Why USC Poached UW’s Jen Cohen (It’s all about the Coach)(and the Money, of Course)


Firing football coach Paul Hackett after three middling seasons (19-18) ending in 2000, athletics director and former Trojans football star Mike Garrett then outraged most of the USC following, including Los Angeles Times columnist (and former Seattle P-I baseball writer) Bill Plaschke. Garrett replaced Hackett with a guy who hadn’t coached college ball in 17 years.

“I’m not mad at (the coach) for being in a position where the players are uncertain and the fans are angry and the administration is worried,” Plaschke wrote. “I’m mad at USC for putting him there.”

Sure enough, Plaschke was right to be mad about the hire — the coach eventually put the Trojans on NCAA probation, primarily because Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush was said to have received improper benefits. But that punishment came after Pete Carroil went 97-19 and won two national championships, then left to coach the Seattle Seahawks.

Until this NCAA scandal slow-rolled into public awareness, Carroll’s nickname was “King of LA.”

Three current lessons can be discerned from this tidy stroll through USC’s football history:

  • Make the right football-coach hire once, and a big-time school’s athletic director is impervious to even Old Testament plagues
  • Don’t listen to sports media
  • The King is dead. Long live the King (in Seattle. But you knew that one).

The first lesson is instructive in helping understand why, beyond offering a big salary increase, USC has poached this week from the University of Washington athletics department Jen Cohen to fill the vacant AD post at USC.

In her seven-year tenure as top Dawg, Cohen made one good football coaching hire — Kalen DeBoer, the current Huskies coach. Suddenly, she is golden. But until DeBoer delivered an 11-2 record in his rookie year at Montlake, she was a muddle in the middle of the college football industry’s hierarchy.

She gets zero credit for the hire of heralded football coach Chris Petersen. Her predecessor as AD, Scott Woodward, gets what little credit is available for holding the door open when the man who made Boise State a modest national brand showed up. By his own words, UW was the dream job of his career. If Woodward had asked him to hop one-legged from Boise to Seattle, Petersen would have asked whether he could have two days to do it, but was willing to pull an all-nighter.

Cohen gets a serious debit for the hire of Petersen’s successor, Jimmy Lake. In fairness, the debit should be shared with Petersen, because he recommended the hire and took the steps necessary to advance the candidacy of his top assistant coach. How Cohen and Petersen whiffed on the fact that Lake lacked the CEO skill-set and temperament for the top job is one of local sporting life’s great mysteries, somewhere behind Pete Carroll dialing up a one-yard throw to Ricardo Lockette to try to win a Super Bowl.

Cohen fired Lake, justifiably, with $9.9 million left on his contract, a notable burden when the department is running an annual operational deficit. At least the DeBoer poach from Fresno State helped dig her out of a reputational hole.

In her new job, she is unlikely to have to double-down soon on that skill. Bold as was the poach of Cohen, the Trojans earlier and even more audaciously poached from the University of Oklahoma football powerhouse their coach, Lincoln Riley. He too, has delivered, and at 39 appears to be among the brightest stars in the college game.

Then again, once Riley wins enough in LA to score a head coaching job in the NFL, Cohen will be in position to replace him at USC by poaching the coach she poached to rescue her at UW, DeBoer. Isn’t it wonderful how cuddly college football has become?

Speaking of which, it seems likely now that well ahead of their July 2022 blockbuster announcement of a move from the Pac-12 to the Big Ten, the Trojans and little-brother UCLA were plotting the jailbreak, one teaspoon out of the tunnel at a time. The Trojans’ moneyed boosters in the media world had to know well in advance that the Pac-12 revenue model was irretrievably hopeless. If a conference switch were made, the once-legendary program needed to armor up against the bristling dreadnoughts of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State.

That’s really where Cohen’s skills will play out: Fundraising.

Sportswriters like to measure AD job performance on the basis of won-loss records by coaches hired. That doesn’t address where the action truly is: Money. Going back into the generations, Cohen has been strong at UW in cadging cash out of the purple legions for the facilities race led nationally by hated Oregon and its patron demon, Phil Knight. Cohen is given large credit for raising more than $50 million in gifts to defray the costs of refurbishing Husky Stadium, which re-opened in 2013. In her 25 years along the lake, the Tacoma native was at or near the lead in campaigns to find private funds that helped upgrade the ancient basketball arena and Conibear Shellhouse, and build from scratch the Dempsey Indoor Practice Facility and the Husky Legends Center.

USC has a passel of similar pending projects, as well as a Hollywood donor base wealthier than even Seattle’s profligate tech titans. Additionally, since USC is a private school, Cohen will be free of some of the guardrails and constraints put up for state schools by legislatures. From the days of the ever-farcical “amateurism,” I believed if private schools had any collective conscience and/or sense of humor, they should rename their athletic units the Department of Shenanigans. Especially with the recent dominance of private NIL money flooding campuses, church-connected schools are well-practiced in the art of shadowy financials.

As far as UW for the moment, the athletics department is operating not only at a deficit but at a disadvantage. As the Pac-12 Conference enters its final year with a rib-rattling wheeze, the school must pick swiftly an ambitious new athletics director. In addition to introducing himself or herself into the pockets of skeptical wealthies, the newbie immediately must begin to execute the complicated task of entry into the Big Ten with half the TV revenues that will be given to the full-share newbies USC and UCLA. For which Cohen has the right to utter two words:

Tee. Hee.

Ornery and onerous as these circumstances may seem to Huskies fans, the Washington State Cougars, adrift amid the wreckage, would like to have a word. As Plaschke wrote regarding USC, the Cougs are mad at Washington for helping put them there.

Imagine, then, the ire if UW poached WSU’s well-regarded athletics director, Patrick Chun, the first Asian American AD at a Power Five school. As WSU grad and sports-broadcast legend Keith Jackson would have put it, “Whoa, Nellie!

Art Thiel
Art Thiel
Art Thiel is a longtime sports columnist in Seattle, for many years at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and now as founding editor at SportsPressNW.com.


    • For most of the years after the John Wooden era, UCLA has run a deep second to USC in the LA market. As a private school, USC also benefits from not being tied to the UC system’s financial crisis. Bruins fans should be happy in the sidecar ride.

  1. It’ll be interesting to see what UW is looking for in their next AD. Someone local? Someone who will be a career Husky? Someone familiar with BIG12 athletics? A former Dawg? I’m sure UW is getting tired of various employees using them as a stepping stone to bigger things and wants someone who can put their athletic program as a whole on par with programs like Stanford’s or Texas. They seem to always fall short.

    • UW doesn’t have the luxury of being tired. They need a media savvy executive who understands how a single university can best navigate the industry-wide corruptions that stain the best schools.

      • The PAC-12 needed that in a commissioner. I suppose Kliavkoff had his hands tied but it can’t be denied that the conference has all but died on his watch.


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