CHRISTIAN CAPLE

UW Huskies AD Search: Pros, cons and candidates to consider

Mar 22, 2024, 11:41 AM | Updated: 11:44 am

UW Huskies athletic director...

The UW Huskies' Michael Penix Jr. takes the field at Husky Stadium on Sept. 23, 2023. (Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

(Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

When Jen Cohen left Washington to become athletic director at USC, I called former UW Huskies football coach Chris Petersen to get his thoughts on what the Huskies should prioritize in their search for Cohen’s replacement.

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(I also wanted to get him on record saying he wasn’t interested in the job, which he obliged.)

Petersen, who eventually advised on the search, told me in October: “I don’t think it has to be someone who has all this institutional knowledge, like Jen did. I think that was a huge bonus. But I think you need an expert in this landscape of college athletics that is so wildly crazy right now, that is a really good leader, and super excited and passionate to be at a place like Washington.

“These are stormy seas. You need somebody that’s done this and been through it and gets the landscape and has done some things in this business, and has seen it flip on its head in a really short amount of time and navigated, wherever this person is, and done some good things there.”

UW landed, of course, on Tulane athletic director Troy Dannen, who just became Nebraska athletic director Troy Dannen after less than six months at Washington.

Will president Ana Mari Cauce and her advisors rethink the parameters this time around? Will they insist on someone better connected to the school or region than Dannen? Or will they chalk Dannen up as an aberration, and prioritize the same traits as they did six months ago?

We’ll find out soon enough. Here’s what the landscape looks like for UW’s next AD.

Ranked: Who are and aren’t realistic UW Huskies AD candidates

The pros

The Big Ten and SEC continue to stratify above the rest of college athletics. There are only 34 AD jobs in those two conferences, and this is one of them.

Washington averaged 68,814 fans per home football game last season, which led the Pac-12. When the Huskies win, the stadium is packed.

The department reported more than $38 million in contributions in FY23, and is about to break ground on a fully donor-funded, $60 million basketball facility. Montlake Futures, UW’s donor collective, helped keep the 2023 roster together and says it has grown substantially since its November 2021 launch. Donors helped the department sustain during the COVID-19 shutdown. Fundraising is historically strong.

The football program is historically competitive and coming off a national-championship game appearance, and while men’s basketball has been stagnant, many of UW’s other sports programs regularly compete for conference and national championships. UW finished 21st in the Directors Cup standings in 2022-23.

The current head football coach’s salary would have been in the top third of the Big Ten last season, and the assistant salary pool ranked 11th nationally among public schools. When the Huskies lose coaches to other schools, it’s rarely for strictly financial reasons.

The school has a strong academic profile, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The cons

The budget is an obvious red flag, and it’s hard to know exactly how challenging the numbers are. For one, UW’s annual NCAA report — which showed a modest surplus in FY23 — likely doesn’t tell the whole story. Also, the department is on its third CFO in 14 months — recent Dannen hire Seth Dorsey — so there hasn’t been much stability on that front. What we do know is that without some measure of relief from the university/Board of Regents, UW’s annual debt service on the loan that financed the renovation of Husky Stadium is about to increase by roughly $8 million. Financial solvency is a daily struggle.

UW’s share of CFP revenue in the Big Ten will provide a boost, but the school still will lag well behind the rest of its conference peers (minus Oregon) in media-rights distributions. Will that hinder competitiveness against the likes of Ohio State, Michigan and Penn State?

Is campus leadership all-in on doing what it takes to compete in its new conference? The debt-service question could provide an answer. It could be viewed as encouraging that the university chose to absorb the fallout from the Pac-12’s Comcast overpayment fiasco, but the stadium debt is a significantly bigger obstacle.

The West Coast — competitively, culturally, politically — isn’t for everyone. Football is a big deal at UW, but the sport generally doesn’t matter as much here as it does in other parts of the country.

Dannen was paid a base salary of $1 million. Jen Cohen was making $1.2 million when she left for USC. Unless something changes, UW’s AD pay isn’t as competitive as its football salaries, and might not be enough to pry a sitting athletic director whose school is keen to match.

The new basketball facility will be a plus, but Hec Edmundson Pavilion, last renovated in 2000, is nothing special. Dannen and former coach Kalen DeBoer also believed UW had ground to make up in areas like nutrition, and DeBoer was insistent on a grass practice field. Joining the Big Ten is one thing, but ramping up to compete in that league is another.

Where might Washington take its search this time around? Here are some candidates UW would be wise to vet or pursue.

Who UW Huskies should consider

Pat Chun, Washington State athletic director

On one hand, Chun should be attainable, because he’s leading a department that’s been left behind in the wake of the Pac-12’s collapse. He’s also respected by his peers and has made multiple head-coach hires in both revenue sports — including men’s hoops coach Kyle Smith, a potential candidate for the vacancy at Washington. Chun has good reason to be skeptical of UW leadership, though, considering the school’s role in the disintegration of the conference. Typically, it would be reasonable to wonder if Cauce could easily digest hiring someone from WSU. This may be the exception. Considering the circumstances, Chun would be a home run — and if he were to leave the next time Ohio State has an opening, so be it.

Jeremiah Donati, TCU athletic director

File this one in the longshot category, but it can’t hurt to try; Donati reportedly withdrew from the USC search before the Trojans announced they had hired Cohen, and TCU announced a contract extension for Donati in November. He played basketball at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, graduated from Pullman High and interned for a time at Washington State. He has a law degree and used to work as an NFL player agent. He’s been at TCU since April 2011 — and been AD since 2017 — so it’s unclear how interested he might be in the UW job, and maybe it’s telling, one way or another, that he wasn’t among the four reported candidates last time around.

Allen Greene, Tennessee senior deputy AD

The former Auburn and Buffalo athletic director graduated from Seattle’s O’Dea High School, though his administrative career has never taken him west of the state of Mississippi. He’s never worked in the Big Ten, but his deep SEC experience should mean that he understands how business works at the super-conference level.

Mark Harlan, Utah athletic director

Harlan replaced Chris Hill as Utah’s AD in 2018 and soon established as a respected voice in the conference. He’s overseen a consistent winner in football and should understand the regional dynamic, and also should know something about overachieving with a middle-of-the-road budget, relative to the rest of his league. Would he leave for UW? Utah seems relatively well-positioned as it heads to the Big 12.

Stephanie Rempe, Nevada athletic director

Rempe worked for Scott Woodward at UW from 2008 until his departure in 2016, and followed him to both Texas A&M and LSU before taking the AD job at Nevada in June 2022. She’s a sitting AD, she knows the school and region, she’s spent nearly three decades in college athletics and she’s worked in one of the two super conferences. But she wasn’t a finalist the first time around, so it’s hard to say whether things would be any different now.

Chris Pezman, Houston athletic director

Admittedly, Pezman’s name wouldn’t immediately come to mind for this opening, had he not been reported as a candidate during the previous search. The fact that he was, though, seems to indicate at least some willingness to leave his alma mater, where he played football and has been AD since December 2017. He’s overseen facilities upgrades, capital campaigns and a transition to a new conference, and he worked at California for four years before taking the Houston job (and UW wouldn’t have to worry about him leaving for the hometown school).

The other two reported finalists the last time around, by the way, were Delaware AD Chrissi Rawak and Virginia deputy AD Ed Scott.

Erin O’Connell, UW Huskies deputy/interim AD

She has D-II athletic director experience, holding that job at Seattle Pacific from 2008-15, and has worked at UW since 2016. A former coxswain on the UW rowing team, O’Connell also was a rowing assistant at her alma mater. She should understand the school’s desired culture — and any inherent challenges — as well as anybody. Campus leadership didn’t seem to give much consideration to internal candidates when they hired Dannen, though.

This article was originally published at OnMontlake.com, the home for Christian Caple’s full UW Huskies football coverage. Subscribe to On Montlake for full access to in-depth UW coverage.

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