When Boise State takes on Washington in Seattle on Saturday, Chris Petersen will be conveniently based in Los Angeles at the Fox studio working as an analyst.
“I get to be Switzerland,” joked Petersen.
It’s a busy week for Petersen, who made his name as the Boise State coach for eight years before taking the job in Washington in 2014. But he took time out for a chat to talk about USC’s new athletic director, Jennifer Cohen, his former boss.
Cohen became Washington’s athletic director in 2016, two years into Petersen’s tenure. By this point, the two were already close confidants. Their relationship actually began in 2014, when Petersen finally began taking calls from applicants for larger programs. USC called and paid a visit to Boise, but Washington ended up being a perfect match — and Cohen deserved credit for making the connection.
Here we start our interview with Petersen:
J Brady McCollough: When did you meet Cohen?
Chris Petersen: I only met her at Scott’s [Woodward, Washington’s previous athletic director] and she came to Boise to talk about this job. I wasn’t really sure who she was or what she was doing [laughs]. I knew who Scott was, but I liked her when we were talking about my trip to Washington, and when we decided to do it and came, she showed up a day or two later and I was like, “What are you doing?” And she said, ‘Well, I’m here to help you.’ And I’m like, ‘Do what?’ Because I’ve never had anyone like this, a sports administrator, busy with you all the time. I just didn’t have the frame. We didn’t have that luxury in Boise. If I needed anything, I would ask the AD.
Quickly, very quickly, I could see that it was her on it. And she understands football, she understands athletics, she understands the whole situation and she really understood the dynamics of running a team and an organization. She was just a really great think tank for figuring out a lot of things. We just solved a lot of problems together.
JBM: It’s almost as if Cohen’s role represented your entry into a “Power Five” life.
CP: It’s really nice because it’s a different angle. You are surrounded by so many people, your staff, some admins in your staff, but she might be thinking on a higher level. It was really helpful.
JBM: Looking back: How did you find Washington and what influence did Cohen have there?
CP: That’s why I’d spoken to quite a few people over the years. Not many. But a few. And the only thing I understood is how important the people you work with are. Not only in relation to your staff, but also in the direction of the university, really by the President, definitely by the AD, and by people who will support you. I understood how important it is to be completely aligned. I think people often don’t agree. They take jobs when they’re not aligned, and it’s hard to get right out of the gate because both sides don’t get all the answers they need if they want to work together. And it was really important to talk to Scott and Jen so I could fit into this place in Washington. That was probably the biggest hurdle.
I’ve been with Boise a long time, 14 years as an assistant and head coach. I think there is a shelf life that any place can have. Sometimes you feel like you need another challenge to keep growing, but I didn’t go because I knew what a good job I had in Boise unless I felt like we totally were in line. And I 100% felt that when I spoke to Jen and Scott at the University of Washington.
JBM: What were your strengths as senior football administrator?
CP: She had so much institutional knowledge about how things worked there, who was influential, who was going to be important, it was a big deal. And then her view of things was just so apt that I often didn’t think about it.
The other thing that caught my eye very quickly [laughs], one of her superpowers is reading people and finding out personalities. She could tell me that you will really identify with this person, or I don’t think this person will be someone that you will be a very good match. She was so good at that. Even when she became the manager, I didn’t care what position I hired in our building. I was always trying to figure out if Jen had 15 minutes to talk to that person. And she didn’t know anything about that person, but I always wanted her to understand what she was thinking. She was really good at what people are about.
JBM: She grew up a Husky fan and obviously loved the program. How did you see that in everyday life?
CP: She just had a lot of institutional knowledge and had been there a long time and worked her way up. I don’t know, I just liked her whole mentality. Her motto was just, “Roll up your sleeves and get to work, let’s work hard and solve tough problems.” I just think that Jen is very confident, that she’s really good at reading the room, and that she’s tremendous has courage. She will do the right thing.
JBM: What do you mean?
CP: These jobs are political jobs. Unfortunately, being a football head coach is a political job. At the time we never thought it would be like this, but there’s a lot of politics that goes with all stakeholders and that’s certainly the case in the AD position. I have seen her over and over again, she will do the right thing and trust her judgment and conscience. It’s often easier not to do the right thing just to make a lot of people happy, but that doesn’t move your organization forward.
In the seven years that she has been here, she was well prepared to take over the leadership. In my opinion it was completely obvious. She was just really good at knowing the landscape and being an expert on the subject. Now it’s different once you’re in that chair, so there’s a learning curve. But watching her grow and watching collegiate athletics and certainly football make the 180 degree turn that it’s taken in the last three to four years, watching her adapt, adapt , learning and fighting like we’re all doing in this environment now…she has a really good sense of, OK, that’s the best course of action.
Since there really aren’t many good answers in collegiate athletics, football, and with all the rebalancing, it’s simply because of many years of lack of leadership at the top of the NCAA, there’s a lot of money involved, and so on, you’re just trying to survive, each for himself and the best for our program. It’s not about the common good. I think that’s where a lot of people get frustrated, but she sees the whole thing, she really does. She knows where to move the parts to.
JBM: Were you surprised she decided to go to USC?
CP: Like I said, I’ve been through a lot of it. Every situation can have a shelf life. It affects everyone differently. So I don’t think this is negative for Washington. I think about what a great job she did here in a really difficult situation and how she advanced this sports program and the culture she built within it, how the coaches and everyone were together and felt supported and cared for , all those things. She’s going to keep going, and it’s everyone’s job in Washington to find the next really good piece for Jen to build on.
I think USC is very lucky to have them. And like I said before, there’s a lot of politics on campus and a lot of players involved, but if people get out of her way and let her do her job in that department down there, she’s going to do better at USC, that’s it no question.