High School Sports

Curtis alumna Jen Cohen returns to share lessons she learned in becoming UW athletic director

University of Washington Athletic Director Jen Cohen addresses the student body at her alma mater, Curtis High School in University Place, November 5, 2018.
University of Washington Athletic Director Jen Cohen addresses the student body at her alma mater, Curtis High School in University Place, November 5, 2018. phaley@thenewstribune.com

When the Washington Huskies hosted Stanford on Saturday night, athletic director Jen Cohen slipped out of her crowded suite to watch the second half.

She was nervous, she said, after the Cardinal climbed back into a game UW once led, 21-0, and made her way down to the field.

“I stood down on the field the whole rest of the game ... literally until the last play, and just felt better being (down there) because I was so nervous,” she said.

She stood alongside former players, like Dante Pettis, who now plays for the San Francisco 49ers, and watched as the Huskies held on late for a thrilling 27-23 win.

Monday morning, Cohen returned to University Place, the city she grew up in, and her alma mater Curtis High School, to share with students how her passion for college athletics developed.

And, to discuss how, more than three decades after she graduated from Curtis in 1987, she became one of just five women at Power 5 schools who currently hold the highest athletic office.

“Here I am, living a childhood dream,” Cohen said to a gymnasium full of students.

Cohen moved to University Place from San Diego as a child. She said her family moved up from Southern California after her longtime friend, Kathy Rojas, and her family left San Diego for Washington.

Soon after, Cohen became enamored with the Washington Huskies football program.

“We didn’t have any connections with this community, so my dad decided to buy Husky football season tickets for something for us to do as a family,” Cohen told the students. “The best way to describe my connection with Husky football is it was love at first sight.

“I fell in love with the competition of college football. I fell in love with the community building of how sports can bring people from all different backgrounds together. I also fell in love with the relationships I was able to establish, primarily with my parents, by having something that connected us.”

Cohen said she would go to school wearing Huskies buttons on the Fridays before home games, and she would write letters to the football coaches, making recruiting suggestions or expressing sympathies if the team lost that week.

When she was in the fifth grade, Cohen wrote to legendary UW coach Don James, and told him she wanted to succeed him as the next coach of the Huskies when he retired.

He responded to her, noting that it wasn’t a likely outcome, but suggesting that opportunities for women in college sports were expanding.

“I never took it as a negative,” she said. “I felt like he opened the door.”

Cohen said she turned to her parents when she received the letter from James, and vowed then she would one day work in sports administration at UW, and would one day become that athletic director.

There were ups and downs, and starts and stops during the next three decades, she said.

“There’s no straight line to success,” she told the students.

Cohen discussed how she was wait-listed at UW when she applied there. She graduated from San Diego State in 1991, and earned her master’s degree from PLU.

She worked in athletic administration in several roles at PLU, UPS and Texas Tech. It wasn’t until a decade after Cohen left Curtis that she got her first job at UW, she said, as an assistant director of development, which was an entry-level fundraising position.

Cohen was named the 15th athletic director in UW history in 2016, fulfilling her childhood dream.

“I was told more often than not that I couldn’t do it. Especially because I was a girl, and especially because I was a mother,” said Cohen, who has two sons ages 16 and 13.

She said the lessons she learned from others during her long professional journey is what encouraged her to keep striving for the position she holds now, and she shared four of those with the Curtis students.

Failure is OK. Cohen told a story about the UW women’s rowing team, and a motto they came up with at the beginning of the 2017 season — they eventually won a national title — which was, “Embraced the suck.”

“Take some risks. Be bold. Have big dreams and big goals for yourself,” Cohen said. “And, when an obstacle hits you, which it will, and when you fall down, which you will, just stand up and look yourself int he mirror and say, ‘I’m going to embrace the suck.’ ”

Talent alone is overrated. For this lesson, she pointed to former Curtis basketball standout Isaiah Thomas, who despite standing at 5-foot-9, is now in his eighth season playing in the NBA.

“Isaiah figured out how to have a work ethic unlike anybody I’ve ever seen,” said Cohen, who was also at UW when Thomas played for the Huskies.

Turn off the negative noise. Cohen said she’s seen people succeed or not succeed in the business she’s in based on worries about perception. “Turn off the negative noise because it’s a waste of time,” she said, encouraging the students to take a day away from social media.

She spoke of Huskies quarterback Jake Browning, who takes a leave of absence from Twitter each year when fall football begins, and how

People’s strength lies in their differences, not their similarities.

“It’s natural tendency for us to gravitate to the people we’re most comfortable with,” she said. “That look like us, that act like us, think like us and come from the same backgrounds as us. ... That’s doesn’t make us great. What makes us great is working with people that we don’t understand as well, and make us uncomfortable.”

That’s what Cohen loves so much about sports.

“We have kids on our football and basketball teams whose parents are millionaires,” she said. “And we have kids that have told me, before they came to the University of Washington, that they didn’t know where they were going to get their next meal.”

Cohen said, in team environments at UW, athletes have learned to embrace those differences, to love and respect each other, and that has produced extraordinary results.

“Uncomfortable is good,” she said. “Uncomfortable is where we grow.”

Before Cohen addressed the school, she spend a class period with the leadership students, and said she was inspired by how thoughtful and progressive the students were.

“The thing that made University Place and Curtis so special, more than anything else, was just the family atmosphere, and the community feeling of the school,” she said.

“Just being here this morning, getting to meet with the leadership class first, you can really feel that energy of community still at Curtis.”

Lauren Smith: 360-754-5473, @smithlm12