female football coach in college history. James wrote back and encouraged her to get involved in athletic-department administration.
All these years later, that kid is in charge of the one of the most iconic brands in college athletics.
Cohen will boost Riley’s football program, galvanize the USC base, make everyone feel vital to the mission, and give the athletic department strong leadership. It’s a loss for UW and a gain for the Trojans.
She’s not perfect.
At UW, Cohen promoted Jimmy Lake in the wake of Chris Petersen and hired Mike Hopkins in men’s basketball. Those were both underwhelming moves. But she’s left UW well positioned.
I wondered if Cohen, 53, would leave Washington for anything other than the top job in the NCAA. College athletics needs better leadership. The governing body has lost connection with the campuses themselves. I still think Cohen could end up running the NCAA someday. But as I write that sentence I’m left with a sobering thought: USC is a better gig.
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