USC hires Washington’s Jennifer Cohen as director of athletics

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Just days before USC‘s 2023 football season kicks off, the school announced Monday that it hired Washington‘s Jennifer Cohen as the program’s new athletic director.

“There was only one school I’d ever leave UW for, and that was USC,” Cohen, who was born in nearby Arcadia, said Monday. “I just felt like it was time for me to stretch. It was a great run. This is a new chapter in my life, both personally and professionally, and it was the perfect fit.”

Cohen is one of the country’s most established athletic directors and will become the first woman to lead the Trojans’ athletic department. On Monday, she said her priorities as the new USC AD are to cultivate the best student-athlete experience in America and “build off the competitive standard” at USC.

“I can’t imagine a better individual to lead our athletic department in this time and take us into a new period of success,” USC president Carol Folt, who was the first woman to have the role of university president, said. “Everyone does talk about her being very enthusiastic. She is a ferocious competitor. I love it. People will really embrace her.”

Cohen takes over at a crucial time for USC, which leaves for the Big Ten at the start of the 2024-25 academic year and is reeling from the controversial departure of former athletic director Mike Bohn, whose resignation in May prompted Folt to act quickly to have an athletic director in place by the start of the football season. Cohen brings strong experience in football and fundraising, which should pair well with USC as the football team enters its second season with Lincoln Riley as head coach.

Folt said Cohen stood out among a large candidate list for her experience, passion and leadership, as well as for being an “influential national voice in college athletics” who is well respected among her peers. Cohen is a member of the College Football Playoff committee and said Monday that her role on the committee will be revisited as she prioritizes leading USC through a transitional year.

“I have spent a lot of time studying the Big 10 in my previous role and understanding the dynamics of the Big 10 benchmarking, the Big 10 from a salary standpoint, from a performance standpoint, from a facility standpoint,” Cohen said. “So I have a lot of that understanding already in preparation for where I was before. And so I’ll bring that knowledge and experience here.”

Cohen hired current Washington coach Kalen DeBoer, who went 11-2 last season in his debut and has the Huskies poised as a potential College Football Playoff contender for 2024. Washington is No. 10 in the preseason Associated Press poll.

While at Washington, Cohen was the athletic director when the Huskies reached the College Football Playoff in 2016. She leaves Washington just weeks after the school secured a place in the Big Ten, a move that was part of the dominoes that have resulted in the perilous future for the Pac-12. She’ll leave as both USC and Washington begin the transition to a league primarily based in the Eastern time zone.

As Folt mentioned several times Monday, USC’s transition to the Big Ten was a major factor in the search for a new athletic director. And while Cohen’s role in getting Washington to that same conference didn’t exactly factor into the decision, Folt said it displayed Cohen’s ability to adjust as the landscape of college sports is shifting.

“We’re not going to get into specifics here,” Cohen said. “But I can tell you, when I was focused on getting Washington into Big 10, I was a hundred percent focused on getting Washington in the Big 10.”

Cohen’s background at Washington goes back to 1998, when she started in development. She emerged over the years as a prolific fundraiser, eventually overseeing the department’s major gifts program.

Since Cohen took over as AD in 2016, Washington has won 17 Pac-12 titles across all sports.

“Jen is one of the best there is,” Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith told ESPN. “She cares deeply about student athletes and everyone she serves. She is a true professional and great colleague and friend.”

Cohen was not the athletic director when Washington hired Chris Petersen in football, but she did play a major role in that search. She traveled with then athletic director Scott Woodward to Boise, Idaho, to meet with Petersen and worked closely with him throughout his successful run.

Woodward, whom Cohen followed at Washington, said Cohen’s personality and experience will be an asset to USC. He said he wasn’t familiar enough with the details of some of USC’s issues in recent years, but he’s confident Cohen will attack the job.

“Even with their stumbles [athletically and academically], it’s a super tanker, it’s hard to screw up,” said Woodward, now the athletic director at LSU. “It’s a great opportunity and she’ll accept it with gusto and understand that she has opportunity to do something very good.”

Woodward also dove into Cohen’s football experience, which included traveling with him to Boise State to recruit Petersen to Seattle.

Folt echoed Smith’s comments repeatedly Monday and positioned Cohen as the right person to lead USC athletics into a new era. Cohen said she will start work Tuesday and look at the entire infrastructure of the department as well as the transition plan to the Big 10 in order to begin assessing what, if any, changes need to be made.

“The landscape’s changing,” Cohen said. “Understanding [it] and being able to be nimble and adapt to what’s happening in college sports to give us the best competitive advantage here at USC.”

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