Jennifer Cohen, USC’s New Athletic Director, Aims to Elevate School’s Status as a Premier Sports Destination

Meet USC’s Tenacious Athletic Director, Jennifer Cohen

USC’s newest athletic director, Jennifer Cohen, has certainly hit the ground running since her appointment in late August. In a whirlwind of change, Cohen swiftly forged a rapport with renowned football coach Lincoln Riley, all while meticulously evaluating the overall health of the entire USC athletic department. (Ringo Chiu / For The Los Angeles Times)

The holiday weekend traffic on I-5 had slowed to a creeping pace, the cars inching toward SeaTac airport. Jennifer Cohen was already beyond antsy, longing to see her youngest son Dylan, an urgent need stirring within her. It had been months since she had spent time with him, and the prospect of finally reuniting set her heart racing with anticipation. After all, her life had been a whirlwind since becoming USC’s athletic director—balancing Washington’s move to the Big Ten with Dylan’s freshman year in Montana. Now, Montana had a first-round bye in the FCS playoffs, while USC had an unusually late bye off baked into its football schedule. It was the perfect window for a brief family reunion before her schedule consumed her once more.

As Cohen inched toward the terminal to pick her son up, she considered jumping out of the car to run the rest of the way. The whole scene played out in her mind like a slow-motion movie.

Leaving her son behind for college marked a profoundly formative phase for Cohen. At 54, both her boys—Dylan and his older brother Tyson—were on their own, leaving her to face the reality of an empty house. The enormity of this change took her by surprise last summer, prompting her to consider leaving her lifelong home.

“You never really are told by people that, like, ‘Hey, this is a pretty traumatic change in your life,’” Cohen said this week. “When you become an empty nester, and you see your kids go and move on and change the way that they rely on you…like, you just don’t know what that’s going to feel like to have that change.”

Amidst the personal upheaval, Cohen found herself wondering about her next steps professionally. After a fulfilling 25-year stint at Washington, she was now at a crossroads, contemplating a new start at USC. Legendary Husky coach Don James, whom she admired since her younger days in Tacoma, had been a significant source of inspiration. Leaving behind her established roots in Seattle wouldn’t be easy, but as an empty nester, Cohen yearned for something new.

The opportunity came when USC called. Cohen’s gut told her that she was ready for the challenge. She didn’t need to leave Washington, but the prospect of stretching herself in a new environment was too tantalizing to resist.

Three months later, after a rare visit with her sons in Seattle, Cohen returned to Los Angeles, finally ready to move into her new home in Manhattan Beach. It was a symbolic leap into her future.

Since stepping into her new role in late August, Cohen’s days have been abuzz with meetings, initiatives, and making essential connections. But amidst the whirlwind, she realized the daunting task at hand. Over the past decade, USC’s athletic department has been marred by instability, weathering the turmoil of four athletic directors in 13 years. Cohen understood this and had her own apprehensions about taking on the challenge.

But she bet on herself and her vision for USC’s athletic program. The bold bet seems to be paying off, as Cohen has delved headfirst into her new role, tirelessly steering the department through adversity and change. Her focus remains on building a united front within the USC community.

The excitement in Cohen’s voice is evident as she delves into a discussion about her first three months on the job at USC. Her passion and determination shine through, infusing a sense of optimism for the future of USC athletics. The conversation reveals the resilience she brings to her role, shaping a new era of stability and success for the Trojan family. USC’s future, under Cohen’s leadership, is undoubtedly one of promise and transformation.


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