You call 80-year-old Gil Brandt, a treasure trove of football history, for insight into yet another way to honor Don James: by detailing his longtime relationship with the college game’s best coach currently, Nick Saban. First, though, Brandt must tell a story he has kept secret for almost 32 years.
“Let me tell you about Don and Carol James,” Brandt says, surely beaming through the phone at his Dallas-area home.
Brandt, who was the Dallas Cowboys’ vice president for player personnel from 1960 to 1988 and a longtime consultant to college football programs, remembers Texas A&M asking him to help with its coaching search after the 1981 season. He targeted two people for the Aggies: Michigan’s Bo Schembechler and Washington’s James. Schembechler flirted with the idea. James didn’t even have to think about it.
“He said: ‘I’m flattered you would even talk to me, but they’ve been so good to me at Washington. I don’t think it would be appropriate,’” Brandt recalled. “I can still remember the last four digits of his office number. Don was an extraordinary person, and so was his wife, Carol, and that’s just one example. You have to remember that, back then, the A&M job was like Alabama or Texas is now because of all the money and commitment they had to football.
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“They were offering for him to be the coach, athletic director and have the automatic rollover in the contract, all of that. It was a lot more money than he was making at Washington, let me tell you. But he gave it no thought.”
James was 49 at the time. He was coming off back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances. He had coached in three Rose Bowls in his first seven seasons at Washington. The Huskies were rolling, with a 29-7 record over the three previous seasons, and they were about to go 10-2 in 1982. James was perhaps the hottest coach in the nation, but he didn’t want to play The Game. He wanted to build a tradition at Washington. Texas A&M wound up hiring Jackie Sherrill.
“I don’t know if there was ever a person I met that didn’t like him,” Brandt said of James, who died at age 80 on Sunday.
But there were plenty who admired and followed the iconic Dawgfather. There were plenty who took his advice and prospered in life.
Like Nick Saban.
The Alabama coach, who has won four national titles (three with the Crimson Tide, one with Louisiana State), wouldn’t have even chosen the profession if it weren’t for James. Saban, who had an auto affinity, figures he would’ve gotten a job at a car dealership, worked his way up to general manager and perhaps owned the place later in life. He would’ve been the most monotone salesman ever. But back in his 20s, the thought was much more alluring than coaching.
Then James, who coached Saban for two years at Kent State, changed his life.
James offered Saban a job as a graduate assistant coach in 1973 and made him believe in his potential. Forty years later, Saban is the best in the sport.
And he can’t thank James enough.
“Coach James was my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession,” says Saban, whose No. 1 Crimson Tide are pursuing a third consecutive national title and fourth overall in the Saban era.
Saban will tell you that he runs his program in a fashion similar to how James ran the show. Like many, Saban marveled at how organized James was, and he tries to be just as efficient. In terms of style of play, haven’t some of Alabama’s best teams seemed a lot like the 1991 Huskies? Tough. Aggressive. Defensive-minded. Traditional, but willing to stay on the cutting edge. Quarterbacks who don’t carry the offense, but wind up well-prepared for the NFL. Quality assistant coaches who are taught just as the players are taught.
There are plenty of wrinkles that make Alabama unique, but you still see the James in Saban.
“He wanted you to reach your full potential as a football player, but more importantly, he wanted you to do well in school and become the person you could be so you would be successful in life,” Saban said of James. “He was the same way when it came to assistant coaches or anyone who worked for him. You were a better person because of the time you spent with Coach James.”
Brandt, a close friend of Saban’s, can still see James’ influence on Saban.
“I think I’ve seen it on the field and off the field,” Brandt said. “You see it in how Saban treats the people around him. I think Don treated people with a great deal of respect, and a lot of that rubbed off on Nick. Don coached the coaches. Nick is the same way. I can remember Don coming down that long tunnel at Husky Stadium at 4 o’clock for practice, and as he was walking down that tunnel, he was already coaching guys. Saban emulates Don James in so many ways. If you saw the way Saban treats his family and those closest to him, you’d find it similar.
“Don James is just one of those people that you never forget.”
Whether you were calling James about a job he wouldn’t dare take or being persuaded into coaching by James, the impression was the same: What a man.
What a loss.
“There aren’t enough words to describe not only the great coach he was, but how much he cared for people and the positive impact he made in the lives of everyone he came in contact with,” Saban said.
And for the most successful member of the Don James coaching tree, there aren’t enough championships to describe how grateful Saban is that he listened to his wise old mentor.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @JerryBrewer