A small man with big glasses walked into a Renton gymnasium two years ago, shoulder to shoulder with his wife. To most of the youth basketball players joking around, he seemed like an elderly gentleman in the wrong place until one boy tapped another on the shoulder and whispered that greatness had entered the building.
“That’s Don James,” the boy said.
“How do you know?” his friend asked.
“I just do,” the boy replied. “He’s the Dawgfather.”
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These children never saw James in his heyday. They were years from being born when he abruptly retired in 1993. But as word spread that the legendary Washington football coach was among them, they stood still and stared and behaved like his players once did when he entered a meeting room.
The scene defined the notion of having a presence. James probably didn’t know what swagger means, but he had it. Definitely, he had it. There he was, at age 78, making an appearance on a celebrity panel at the Eldridge Recasner Basketball Academy, and his authoritative manner still resonated with kids who barely recognized him.
I’ll never forget that night in Renton. James was at his charming, captivating best during an event that didn’t even draw 100 people. It was an intimate glimpse into who he was and why he was.
On a solemn Sunday, as word spread that James had died at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, the anecdote is comforting reassurance that one of college football’s greatest coaches will never be forgotten.
How do you know Don James is immortal?
You just do.
He’s the Dawgfather.
He’s likely your favorite football coach’s favorite football coach. When Husky legends that played for James from 1975 to 1992 talk about him, they still speak as if trying to gain his approval. While Washington’s rich football tradition goes even deeper than James, he is the standard that coach Steve Sarkisian and the entire program are attempting to recreate.
The Huskies will return to prominence one day. They might duplicate or even surpass some of the accomplishments of the James era. But it’s hard to imagine a coach engendering the respect, the fear and the trust that James did.
When you think of James, nearly every S-word in the dictionary comes to mind: stern, strict, substantive. He was as simple as the eight letters that make up his entire name. For me, someone who remembers watching his great early-1990s Huskies teams as a teenager but not meeting him until I arrived in Seattle seven years ago, James was like the kindhearted grandfather whose children swear was much more intimidating when they were young.
The elder James was a fun, insightful interview, and he never spoke about the past as if he were trying to remind you of his excellence. He was so matter-of-fact about mesmerizing, monumental events in Husky history. It’s no surprise that his former players hung on his every word. He was an economic talker; everything he said mattered. Most every message he gave was received.
Though some would describe James as rigid — a do-what-I-say, trust-in-the-way-we-do-things leader — it’s the versatility he displayed as a coach that made him special. Not a prisoner of stubborn, he posted a 153-57-2 record at Washington because he never let success cripple him. Even though the Huskies were winning, James brought Keith Gilbertson in and changed the team’s offensive philosophy.
During an infamous 32-24 loss to Arizona State in 1989, he watched the Sun Devils keep his defense at bay by operating out of the shotgun and throwing at will. So James supported a more aggressive, attacking style, unleashing coordinator Jim Lambright on college football. The Huskies wound up winning 33 of their next 35 games. They made three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances and won a share of the national title following the 1991 season.
Overall, James went to six Rose Bowls and had only one losing season in 18 years at Washington. The only disappointing part about his tenure was the ending. He quit in 1993, feeling the Pac-10 unfairly hammered his program with sanctions and believing the university hadn’t supported him well enough during the difficult time. The program has yet to fully recover.
Some still blame James for not hanging in there and leaving the program in better shape. Few endings are clean or fairytale-like anymore. But history will remember James as one of the best coaches of all-time, the winningest coach in Washington football history and a master at creating teams that illuminated the hard-hitting Northwest toughness that so many fans associate with Husky football.
He stood in renovated Husky Stadium for his annual practice visit just two months ago, looking slim and healthy, walking shoulder to shoulder with Carol, his wife of 61 years. On that day, as he addressed the team, young men who weren’t alive in his heyday stood still again and listened. They were captivated. They had to be. No one would dare show disrespect to the Dawgfather.
How do you know Don James is immortal?
You just do.
You can feel it. And that feeling will remain, even though he’s gone.
It’s amazing what came of such a humble beginning. He was the Huskies’ fallback option after Dan Devine and Mike White turned them down. He lost 14 of his first 26 games before finding his way early in the 1977 season and making his first Rose Bowl appearance with quarterback Warren Moon.
“Suffering develops endurance,” James once told Sports Illustrated of his slow start.
He has suffered enough. No more cancer. No more surgeries. Now, we let his legacy endure.
How do you know it will?
He’s Don James. That’s all you need to say.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer