Jen Cohen ’94 drove the team van and slept on church floors, helping out as an assistant coach for the volleyball team at Pacific Lutheran University. She was a graduate assistant for the baseball program, too, and drove back and forth every day from her family’s home in Olympia to PLU’s campus as she worked toward her master’s degree in physical education with an emphasis in sports administration.
She even learned the best way to make popcorn for the concession stand.
Her time at PLU, Cohen said, taught her “everything — how to grind, how to build relationships and problem-solve.
To come in at that level and see the joy of sport for what it is, and the educational opportunities, that’s never left me. That’s what still inspires me and motivates me in my job now.”
Her job now: athletic director at the University of Washington, where she oversees 20 Division I sports programs and an annual budget upwards of $100 million.
And while PLU no longer offers the graduate program that helped launch Cohen’s career in college athletics, the most important lessons Cohen learned during her grad-school days are reflective of university-wide cultural standards.
“So much of that time at PLU, whether it was in the classroom or work in my graduate-assistant job, was the foundation for how I felt about working in sports to begin with,” Cohen said. “Philosophically, developing values, what my work ethic was going to be like — I had pretty tremendous role models in that program.”
Cohen, who grew up in the Tacoma area and attended Curtis High School, knew upon graduation from San Diego State University that she wanted to pursue a career in intercollegiate athletics. And she knew that she wanted to return to the Pacific Northwest. At the time, she said, there weren’t many local colleges offering a graduate degree in sports administration — she didn’t just want to work in the field, but wanted specialized instruction — so her decision to attend PLU amounted to a no-brainer.
She remembers a particularly insightful sports ethics class taught by Colleen Hacker, current professor of kinesiology at PLU and mental skills coach for professional, international and Olympic teams and athletes. Cohen lists Hacker and former football coach Frosty Westering as examples of role models from whom she learned during her time in the program. And to this day, Cohen said, she tells students seeking a career in sports administration to find a program that also includes a business component — just like PLU’s did when she was there.
“That was a pretty phenomenal time for me,” Cohen said. “I look back at it now, and there was so much excellence there.”
After graduating in 1994, Cohen worked in a variety of roles at University of Puget Sound, beginning as a facilities coordinator before being promoted to football recruiting coordinator. She left for a job at Texas Tech, and UW hired her in 1998 as an assistant director of athletic development.
“So much of that time at PLU, whether it was in the classroom or work in my graduate-assistant job, was the foundation for how I felt about working in sports to begin with. Philosophically, developing values, what my work ethic was going to be like — I had pretty tremendous role models in that program.”
As she worked her way to the top of the department over the next 18 years, Cohen broadened her experience. She always had a knack for development, spearheading several important fundraising initiatives and capital campaigns, including a drive to help fund the renovation of Husky Stadium. At one point, she worked in UW’s central development office to help raise money on behalf of the office of undergraduate education, but moved back to athletics to oversee the department’s major-gifts program.
Eventually, she established herself as the clear No. 2 in the department to then-athletic director Scott Woodward. When Woodward left in January 2018 for the same position at Texas A&M, Cohen was named UW’s interim athletic director, and immediately became a top candidate to become Woodward’s permanent replacement. Five months later, UW made it official — making her one of only three women leading power-conference athletic departments. She’s still the only female AD in the Pac-12.
Since Cohen’s appointment as athletic director a little more than two years ago, several of UW’s sports teams have made deep runs into the postseason and Cohen has made significant progress toward balancing the department’s budget; achieving financial solvency was her primary goal upon taking over in May 2016.
She is driven by the desire to provide the best experience possible for each of her school’s student athletes, and wants to foster a working environment similar to the one she encountered in Parkland some 24 years ago.
“Even though the program was small,” Cohen said, “the values are the same.”
Beyond what she learned through her coursework, and beyond the tactical duties of her various roles within PLU’s athletic department, there was something about the community that Cohen will remember forever.
“The family atmosphere of that program, and PLU in general — and the transferability of what we were learning to the work experience I was given — I think that’s really unique,” Cohen said. “I think their undergrad experience is like that, too. That’s one of the things that makes PLU special.”