SEATTLE — Jen Cohen was in elementary school when her father bought season tickets for Husky football.
It was the late 70s, and the team was taking shape under coach Don James.
“I was just instantly hooked,” she said. “It was everything to me. I had identity in it. I felt like I was a part of something, something bigger than myself.”
“You know, I used to write letters to Coach James. I told him I was going to be the next football coach and I was adamant that I was going to do it. And he wrote me back kindly and said that girls don’t coach football. It’s not an opportunity for women and you know if you look back at that time that was an accurate statement but he gave me a but in that letter and that but was women are going into the business of sports, and so I told my parents at a very young age I’m going to be an athletic director, and I actually said I’m going to be an athletic director at the University of Washington.”
Thirty-five years later, she fulfilled that promise when she was hired to be the AD in May.
It wasn’t an easy road back to Montlake. After being waitlisted at the UW, Cohen attended San Diego State.
“It was a grind,” she said. “You know, I feel like my entire life I’ve always been kind of average. You know I was an average student, I was an average athlete, nothing ever came easy to me and I’m so grateful for that because I think that really prepared me for my career development as well.
“So I had to work really hard and there were times where I never thought I would get to where I am today.”
Cohen got her masters at PLU before working both there and at the University of Puget Sound, but it was an internship at Texas Tech that made the difference.
“I was the first recipient of an endowed internship that was set up by a woman who passed away who wanted to give women these opportunities,” she said. “I’m the first recipient. I’m the first woman to receive the endowment that is now an athletic director, so it gives me goose bumps. It brings tears to my eyes because that was my turning point in my career. It was a huge, pivotal moment for me. It gave me the Division 1 experience I needed, and the following year I landed my first job here at the University of Washington.”
Cohen said she was inspired by former UW AD Barbara Hedges.
“I think we were so lucky, it was so rare,” she said. “I mean it’s rare now right still, really rare back then, and so yes here she was an example of what was possible.
“It’s almost like I never thought it wasn’t possible, I really never have. I mean I know there are issues, obstacles, discrimination and harassment that happen with women. I’ve been on the receiving end of that but I’ve never really spent any time worrying about it. The best advocate for me is me doing a really great job and building trusting and meaningful relationships and having somebody like Barbara, who demonstrated that every day that she was here.
"Now I also saw what she took. You know I also saw the criticism that she took, and I saw how she’s still described to this day in ways that are completely inaccurate to the person that she was, primarily based on her gender and that frustrates me because we all have strengths, we all have weaknesses, all of us. Male, female, it doesn’t matter we all have them. “
Only about 10 percent of ADs at Div. I schools are women. Cohen said she feels a responsibility to be a great leader and model.
“Honestly, I’d love to be at a point in time in our business that it’s not even a conversation piece,” she said. “There are three of us in the (Power Five conferences), I’m the only one in the Pac-12.
“I get what the numbers look like and I just hope with more women being able to take the risk and put themselves out there and also make sacrifices along the way other women will know that they can do it too.”
Cohen said she believes everyone deserves a chance.
“I’m a big advocate for exclusivity for all, you know, as much as I’m passionate about women, I’m passionate about people from different social economic backgrounds, or your color of your skin or your sexual orientation that should not have any limitation on who you can become in all aspects of your life,” she said.
Cohen said realizes now that the letter from James wasn’t really the beginning.
“It really goes back to even before that - falling in love with what college athletics can do for a community,” she said. “Now that I’m in it and I do this on a daily basis, my passion for it’s very different. My passion is all about education and it’s about access and it’s about opportunity. My passion is really about the young people that get the opportunity to come in here and compete, men and women, and be great at not only their sport but become great versions of themselves while they are here.
“That’s what I believe sport does. It finds the best in us, and anything’s possible.”