We’re losing them all too quickly now, the giants whose college teams wrote indelible history in this state.
In a little more than four years, the roll call: Jim Owens, Jim Sweeney, Frosty Westering and Marv Harshman. And now Don James, the understated figure who had an outsized place in the University of Washington’s hefty football heritage.
If Owens thrived on challenging the very core of his players’ will, turning around the Big Ten’s domination over the Pacific Coast, James, who died Sunday, did it with exquisite preparation and fastidious attention to detail.
It was once said of Bill Snyder, the septuagenarian Kansas State coach, that when his team took a trip to Tokyo for a game, he considered which side of the airplane the sun would hit, affecting players’ sleep. That was Don James, who surely knew how many dimples there were on a football.
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James should forever be proof that it’s foolish to judge a hire on the spot. He didn’t look like much when Washington athletic director Joe Kearney pulled him out of Kent State in 1975, at least compared to the other finalists, Dan Devine and Mike White. Imagine how talk radio and the Internet would have fricasseed Kearney — and James — upon that selection.
All James did was create an empire.
“When Joe left,” James told me a few years ago, only half-joking, “I wasn’t sure his firing wasn’t because he hired me.”
I’ll always look at James through the prism of underdog, have-not programs that I was around when he was riding herd. He drove them crazy. Beating Washington was the Holy Grail for Oregon, Oregon State and Washington State. James, meanwhile, fell back on an old military stratagem: Divide and conquer. He controlled the Northwest, and then came to dominate the Pac-10.
James’ teams went 15-3 against Oregon, 15-1 against OSU and 13-5 against the Cougars. More than the numbers, it was the way they did it. Sure, there were blowouts, but what would chap the Ducks raw was the way Washington would reveal a hint of vulnerability, and then the Huskies would take it off the table with some infernal feat of defense or special teams.
In 1979, after James had gotten established in Seattle and a victory over the Huskies would have been monumental, Oregon had a 17-0 lead in the second half. The Huskies kept grinding, got within three, and then won it on Mark Lee’s punt return with two minutes left.
Five years later, in Seattle, Oregon held Washington to three first downs. Three. And the Huskies won, 17-10, on a defensive touchdown and a punt return.
The Cougars managed to beat James five times, including the mother of all upsets in 1982, when the Apple Cup returned to the WSU campus for the first time in 28 years.
Jim Walden, the ex-WSU coach, once remarked that it must have driven James batty to have to play a key game at a place where he didn’t know if the team hotel would serve the pregame meal 10 minutes late, or how long was the walk from the locker room to the field or what the wind might be doing at 3:15 p.m. This was a man who knew exactly how many minutes it took to go from the TV studio, where he taped his highlight show on Sunday morning, to his office.
I interviewed James in 2010 at his Kirkland condo, which, predictably, was immaculate. He was genial, and at times, funny and self-deprecating.
What a different time it was in 1977, when the Huskies went to their first Rose Bowl under James. Washington had to wait a week after its Apple Cup victory to see if USC would beat UCLA and send the Huskies to Pasadena, and James and his wife Carol hosted a gathering of media to watch the game.
When USC won, James got a congratulatory call from somebody back in Kent, Ohio.
“I couldn’t get off,” he said. “I took a call from Kent State. It was a bar or bowling alley. I talked to everybody on every chair, and I knew who they were – a former coach, the town prostitute. I should have just hung it up, but I stayed on the phone.”
After Washington had begun its celebrated turn to a blitzing, pressure defense in the late ’80s, the Huskies throttled Florida, with Emmitt Smith, in the 1989 Freedom Bowl.
“We were hitting him so hard, he took his pads off in the first quarter,” James recalled. “He didn’t want any more of it.”
A little sheepishly, he added, “Pro scouts asked me and I said, ‘He’ll never make it. He doesn’t have very good speed and he doesn’t want to take a hit.’ ’’
Smith, of course, went on to become the NFL’s career rushing leader. For James, it was a mulligan in a green-jacket career.
Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or firstname.lastname@example.org