The bronze statue of legendary Huskies football coach Don James will overlook Montlake Boulevard and be revealed Friday evening.
The security guard stationed in the northwest plaza outside Husky Stadium was eager Thursday afternoon to enforce a strict no-pictures policy. He had the look of a linebacker in pursuit of a ball carrier. Around him, six black makeshift curtains and a row of DO NOT ENTER yellow tape added another layer of security.
All this, and more, for Don James.
A little more than 24 hours before the larger-than-life coach was to be immortalized at the University of Washington, three workers used heavy-duty epoxy to secure in place the 500-pound bronze statue that will, starting Friday evening, overlook Montlake Boulevard. For now, James’ bronzed face is hidden by one of three large blue blankets that cover the length of the statue, standing 8 feet, 6 inches tall.
UW athletic department officials have gone to great lengths to keep images of the statue a surprise until the unveiling ceremony that begins at 5 p.m. Friday. All that is nothing compared to the effort to make the statue a reality.
“It’s pretty thrilling,” Carol James, the coach’s widow, said this week. “It almost takes your breath away because you never expect something like this.”
Friday’s unveiling is open to the public. Bob Rondeau will emcee the event. Former UW quarterback Warren Moon and former UW assistant coach Gary Pinkel are scheduled to make remarks.
Carol and others in the James family will be there, as will about 335 of James’ players, fellow coaches, colleagues and friends, including longtime athletic director Mike Lude. Many had a hand in contributing the $150,000 over the past year and a half to build the statue.
“The most special part is that this was a vision and hope of Don’s former players and coaches and close friends,” said UW associate athletic director Shannon Kelly, who managed the statue project. “It’s been a Husky family-owned effort from the beginning.”
Years ago, not long after a statue of former UW coach Jim Owens was erected in the same northwest plaza outside Husky Stadium in 2003, some former players had the idea of building one for James, too. James nixed the idea.
“No way!” he said, as Carol recalled. She chuckled. “But he can’t stop them now.”
After James’ death, four years ago this month, the effort began in earnest to get the project going. Former UW safety Jim Rodgers, a captain on the 1985 Orange Bowl team, made a formal pitch to a group of athletic department officials, including athletic director Jennifer Cohen, in the spring of 2016. At the presentation, he had a rendering of what the statue could look like, a plan of action to raise the money and a stomach full of nerves.
“I was a fish out of water,” he said.
“I said, ‘We don’t want money from Tyee (Club) and don’t want to take slice out of the big donors,’ ” he added. “We wanted this to be player-driven.”
He quickly got approval from Cohen. Then Rodgers — along with other former players such as Dennis Maher, Jim Simpson, Scott Fausset and Mike Ewaliko — began making cold calls to many other former players. “There were a lot of people who made this thing happen,” Rodgers said.
Some 325 former players donated, from $25 to $6,000. When the goal of $150,000, give or take, was reached, Rodgers turned the project over to UW.
UW commissioned Chicago-based artist Lou Cella, who also sculpted the statues of Ken Griffey Jr. and Dave Niehaus at Safeco Field. Cella visited Carol at her winter home in Palm Desert, Calif. In August, Kelly flew with Carol to Chicago to give the final approval of the clay version of the statue.
“We walked in the door and it was just jaw-dropping how good it was,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t believe it. It was like he was standing there.”’
Said Carol: “I couldn’t believe he caught him so well. I was just overwhelmed. I turned around and gave (Cella) a big hug.”
James was respected and feared by his players and opponents alike. There was a look — The Look — one did not want to receive from the coach.
“And you know what, (Cella) caught The Look,” Carol said. “It’ll be fun to see if they feel same way.”
Then and now
More than two decades after James stepped down as the UW coach, Chris Petersen took over as the Huskies’ coach in December 2013. Immediately, many who knew both began to compare Petersen’s style to that of James. (Skip Hall was one of the first to make the comparison. A former UW assistant coach who went on to become the head coach at Boise State, Hall was close with James and remains close with Petersen.)
Petersen on Thursday was asked about that comparison.
“When I see pictures of Coach James on the sideline, he doesn’t look very happy,” Petersen said. “And when I see a sideline picture (of himself it’s a similar look). … When we score touchdowns or sack a quarterback, I’m happy. It just doesn’t come out in my face.
“So I think we both weren’t happy. But other than that, I don’t know. That’s not a fair comparison for him. He’s won a national championship. He’s done things for a long, long period of time. But I’ve got a ‘W’ on my hat and don’t smile.”