By Rachel DeSchepper
“This is huge!”
That’s what Patti Phillips exclaimed from her office the morning of December 5, as she typed out an email to us, her staff: “Two of the top five teams currently have women athletic directors, and Western Michigan is #15 right now…another woman AD. This is such an important milestone for women— it shows that women CAN run successful big-budget football programs, despite the myth that they can’t.”
We get emails like this that celebrate our members from Patti often. (They’re frankly the best part of our jobs!) This time, however, the celebration is particularly groundbreaking: To our knowledge, there have never been two teams with a top five ranking in the College Football Playoffs with a woman leading their athletics departments. But this year, Jen Cohen’s University of Washington Huskies are ranked #4, the Pac 12 champs, and headed to the Peach Bowl; Sandy Barbour’s Penn State Nittany Lions are ranked #5, the Big 10 champs, and headed to the Rose Bowl; and Kathy Beauregard’s Western Michigan Broncos are ranked #15, the Mid-American Conference champs, and headed to the Cotton Bowl. Are you kidding? As Patti says, “women rock!”
“The more women we see in these [AD] positions, the more likely we’re going to have more women who know that they can do it,” Cohen says in a phone conversation last Wednesday. “I think that that’s impactful and that tells a story for other women.”
But as we all know, getting to this point in a woman’s athletic career—especially at a Power 5 school, or on the Bowl Championship level—is not without its challenges and misconceptions. “Women don’t play football. So the question is always how does a woman manage a big-time college football program?” Barbour tells us. “The fact of the matter is, we manage it the same way we oversee wrestling or ice hockey, or some other sport we have in place. Having Jen and I with teams in that top 5, and us going to the Rose Bowl and Washington going the CFP … I think that starts to dispel that myth a little bit.”
For Cohen, who was promoted to athletic director at UW this past June and is in her 18th year at the university, past experiences helped pave the way to her new role. “These jobs are all about fit: Do you match up with what this institution represents, and what this athletic department stands for, and what this community believes in? This has been a great cultural fit, and it’s been the right partnership for the university and for me,” she says. “With all that being said, I’m not sure if anything prepares you for this position until you’re in it. The biggest challenge is really understanding leadership at this level: You’re working to bring hundreds of employees, hundreds of student-athletes, thousands of fans and community members all together under one mission. That’s an unbelievable task. I’m constantly learning and growing and evolving.”
Congratulations to our member, UW, for their great season thus far!