Fighting On: Mike Bohn emphasizes championships and the student-athlete experience

(Design: Kitty Huang, Photo: Ling Luo | Daily Trojan

If you ask USC sports fans about the current state of the University’s athletics programs, you are likely to get a range of answers from “never been better” to “never been worse.”

Some might point to USC’s 19 national championships across seven different programs in the last decade. Thirteen out of 15 teams with record-based head-to-head schedules finished the 2019-20 year with a winning season.

Others might point to the facts that USC football has not made an appearance in the national championship game since 2006 and the men’s basketball team has not advanced past the second round of the NCAA Tournament since 2007. What’s more, the athletic department was at the center of the infamous 2019 college admissions scandal that shocked students and families on campus and across the nation.

So when former USC football star Lynn Swann resigned from his position as the University’s athletic director Sept. 9, it brought in an opportunity for newly appointed President Carol Folt to bring in a breath of fresh air.

Nearly two months later at a John McKay Center press conference, Folt introduced a new figure that she said was “known for his integrity, his competitiveness, his passion and for always placing students at the center of his work.”

A man soon towered over the podium donning a tie with the familiar cardinal and gold colors that matched the backdrop behind him. With his tall frame and booming voice, the words “Good morning!” struck reporters and viewers throughout the room.

Mike Bohn was introduced as USC’s newest athletic director and wasted no time sending the message that the standard for success for coaches, potential recruits and student-athletes on and off the field would be of national championship caliber, a sentiment he has stressed throughout his almost six-month tenure as athletic director.

He attributes this win-first approach to his early upbringing in Boulder, Colo. and his passion for sports from a young age. The son of a single physical education teacher, his mother Marlyn, Bohn has been surrounded by sports for as long as he can remember. His early reading content was largely sports-related — to the slight dismay of his teachers — and he and his two brothers would push furniture to the walls of their childhood living room to play tackle football when their mother was out of the house.

As the captain of three teams in high school, Bohn won multiple state championships and received the opportunity to further his career at the University of Kansas.

“My high school years were really [formative],” Bohn said. “My favorite season was the season we were in: If it was football season, it was football; if it was basketball season, it was basketball; if it was baseball season, it was baseball.”

Bohn claims to have hit .258 on the Jayhawks’ baseball team and played alongside future NFL players Frank Seurer, E.J. Jones, Bob Johnson, Wayne Capers and Sylvester Byrd as a backup quarterback on the school’s 1982 football roster.

“I didn’t play a whole lot, but I never missed a practice and was proud of that and proud to be part of a team around a great group of guys and some wonderful coaches,” Bohn said.

At Kansas, Bohn developed a relationship with current Marshall University athletic director Mike Hamrick, who worked in the Jayhawks’ sports marketing department. One day in 1983, Hamrick asked Bohn about his plans for the future. Puzzled at first, Bohn responded by saying he’d be satisfied to work in collegiate athletics. Hamrick helped Bohn secure an interview at Ohio University for the chance to obtain his master’s in sports administration.

Hamrick’s willingness to help Bohn find his way seems to be reflected in how the former two-sport college athlete approaches his job today.

“I think what I really like about him all the time is he goes, ‘If you need anything, ask. I’m here to help,’” new USC women’s volleyball head coach Brad Keller said of Bohn. “Everything that he talks about has to do with [the student-athlete experience]. I think whatever he says he’s going to do, he’s going to do it.”

The search to fill Swann’s position was unique in its inclusion of direct input from student-athletes, as senior track and field hurdler Anna Cockrell and junior football safety Talanoa Hufanga were selected to be on the University’s search committee for USC’s new athletic director.

“We were looking for someone who had proven experience, who had done this before at this level or a level comparable to the one that USC and the Pac-12 is on,” Cockrell said. “We were looking for integrity, honesty, success and for someone who was willing to listen and someone who was willing to be a team player because athletics isn’t on its own island, it’s part of the University.”

Hufanga was particularly impressed by Bohn’s candid nature upon first meeting him.

“I really enjoyed just meeting him in person and seeing what he was really all about,” Hufanga said. “I could tell that it was genuine. I know he wasn’t here to just come in [for] the bright lights and stuff. He really wanted us to make a change, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes.”

Bohn’s resume in college athletic departments is nothing short of full: He handled fundraising and corporate sponsorships at the Air Force Academy, dealt with television rights for several collegiate conferences at the College Football Association, guided the University of Idaho’s football program to what is now the Football Bowl Subdivision, increased fan attendance at San Diego State University sporting events, moved the football team at Colorado into the Pac-12 Conference and improved multiple facets of the University of Cincinnati’s athletic department.

Bohn stepped in as the athletic director for San Diego State in 2003 and for Colorado in 2005 at times when both universities were recovering from scandals of their own. His ability to help the two schools recover from those controversies was rumored to be a deciding factor in USC’s hiring decision.

“I don’t know why I seem to be drawn to big challenges and recognizing the optimistic piece of being able to make a difference and to improve the operation quickly with a lot of positivity and energy and experience,” Bohn said. “That’s the business, though. The good jobs that are open are generally [open] because something happened, something went wrong.”

Since 1984, every USC athletic director before Bohn had a previous tie to the University. Despite this, Bohn had his eye set on USC’s athletic director position for quite a while.

“I’ve had the USC fight song on my playlist since I was a kid and grew up loving following USC,” Bohn said. “We have so many wonderful Trojans around us that support us and guide us and give us history and insights into things that happen and went on, so I never felt like an outsider, ever … I can guarantee you one thing, though: If you cut my arm, I guarantee cardinal and gold are coming out.”

His tenure at USC thus far, however, has not occurred under ideal circumstances, as he’s had to work during an unprecedented time: The coronavirus pandemic put the sports world to a screeching halt in his first full semester at USC. Bohn said in a tweet March 12 that “informing our student-athletes and coaches that they can no longer compete is the hardest message I’ve ever had to deliver.”

“My heart aches for our student-athletes, for our country, for our community, for our entire institution, for Los Angeles, for our conference, for all the people that are key partners in putting together a viable intercollegiate athletic program,” Bohn said. “I’m a student-athlete-centric AD, and any time your athletes are hurting, you’re hurting.”

Cockrell echoed Bohn’s words when discussing her experience at the 2020 NCAA Indoor Track and Field Championships, which were canceled after USC athletes had arrived at the meet in Albuquerque, N.M.

“We were already at the meet and [the athletic department] figured out how to get us home that same day,” Cockrell said. “[The amount of] communication there’s been with everything going on has been really impressive.”

Cockrell also applauded the department’s decision to honor financial and scholarship aid to spring student-athlete seniors who choose to accept their additional year of eligibility.

The pandemic has led to concerns about the status of the upcoming college football season, but Bohn remains unfazed by the possibility of any sort of cancellation and optimistic about USC’s prospects.

“I just hope we have an opportunity to compete, but we’re gonna have a good football team if we can stay healthy,” Bohn said. “We have lofty goals for this year. Whether we can get into the [College Football Playoff], I don’t know. Obviously, the goal is to get to the Rose Bowl or higher, and I know that’s how our young men and coaches are thinking in that football program.”

A Rose Bowl appearance would require a Pac-12 Championship win and has not historically been an unusual goal (USC has made 34 appearances in the bowl game, more than any other school). But the fact that Bohn — who has yet to go through a full football season as USC’s athletic director — has already decided on an expectation shared by members of the football program despite two straight relatively underperforming seasons is indicative of the ambition he’s shown since taking over the job.

“Mike has been ultra supportive from day one,” head football coach Clay Helton said. “I’ve always thought that a first impression is key, and when he walked in [to my office] and offered [his] support, it was a terrific first impression.”

At the introductory press conference, Bohn responded to any potential football coaching changes by saying “Good programs finish strong.” Of the four games he presided over as athletic director, USC won three, with the sole loss coming in the Holiday Bowl against Iowa.

Social media nonetheless went into a frenzy when Bohn tweeted 11 days after USC’s win over UCLA that Helton would stay on as head coach of the program. While the decision was criticized by many, it was consistent with Bohn’s words at the first press conference.

“His support down the stretch of this season was one of the reasons we finished so strong,” Helton said. “He was a part of our team.”

Being the athletic director for any school in a Power Five conference is no easy task, especially with a blueblood football program, a fanbase with high expectations and a department previously embroiled in endless scandals. But for Mike Bohn, the ideal Trojan attributes are embodied in his approach to the position: resiliency, honesty and success.

“Anything that’s worth keeping score of, we want to be first,” Bohn said. “Is that a lofty goal? You’re darn right, it is a lofty goal. But if we’re going to keep score, we want to win.”