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Mike Bohn carrying Boulder roots into new job as USC AD

Former Boulder Panther settling in with Trojans

New USC athletic director Mike Bohn is introduced in Los Angeles on Nov. 7, 2019. (Photo by John McCoy, Contributing Photographer)

It’s not like Mike Bohn plans to turn USC into some sort of version of CU Boulder West.

He is now the caretaker of a rich, and powerful, athletics legacy. Yet it’s impossible for Bohn to prevent a little bit of Boulder from seeping into everything he touches. It is, after all, in his blood.

A recent visit to speak with Bohn under the beautiful blue skies in the Los Angeles sunshine found the former CU athletic director as a man in transition. Though he was about two months into his job as the new athletic director of the Trojans, Bohn had only just recently moved out of the hotel he called home for the bulk of the previous two months. He was embracing aspects of the job he never had to oversee at CU, such as spending that sunny afternoon in the outdoor bleachers of Uytengsu Aquatics Center watching the Trojans’ women’s swim team take on Cal.

Bohn almost expresses childlike fascination while showing off the multitude of Heisman Trophies and football national championship trophies that fill the ground-floor lobby of the USC athletics administration building. Sure, there is one of each of those at CU, but that’s hardly enough to fill an entire room. And for Bohn, a Boulder native and a two-time state champion basketball player at Boulder High, every one of the glittering prizes represents a piece of the challenge ahead.

At USC, particularly in football, being good is rarely good enough.

“The acclimation has been challenging and rewarding at the same time,” Bohn said. “It’s a completely different set of circumstances than when I left (the Pac-12) in terms of the structure, and there’s just so many new leaders on campus and within the program that have been around this. That’s been really, really inspiring to be part of that, and be part of that sense of momentum, and that sense of collective commitment to everybody wanting to fly together through the entire campus. It’s been really refreshing to be part of that.

“I think any time you have an opportunity to compete at the highest level you have to embrace it. They’re a consistent top-five finisher in the nation in the Director’s Cup. Obviously the connection to the Rose Bowl. The connection to aspiring for national championships. As a competitor, I think that’s ultimately the prizes that you want to compete for.”

Bohn arrived at USC after a roundly successful six-year tenure as the AD at Cincinnati, which provided Bohn a soft landing after his emotional departure from CU in 2013. Despite a checkered CU track record in hiring football coaches — Bohn hired Dan Hawkins and Jon Embree, as well as Mike MacIntyre, who led the Buffs to the 2016 Pac-12 South title — Bohn made plenty of commendable contributions to CU athletics. That includes overseeing the Buffs’ move into the Pac-12, hiring Tad Boyle, and kick-starting the drive to pump up the attendance numbers for men’s basketball, which set all sorts of program records during the 2012-13. He also led the addition of CU’s women’s lacrosse program and hired women’s soccer coach Danny Sanchez, who has led the Buffs to five NCAA Tournament appearances.

Still, those accomplishments didn’t dull the sting of Bohn’s forced resignation. All these years later, Bohn has come to grips with his exit from his hometown school, and he expresses gratitude for the career path that ensued.

“I have nothing but admiration and respect for CU,” Bohn said. “Phil (DiStefano) hired me and I understand how this business is, that sometimes the transient nature of it is not ideal. But we signed up for this and I understand that. It’s allowed me to do incredible work and growth professionally and personally from the time at CU, but also that led to some work at Cincinnati that I’m extremely proud of. I cheer for the Buffs in every single game except one — every time they’re playing the Trojans.”

As lustrous as his position is at USC, Bohn inherited several big challenges. His football coach, Clay Helton, is likely facing a make-or-break season in 2020. Just a few weeks after being introduced at USC, Bohn and the Trojans received a notice of allegations from the NCAA for the men’s basketball program, presumably for the ties of coach Andy Enfield’s program to the FBI’s college basketball corruption probe. And, of course, there is the ever-widening revenue gap between the Pac-12 and other Power 5 conferences that is setting the league further behind its national rivals.

As he has throughout his career, Bohn expects to draw on the experience instilled by his Boulder mentors to navigate whatever challenges are hurled his way at USC.

“I think back to growing up in Boulder to the Boulder-Fairview rivalry. You know what? When they were really good, they helped make us better,” said Bohn, who is planning to return to Boulder this week when Boyle’s Buffs host the Trojans on Thursday night.

“For example, when we won two state championships out of three years (in basketball), I think that really elevated Fairview for them to win theirs. It’s similar to that, but yet it’s also on such a bigger stage and with bigger stakes. I think, again, there’s nothing better than competing against people you really have great respect for. When you talk to Ronnie Lott and you talk to Marcus Allen here (at USC), they talk about how on different sides of the ball they were constantly challenging each other, and it raised both of their games. I think that’s obviously what I believe we can do and want to do.”