When I first encountered Don James, I wasn’t much older than his players — a 22-year-old fledgling reporter at The Yakima Herald-Republic who made occasional trips across the mountain to spice up our coverage.
On first blush, James, who died Sunday, was an unassuming, plain-spoken man who could have been your insurance salesman or high-school algebra teacher. Yet his aura — there is no other word — leapt out. What presence. What charisma. And what respect he engendered from the Huskies players.
“He’s like the god of football. We’re all afraid of him,” Billy Joe Hobert once told Sports Illustrated.
This was the early 1980s, when James was topping virtually every poll on the best college coach in America — in Sports Illustrated, Inside Sports and Playboy, among others. (He once said that the only time his wife, Carol, let him buy Playboy was for the annual college football issue. “But she reminds me that Playboy is a lot like National Geographic. Both have pictures of places I’m never going to visit.”)
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James, in fact, had a way with the quip for such a serious-minded man, famously saying before the 1983 Apple Cup, “I’ve always felt that being a Cougar prepares you well for life. You learn not to expect too much.” And he once cracked that he was “a 2,000-word underdog” to effusive Washington State coach Jim Walden.
I knew the story of how James was the third choice of Washington athletic director Joe Kearney, behind Dan Devine of Notre Dame and Mike White of California, when he was hired out of Kent State in 1975.
I knew how he got off to a halting start, losing four of his first six games in ’75, including a 52-0 rout at the hands of Alabama. And how Washington went 5-6 his second year, and started 1-3 in 1977, causing some unrest among Huskies faithful. Until they rattled off six wins in their final seven games behind quarterback Warren Moon, and then upset Michigan in the Rose Bowl. The Don James dynasty was born.
What I didn’t know until later was how far against the grain James went by sticking with an African-American quarterback in an era when black QBs were routinely moved to wide receiver or defensive back.
“Don put himself on the line for me, so all I was thinking was I couldn’t let him down,” Moon told The Akron Beacon-Journal in 2006 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
I soon learned that his players, virtually to a man, revered James, though as Hobert alluded, they feared him, too. Watching practices from atop his purple tower, James cut an imperious, regal, figure. A deity, almost — a recurring theme in quotes from that era.
“It’s like God looking over your shoulder,” wide receiver Mark Pattison told a reporter in 1984.
James’ discipline and organizational skills were the stuff of legend. The coach once told a reporter who interrupted him during dinner that he would call back in seven minutes, which he did precisely as promised. Every single minute of practice, of road trips, of recruiting trips, was planned and accounted for.
In his 50s, James climbed Mount Rainier and ran a marathon, keeping a log book of every workout, every mile he ran. In search of an elusive national title, James set the combination on a new briefcase he purchased in 1989 to 120, representing a 12-0 season. The Huskies reached that mark, and earned the national title, two years later.
James was firm in his beliefs, but also adaptable. When the Huskies struggled (by James’ high standards) in the late 1980s, James refused to accept a raise or contract extension built into his contract. More important, after watching a University of Miami spring practice, he realized he needed to recruit faster players and open up his staid offensive and defensive strategies. The result was the greatest success of his career.
“We thought he was a never-change, conservative coach,’’ Huskies center Ed Cunningham told Sports Illustrated in 1991. “We were wrong.”
When Kent State held a reunion of its 1972 bowl team — the Golden Flashes’ first and last league title — Hall of Famer Jack Lambert made a rare public appearance solely to honor James, who had been the first to recognize the linebacker’s talent.
And when James stepped down as Washington’s coach in 1993, his career over at age 60, his former Huskies players gave James their own tribute as he watched the first game from his family’s private box. Rather than bursting through the tunnel to band music and a blaring siren, they walked in, four abreast, holding hands. When they reached the bench, the players dropped to one knee and raised their helmets — each adorned with a “DJ” decal — toward James.
I was in another state when the program came crashing down amid revelations of NCAA rules violations, and I know there are different interpretations of James’ departure. But I’ve talked to enough Huskies to know that many, if not most, view his resignation as an act of principle, not dishonor.
And in the ensuing years, the more removed James became from his abrupt exit, the aura only grew. As the university struggled to rebuild the football program, the extent of his success resonated ever more deeply. And now that he’s gone, James leaves a shimmering legacy: the coach who defined a program.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @StoneLarry