Oops, There Goes Another One… UW Loses Athletic Director


Trev Alberts was an athletics director in the University of Nebraska system, 12 years at Nebraska-Omaha and the past three at Nebraska-Lincoln, his alma mater, where in 1993 the Cornhuskers star won the Dick Butkus Award as the college nation’s top linebacker.

On March 13, he was poached to be AD at Texas A&M, which paid the $4 million buyout to his former employer. Alberts replaced Ross Bjork, who took the AD job at Ohio State, where Gene Smith announced his retirement after 18 years.

Alberts was replaced this week by Troy Dannen, the University of Washington athletics director for 165 days. Nebraska will pay a $1.5 million buyout of his contract to Washington, which also will get back almost $300,000 in moving expenses. Dannen will get $1.6 million a year at Nebraska, $600,000 more than his UW salary.

Jen Cohen, a graduate of Curtis High School in Tacoma, where she earned her Master’s degree in sports admin from Pacific Lutheran, was a 20-year staffer at the University of Washington. She became athletics director at UW in 2016, calling the appointment her career dream job as a longtime Huskies fan.

On Aug. 21, 2023, Cohen accepted the AD job at USC, creating the vacancy that was filled by Dannen, who was poached from Tulane in New Orleans, where he helped build a small private school’s football program sufficiently to beat USC in a Cotton Bowl match two years ago.

If you follow the turns here, undoubtedly you have reached the same conclusion as me: Sentiment, loyalty and conscience have no purchase in big-time college sports. Except among naive fans, of course. And the continuing allegiance of those fans is the seemingly limitless resource that the NCAA, power conferences, linear and streaming TV networks and gambling sites are strip-mining at an accelerated pace.

The absurd market rates for football and basketball coaches are five-decade staples of mild humor from civic tut-tutters who cite the various states where the coaches are the best-paid public employees. More recently, after adverse court rulings have all but scuttled the false god of amateurism, athletes are being paid opaquely by private sources, a smarmy yet justifiable outcome. And now we see athletics directors as warm commodities, jumping from ship to ship in search of fewer leaks than the previous one.

None of this unregulated capitalism works without fans. Plainly, they don’t care enough to just say no.

At UW, Dannen lavished praise as a place where championships could be won. And nearly was, the Huskies football team reaching the national title game barely after Dannen set down his carpet bag. His first crisis was a big one, trying to keep coach Kalen DeBoer, himself only in his second year, from being poached by Alabama. Didn’t work. Even though Dannen seems to have found a creditable patch, poaching well-regarded Jedd Fisch from Arizona, there was nothing to be done about the department’s forecasted $7.8 million operating deficit. The expenses tilt skyward with the huge increase in travel expected in the move to the Big Ten Conference, while income is constrained by an entry agreement to accept only a 50 percent cut of the league’s $60 million per-school share of annual media rights for two years.

Dannen was already playing from behind. But he had to know that before taking the job. Even by the cutthroat standards of big-time college programs, leaving before the paint was dry on his parking space suggests something else was afoot. A Midwest native with family still in Iowa is probably part of his story, but Dannen may not have fit the Montlake culture. Longtime Huskies booster and KJR-FM sports radio host Dave Mahler said on-air Wednesday he heard that Dannen, at an all-hands staff meeting, told the group he wanted no part of the school’s DEI program, prompting several walk-outs.

If culture is that big a deal, hiring his replacement from in-house, particularly in the middle of a search to replace fired men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins, checks the boxes for alignment and urgency. The department’s interim athletics director, Erin O’Connell, an alum and a rower with the school’s powerhouse crew program in the mid-90s, is an experienced administrator whom some figured should have gotten the call when Cohen popped her UW dream bubble.

Dannen said something during his introductions here that is even more trenchant now, particularly after his abdication in Montlake, as well as his experience at the NCAA front lines during the industry’s makeover into a subsidiary of the entertainment business run by the networks and celebrated by the bookies.

“If you think the last three to five years have been tumultuous,” he said, “the next three to five are going to put it to shame . . . We have to be prepared for those outcomes, and how do we accept whatever happens and then run with it?

“A lot of schools, they’re sitting on the railroad tracks looking back at history, yearning for the past, and they’re gonna get run over by the next train. What I know about UW, though, is we’re going to look around the corner, so the train doesn’t catch us. We’re looking to make sure we stay ahead of the train.”

Looks to me like there’s a lot of purple on the train tracks through Montlake. I think I recognize the guy in the engineer’s cap.

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.


  1. 70 years of going to games 50 years of my own season tickets. I called it quits. My values no longer align with the players or the coaches.

    • When it comes to paying players, it was being done here in the Don James era, and everywhere. The main difference now is the money is on the table, not under it.

  2. I believe the term, “Money Talks,” is appropriate here. Our AD just walked to Texas A&M, leaving behind a “contract” (which apparently means nothing in this day and age) through 2031. So, your loss is our gain, OR, is it?

  3. If anyone is surprised by the nearly predictable turn of the dollar world of “college” sports, they live in a world of hope born of dilusion. The remedies available might begin with people, “influencers”, who are also contributors to their alma maters or schools of choice and pressuring them into a quid pro quo. Yes I am dreaming a fantasy. But what if Bill Gates and his ilk said to UW: Time to get off the pro sports merry-g-round. Our future contributions will be tied to a plan that reduces college sports at UW to what it needs to be, secondary to what has otherwise become a world class academic institution. While the farce that Mr. Thiel adeptly describes grows, it feeds the apprently insatiable appetite of WA fans for supporting an unsustainable system that has very few winners and many losers. There are amateur athletes in all sports who are not that many cuts below their high-priced, highly-trained pro college athletes. Leagues of these players who love their sports and are often more competitive – because they compete based on their joy of their sports rather than the drive to a pot of gold at all cost – would be just as much of a joy to watch as the win-at-all-cost fans of today. Yes, I’m dreaming, but also convinced there is another way, as there once was, of playing”big time” college sports.

    • Yes, it is a dream. The commitment to facilities, staffing and operations is so embedded at UW and its fellow big-time schools that withdrawal would have more long-term financial consequences than continuing to feed the beast. Keep in mind that UW is competing with its peers for a dwindling number of non-athlete students, some of whom make part of their decisions based on the prestige of top-tier sports.

  4. I’m going to charitably file this as a one-off. Dannen stated this move was more (to the Midwest) was to be closer to family. But to your point – given the UDub’s financial challenges – it’s hard to fathom how this job would be an attractive position to any outsider, and their are 2-3 in-house candidates that can likely do the job (i.e. fundraising).

    But in reality – the UWs real problem is the lack of major domos (with misplaced priorities) who are needed to finance the mess aka UW athletics. Oregon has the sweat-shop shoe magnate, but they don’t grow on trees. Ana Marie Cauce expressed dismay and shock at Dannen’s departure. But in reality, it’s just another day in Absurdistan. The sooner she realizes this, the sooner she can make the difficult decision to jump off this hamster-wheel futility. It’s time to shut down UW athletics as a D1 program. And for any “non major domos” wondering how to support the UW, their are many academic departments that spend those $$ in a more productive way…

    • A college president joked that he had a pretty easy job. All he had to do was provide three things: parking for the faculty; sex for the students; and football for the alumni. If Cauce gets rid of sports/fooball, then she’s failed at one of her three crucial tasks.

      All kidding aside, there’s no way in heck the UW dumps athletics so soon after joining the Big 10. Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State coming to Husky Stadium every other year will draw big crowds and buzz, as will Indiana, Michigan State, Purdue and Maryland in basketball. Then add in powers in the smaller sports like Indiana soccer, Minnesota baseball and Nebraska volleyball (yes, Nebraska volleyball), and that will raise the competition level for the Husky program.

      • You are right and ther goes any hope of returning to the core of what UW is needs to be about. As they say in journalism: folo the money.

    • Hockeypuck, I think the Montlake Futures collective is a robust outfit that kept QB Mike Penix in town, and made a huge offer to keep Kalen DeBoer. Most of these same people are financing the entirety of the $60 million basketball facility next to Hec Ed. There’s plenty of money in this town to play with the big boys. Dannen is a bright, tough guy but he didn’t like the geography and politics. Wasn’t a fit.

      • Art – Understood and I stand corrected.

        Montlake Futures and other supporters seem have done their job in that even facilities for non/low -revenue generating sports – baseball/softball, track, etc. – seem top notch. The exception being Hec-Ed (yes I’m still calling it that) which most folks think is substandard (I personally think it is fine).

        My concern going forward is the operating budget, debt services. But even the half-revenue deal from ESPN ($30mm?) will represent an increase from the pauper’s share the UDub was receiving from TV, so that will help going forward.

  5. I share much of this frustration. The buyouts in the contracts have been too low. Nebraska capitalized on UW’s mistake with a low buyout of $1.5M. Dannen is getting a 60% pay bump after a few months on the job. According to sources, his family never made the move to Seattle. Nebraska has locked in a $12M buyout for Dannen and a $62M buyout for Rhule. UW has been schooled time and again in contract negotiations with agents. The contracts with Hopkins and Lake had too much guaranteed money with very few performance incentives. The original contract for Deboer out of Fresno should have had a high enough buyout that we weren’t forced to double his salary after a few months on the job with no assurance he would eventually stay. We have an abundance of talent from UW Law. No excuses.

  6. The coaches have agents who deal with athletics department CFOs and work from a general market-rate template common throughout the industry. The buyouts and indemnifications are relatively standardized, with some notable exceptions. Washington isn”t Texas A&M in terms of overwrought payouts, but it’s nowhere close to a bottom feeder.

  7. The only way to resolve the dilemma universities face is simply to sever the business of higher education from commercial sports altogether. Rich intramural college sports programs should flourish on our campuses. Students and alums can satisfy their needs for seeing higher level performances by watching professional teams live or on TV–just as they do with opera and theater. Universities have no natural place in this process.

  8. “The College Football Playoff and ESPN have agreed to a new six-year, $7.8 billion contract that ensures . . . through the 2031-32 season.” From ESPN’s site 2 days ago.
    This is but one contract and therein we find the answer. Context provides much.

    • Brianna, it is very expensive to dig up your house, put it on a platform, move it cross country, and dig a new foundation in Nebraska clay. The land around NU stadium comes at a premium cost. Gawd knows, there is very little land in this farm state!


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