Washington hires AD Troy Dannen: Our analysis of the fit, the challenges ahead and the essential role his boss will play

The key to UW’s success in the Big Ten is president Ana Mari Cauce

New Washington athletic director Troy Dannen issued a rallying cry to UW staff and supporters during his introductory press conference on Tuesday.

“The challenge and the message to everybody is, ‘I want you to affect success.'”

The Hotline wondered how those words were received by the person sitting a few feet to Dannen’s right while watching the livestream.

Ana Mari Cauce, the president of the University of Washington, will have more influence on Dannen’s success within the department and UW’s success on the field than any employee, fan, donor, or alumnus alive today… or tomorrow.

Dannen’s tenure isn’t about him; the former Northern Iowa and Tulane athletic director is well-suited to run the Montlake show.

Rather, his tenure is focused on the school. It’s about the level of financial support given to athletics in general, the primacy of football on campus, and…. drumroll, please… the institution’s willingness to compete not only with USC and Oregon, but also with Ohio State, Michigan, and Penn State.

Cauce is the institution, at least until the 67-year-old decides to retire.

But first, let’s go back two months because understanding the recent past is essential for gaining insight into the near future.

— Jen Cohen, longtime UW athletic director, accepted the same position at USC on August 21. The move was unexpected — her name had not been linked to the position — but also entirely logical. Cohen, who grew up in Southern California, was looking for a new challenge.

As Dannen acknowledged on Tuesday, Cohen left the department in excellent shape on three critical fronts: conference affiliation (Big Ten), football program status (12-game winning streak), and department culture (strong).

“(Cohen) did something that most ADs don’t do,” Dannen explained. “She left behind a well-run department… There’s a fantastic foundation here.”

Dannen may have to make a decision in the spring about whether to keep or fire men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins. However, in the grand scheme of department priorities during a period of significant transition, that issue pales in comparison to conference affiliation, football results, and internal culture.

— Despite a future in the Big Ten, a rich football tradition, the school’s academic reputation, and the resources available in Seattle, Washington’s search did not generate widespread, significant interest from sitting ADs at Power Five schools.

Why? The Hotline makes no claims about the nature of conversations between prospective candidates across the country and the Parker Executive Search team, which managed the process.

However, we can make some educated guesses:

  1. The remuneration package was adequate but not exceptional, especially given the high cost of living in an area where Microsoft and Amazon stock options have driven up home values.
  2. The left-wing political climate on campus and in metro Seattle may have put off some potential candidates.
  3. The University of Washington’s remote location undoubtedly gave candidates from the country’s eastern half pause. Seattle is quite a distance from the competitive and philosophical heart of college athletics.

— Which brings us to the present moment: Dannen was hired as the 16th athletic director in school history after a two-month search.

One veteran athletic director (not from the Pac-12) stated, “Each time I see him, I walk away impressed.”

Other Hotline callers expressed similar sentiments.

Dannen grew up in Iowa, worked as the athletic director at Northern Iowa for seven years before taking over at Tulane. He has no ties to UW or Seattle and has never worked in the Mountain or Pacific Time Zones.

However, his time at Tulane was an unqualified success, demonstrating his ability to adapt to different situations and regions. Seattle is nothing like New Orleans, but neither is Cedar Falls, Iowa.

“Smart, level, can fit in anywhere,” according to another industry source.

Dannen hired Wille Fritz as Tulane’s football coach after the Green Wave defeated USC in the Cotton Bowl last winter.

Dannen’s service on numerous NCAA committees has provided him with a wealth of industry contacts as well as the intellectual foundation required to navigate the rapid changes affecting college athletics. “The next three to five years are going to put it to shame,” he said on Tuesday, referring to the recent upheaval.

Not for nothing: Cauce undoubtedly admired Tulane’s academic reputation (ranked 73rd among national universities by US News).

— When we learned that Washington had hired Dannen, our first thought was:

It’s a repeat of the Kalen DeBoer hire.

DeBoer, after all, was a Midwesterner (South Dakota) who had never been a Power Five head coach and lacked a buzz-generating name, but he had won at multiple stops (Fresno State and Sioux Falls) and was well-liked within the sport.

DeBoer was hired during the same period (after the 2021 season) that USC hired Lincoln Riley and Oregon hired Dan Lanning.

In comparison, some saw DeBoer as a letdown for a program of Washington’s stature. However, the last 22 months have dispelled any doubts about his ability.

Dannen arrives with Midwestern roots, success at multiple stops (Northern Iowa and Tulane), a lack of Power Five experience, and an impeccable industry reputation. The same model.

— While the spotlight was on Dannen during the introductory press conference, his on-camera partner made one particularly telling comment.

“We can’t solve problems by throwing money at them,” she said.

That is exactly what the Huskies must do in one extremely important matter.

DeBoer is arguably the Power Five’s most underpaid coach. The program is ranked in the top ten, alongside USC and Oregon, but he will earn only $4.3 million this season, while Lanning will earn $7 million and Riley will earn $10 million (approximately) from USC.

DeBoer is due for a massive raise, but will Cauce go to such lengths to keep wealthy suitors at bay?

A small pay raise will not suffice. The university must be willing to pay DeBoer one of the highest salaries in the country, which clearly contradicts institutional values but is the current and future reality of major college football.

The looming contract situation for DeBoer reflects a larger conflict that will define UW’s success in the Big Ten era.

The football program will compete and be judged against USC, Oregon, Ohio State, Penn State, and Michigan, but it does not appear to have the same commitment to winning. It is not committed to every aspect of the campus.

Instead, the University of Washington’s institutional ethos is deeply rooted in the desire to balance academics and athletics, to treat athletics and engineering as equal partners, and to pay the head coach the same as the head librarian — a commendable viewpoint that, while admirable, narrows the path to on-field success.

(This is a joke about the head librarian.)

However, DeBoer’s contract is far from the only impending strain on the system. As part of their membership agreement, the Huskies will receive half of the Big Ten’s media rights revenue, resulting in a $30 million resource disparity over the rest of the decade.

What steps will the school take to make up the difference?

One option is to restructure the debt associated with the Husky Stadium renovation in order to generate more cash for operations. (According to the Seattle Times, current payments are expected to double to around $17 million per year in a few years.)

However, this cannot be the only step taken to level the fiscal playing field with Ohio State, Michigan, and USC, who will receive a full share of Big Ten revenue.

It’s not all about the money, but money is a big part of the competitive equation. It all begins with DeBoer’s contract.

Will Cauce go the extra mile?

Will she provide Dannen with the tools he needs to succeed?

Will she answer his call and take the necessary steps to “affect success”?

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