Jen Cohen has traveled a long journey to get the top job at the UW athletic department. A lifelong UW fan, Cohen started at the ground level working for a school that she always knew she would work for. Her first job, landed in 1998, was in the area of development. She was a fundraiser. Week by week, year by year, Cohen endured the long, slow climb up the ladder inside UW. While others in her profession jumped upwards and sideways looking for a faster route to the top, Cohen stayed rooted. Perhaps she was confident that her opportunity would come. Perhaps she just liked her job.
Today, Cohen is the head man, as it were, of UW athletics. In what is her first major - and controversial - decision in this role, she hired a basketball coach whose story seems eerily similar.
Mike Hopkins started his long journey at Syracuse - a school that he played four years at - just a couple of years before Cohen began at UW. Like Cohen, he elected a career path with a focus on longevity and continuity, working his way up the pecking order on Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse staff. As early as 2007 - some eleven years after he joined the staff - rumors began to circulate that Hopkins would inherit the program. Someday.
By 2015, rumor had given way to a formal announcement. Hopkins was bestowed with the nearly worthless title of “coach-in-waiting” for a program that did not have a firm commitment from its current coach to retire. Hopkins lived with that title until this morning when Cohen tapped him to become the next head coach for the UW men’s basketball program.
Isn’t it interesting how Jen Cohen’s own story parallels that of her new head basketball coach?
The hiring of Hopkins appears to be the result of Cohen’s “master plan” to revamp her basketball program. That UW made the hire just a day after the Orangemen were knocked out of the NIT would indicate that Cohen had targeted Hopkins for this role. Rumors that Hopkins might already have a staff pulled together would further support this notion.
But why Hopkins? Surely if you are the AD of an emerging athletic department whose last major sport hire was a two-time NCAA football coach of the year, you must have your sights set on a candidate for your basketball program with similar chops. Right?
Few would argue that Mike Hopkins is that kind of hire for Jen Cohen. Still, he has some very compelling selling points. He’s an experienced assistant who is accustomed to playing in big games and in the postseason. He’s endured many of the issues that can plague big programs and he’s managed the egos of high-caliber players who have transitioned into the pros. UW fans will be encouraged by the fact that Hopkins is purportedly the brains behind Syracuse’s player development program - the typical “XO” in military parlance. He is also known as a top-level recruiter.
Hey, he even has a fan in one former UW player:
Nevertheless, nobody is arguing that Hopkins is the “Chris Petersen equivalent” in men’s basketball. In fact, it's not clear that any other program with a vacancy was looking at him. So why Hopkins as opposed to a more accomplished candidate?
The questions around Hopkins are many. He has never run a program at any level. He has no track record of putting up wins/losses for us to review. He lacks any kind of connection to the Seattle basketball community or to any of the Husky alums who are so instrumental in making that community vibrant. For that matter, Hopkins doesn’t have any kind of connections to the west coast at all. While he went to high school in LA, he’s been in the Big East since 1989 ... a timeline that predates even the era of one Robert Michael Bender as UW’s head basketball coach.
Interestingly, Bob Bender was still an assistant in 1989. He was in his last of six years as an assistant at Duke under Mike Krzyzewski. A hot property in his own right, Bender actually had a run of four years as the head coach at Illinois State before being hired at Washington. Aside from having the added experience of being a head coach, Bender had many of the same “outsider” attributes that some fans are now recognizing in Hopkins.
But I digress. That Hopkins didn’t seem to be a targeted candidate for any other open jobs, that he had previously been turned down by USC and Oregon State and that he might still be a top candidate for Syracuse whenever the 73 year old Boeheim finally does retire are observations that raise eyebrows. Nevertheless, Cohen saw something in him that made him her priority and she went with it.
Hopkins marks the first hire of a UW basketball coach without regional ties since the Bender era. He will be tasked with rebuilding a program that appears to be on the verge of being “blown up”. He will be doing so with a roster not nearly as skilled or talented as what he has been used to working with at Syracuse. What he does with those pieces in terms of development - particularly in the area of team defense - will be a key part of the strategy to stabilize the UW ship.
He will also have to reassemble a recruiting class that is at high risk of imploding. While nobody I’ve been in contact with can envision a scenario where Michael Porter, Jr - one of the top recruits in the nation and a player currently coached by Husky great Brandon Roy - sticks with UW, there may still be an opportunity to salvage local guard prospects Jaylen Nowell and Daejon Davis. Those odds go up precipitously if current UW assistant Will Conroy is retained as is rumored to be the case.
I’ve been impressed with the level of enthusiasm that UW fans have demonstrated in greeting Coach Hopkins, despite the fact that few admit to having ever heard of him before. This clearly speaks to the readiness for change that so many fans feel.
Time will tell if this gambit will pay off. It’s a gamble for Jen Cohen to dive so deep into the well for an unproven commodity. This decision will almost certainly leave UW shorthanded going into next season at a time when UW fans are getting very antsy about the long NCAA tourney appearance drought. The grace period given to this new regime will be brief and the scrutiny will be high.
But you can’t blame Cohen for taking the chance. It’s a story she knows all too well.