I just figured if anyone could successfully game plan death, it would be Don James, who took on each and every opponent like no other.
The last time I talked with him he was walking four miles a day on a treadmill, swinging a weighted-golf club 100 times and lifting weights, making all the right decisions about his health and his future.
Even if it meant he abandoned the Washington program when he walked away weeks before the start of the 1993 season. Even though he was just 60 years old.
“Our family doctor told me I would have been dead within five years with the wear and tear of coaching,’’ James said a few years ago.
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He never entertained another offer to coach after he left Washington. Perhaps he exchanged five years for 20, finally losing a battle with cancer few survive.
Even in the end he was organized, diligent, intelligent, whatever it took to be better than the competition.
It made James sound cerebral, which he was. But he also had that gritty, rust-belt mentality of his roots, in Ohio, near the birth of football. His teams played smart, well-schooled football, but they were also tough, bordering on mean.
I viewed them from a couple of vantage points, one as sports editor of the Eugene, Ore., paper and then for 10 seasons as a columnist for The Seattle Times. Of all the coaches I have covered in a variety of sports, from John Madden of the Oakland Raiders, to Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman and basketball coach Dick Harter, to Mariners manager Lou Piniella, to George Karl of the Sonics, Chuck Knox of the Seahawks and Marv Harshman of the Huskies, James was the best at fixing what was broken.
His death — and the retrospection that comes with it — took me back to that night in Miami when we sat on a bench in the locker room of the old Orange Bowl and he patiently explained how his team had run over Oklahoma for a big upset of the No. 1-ranked Sooners.
That was a great season for Washington. But that was also a season in which the Huskies beat Oregon with defense and special teams as the UW offense was held to three first downs and 109 total yards.
In the time to prepare for the Orange Bowl, James changed his team’s blocking schemes, Jacque Robinson ran wild and James had done it again. His UW bowl record of 10-4 indicates what he could do with time to prepare.
I still think his innovative win over Michigan in his first Rose Bowl was the most important victory in Huskies history. The Huskies had faded badly to the onslaught of professional sports in Seattle. That fade route stopped when he arrived. The Huskies remained relevant. Don James saw to it.
Although he had 16 consecutive winning seasons, James watched his program bob up and down.
After losing to an Alabama team in the 1986 Sun Bowl, the Huskies were judged too slow. So James checked the stopwatches.
He started recruiting track stars, like Dana Hall and Orlando McKay. He authenticated times and weights with those of his own.
When his offense became dated, he stepped fearlessly into a new era by hiring Keith Gilbertson from Idaho, a Dennis Erickson man, to remake the offense.
Unlike so many coaches, he wanted to hear bad news. Jim Lambright talked about a loss that prompted the Huskies’ jailbreak defense that earmarked the national champions.
“He asked us: If we played that team four times over, and played the way we had been playing, how many games would we win?’’
The assistants agreed with the head coach; things had to change.
I remember a game in 1987, a 27-14 win over 13th-ranked Arizona State and James’ complete orchestration of the outcome.
It started when he appealed through the newspapers for better crowd support, especially from UW students. For the first time in memory, the hardcore of the student section stood throughout a Huskies game.
At one point, a police officer radioed Mike Lude, the UW athletic director, asking that the students be seated.
“I told him to go to hell,’’ Lude said.
On the field, the Huskies moved three linebackers in behind a five-man defensive line that included the strong safety. ASU was held to minus yards rushing.
In the locker room, James convinced his players that they not only had the speed to play with ASU, but had more speed. He was a great motivator, a better problem solver, and the best coach the Huskies ever had.
Blaine Newnham was a Seattle Times columnist from 1982 until his retirement in 2005.