Washington athletic director Troy Dannen bolts for same job at Nebraska

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Troy Dannen started his Washington tenure with a promise. Speaking during his introductory news conference as Washington’s 16th director of athletics on Oct. 10, Dannen addressed UW President Ana Mari Cauce, seated directly to his right. 

“Presidents take a chance when they hire athletic directors,” Dannen said. “I told President Cauce, ‘Trust me, I will not let you down.’”

Five months later, he’s gone. 

Dannen, who took over after UW athletic director Jen Cohen departed for USC on Oct. 7, is leaving Washington for the same job at Nebraska, UW announced Wednesday. 

It’s a surprising move for Dannen, who purchased a home in Redmond last month, according to King County records. He was also in Palm Desert, Calif., attending a donor event with Cauce and UW football coach Jedd Fisch on Tuesday, a source who was in attendance told The Seattle Times.

“I look forward to recruiting a leader who is committed to the goals and values of Husky Athletics,” Cauce said in a news release Wednesday, “someone who will lead Husky Athletics into the Big Ten and build on the successes of recent months and years.” 

Dannen’s contract with Nebraska was first reported by ESPN’s Pete Thamel. Nebraska will pay him a $1.6 million base salary, which will increase by $100,000 during each of the next five years, according to the Omaha World-Herald. His contract includes four stay bonuses beginning in 2027, along with additional performance incentives.

His base salary at Washington was $1 million with annual 2% raises, along with performance bonuses, according to his contract, acquired by The Seattle Times. He earned a $20,000 bonus for Washington’s College Football Playoff appearance in 2023.

Additionally, Nebraska owes a $1.5 million buyout to UW because Dannen terminated his employment before June 30. Dannen also must repay the $290,000 in relocation bonuses and household moving expenses he accepted because he is leaving before completing one year at UW.

Dannen replaces Trev Alberts, who left Nebraska on March 13 to take the athletic-director role at Texas A&M. 

“Joining the Nebraska family is truly an honor,” Dannen said Wednesday in his first statement as Nebraska AD. “My family and I are humbled by the opportunity to be part of such a proud athletics program, institution, community and state. Growing up in Iowa, I watched a lot of Nebraska football on Saturdays with my family. I’ve spent a lot of time in the state and I’ve found that we share a similar approach to life, work and sports: Work hard, stay humble, compete and expect to win … I can’t wait to arrive in Nebraska and get to work.”

A search for Dannen’s replacement will begin immediately. Deputy athletic director and Chief Operating Officer Erin O’Connell again will serve as interim athletic director, a position she held after Cohen’s departure in August. 

Dannen presided over an eventful — if brief — 165-day tenure on Montlake. He oversaw Washington’s run to the College Football Playoff championship game, the hiring of Fisch to replace Kalen DeBoer after the latter’s move to Alabama and the firing of men’s basketball coach Mike Hopkins. 

The Huskies are deep into the search for Hopkins’ successor, targeting candidates such as Utah State’s Danny Sprinkle. UW anticipated moving quickly on the hire, sources told The Seattle Times. Dannen’s exit, however, is not expected to change the direction or timeline of the coaching search, according to Thamel. 

Dannen was also expected to lead Washington through a major conference change as the Huskies prepare to enter the Big Ten after more than a century as part of the Pac-12 and its predecessor Western U.S. conferences. 

“The future has never been brighter for Husky Athletics, and I am humbled to steward the next chapter in our storied history,” Dannen said in his introductory statement when he was hired.

Dannen arrived on Montlake after an eight-year stint as Tulane’s athletic director. He helped build the Green Wave into one of the strongest Group of Five football programs in the country, culminating in Tulane’s 2022 Cotton Bowl win against USC. 

He previously served as the athletic director at Northern Iowa, his alma mater, and spent time as part of the NCAA football oversight committee, NCAA football competition committee and the NCAA transformation committee. 

Dannen’s deep Midwestern roots might have led him to Nebraska. Marshalltown, Iowa, Dannen’s hometown, is 240 miles from Lincoln, Neb. Thamel reported the move was “deeply personal” because Dannen’s and his wife’s families both remain in Iowa.

Dannen’s UW replacement will face a slew of challenges, most notably dealing with Washington’s shaky financial situation.

Upon entry into the Big Ten, UW accepted a partial share of the conference’s media-rights deal worth $30 million per year, as opposed to the nearly $60 million other Big Ten programs will earn. Washington’s new conference will also require more travel expenses and resources for student-athletes, and the athletic department still must pay off its nearly $300 million loan for the 2012 renovation of Husky Stadium. 

All this for an athletic department that last summer projected a $7.8 million deficit for the current fiscal. Dannen previously brushed off worries about UW’s mounting financial obligations during his introductory news conference. 

“I understand we have a little bit of a lag coming with the Big Ten, but I’ll tell you this: The alternative would be much, much worse,” Dannen said in October. “The move to the Big Ten gives us hope for stability, vitality. While that full per diem from the Big Ten may be a little ways out, the future is bright.”

Dannen now won’t be part of that future, but Washington has options. O’Connell, the deputy athletic director, for example, has been at Washington since 2016 and is a former UW student-athlete. Virginia athletic director Ed Scott serves as an adjunct professor at UW’s school of education. 

Stanford’s chief communications officer, Carter Henderson, spent 10 years at UW in a variety of roles, and Nevada athletic director Stephanie Rempe worked at Washington between 2008-16, supervising the Husky Stadium renovation as a senior associate athletic director. 

Dannen’s replacement also will have to reinvigorate a disappointed and discouraged fan base that was just beginning to recover from DeBoer’s exit. Several former UW athletes voiced their frustrations on social media. 

UW basketball legend Isaiah Thomas volunteered on social media to be the new athletic director or the men’s basketball coach, and several current football players jokingly advocated for junior cornerback Elijah Jackson to become the athletic director. Former UW football star and 1991 national champion Mario Bailey called Dannen’s departure “unbelievable” but defended the former UW athletic director’s character and wished him good luck moving forward. 

Other former UW athletes chimed in as well, including former UW men’s basketball star Spencer Hawes and longtime assistant men’s basketball coach Will Conroy.

“It is long overdue to pull back the curtain at @UWAthletics,” Hawes posted to X. “The problem is, has been, and will continue to be upper campus and its lack of prioritization, investment, and overall vision with regards to college athletics. Time to step up [Ana Mari Cauce].”

Added Conroy: “Uw is (not) a stepping stone.”

Cauce, meanwhile, called the situation “deeply disappointing” but wished Dannen well despite the university being thrust back into an athletic director search.

“Leading this program is one of the greatest opportunities in the country,” Cauce said. “We’ve seen time and again how Huskies compete and win on the national stage and we are grateful for the strong support of Husky Nation, who have positioned us so well for the future.”

Seattle Times reporters Percy Allen and Paige Cornwell contributed to this report.

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