The widow of Don James has played a big role in the program since 1974. She still sees the Huskies as a big family that she’s happy to mother.
KIRKLAND — On a warm summer morning, the views from this second-floor condominium have to be some of the nicest in the region. One can see for miles around Lake Washington, all the way to downtown Seattle, the Space Needle peeking out in the distance.
On fall Saturdays, though, the best views tend to be isolated indoors. Here, in one corner of Carol James’ convivial home, college football still carries special significance.
There are two lounging chairs and a small sofa facing two television sets. If the action is good enough, Carol will roll in a third TV set from a bedroom, all tuned to a different game.
Some middle-aged men escape to their man caves. This 83-year-old great-grandmother has Saturdays in her college-football nook.
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The action has been especially good for her beloved Washington Huskies this fall, and Don James’ widow certainly likes what she’s seeing.
“I am so, so happy for them. I can’t even tell you,” Carol said. “We have everybody in place that we need right now. I’ve never seen it really (like this) since we left — there’s this family feeling again. It’s wonderful.”
Carol and her family were there at Husky Stadium two weeks ago when the Huskies beat up on Stanford, 44-6. During its 25-year anniversary celebration, UW’s 1991 national-championship team got a standing ovation from the sold-out crowd at halftime.
Players from the ’91 team had insisted that the James family be involved, and there was Carol, The Dawgmother, standing front and center with the national-championship trophy. Carol and her kids got another standing ovation before the fourth quarter when they were introduced during the traditional Husky Legend salute, a fitting tribute on a night that brought back all the great, nostalgic feelings of all those great James teams.
The move to Seattle
Kent State coach Don James wasn’t the first choice to succeed Jim Owens as the Huskies’ coach. He wasn’t the fourth choice, either.
When Don and Carol arrived in Seattle to formally interview for the job on Dec. 20, 1974, the marquee at Husky Stadium greeted them with the message: “Welcome Don Jones.”
After four other candidates turned it down, Don was offered the job two days before Christmas. A few days after the holiday, James flew out to Seattle. A couple weeks later, Carol, their three children and the family dog, a half-poodle/half-schoodle mix named Barbie, followed him.
“Of course, we had to bring the dog,” Carol said.
‘A family thing’
When she’s not driving her red Corvette, Carol is usually walking barefoot around the condo. When she’s not exchanging a Facebook messages with one former UW player, she’s often on the phone with another former UW player.
It’s been three years since Don’s death, at age 80, from pancreatic cancer. Don and Carol, married 61 years, usually rode the bus from Kirkland to attend UW games, and they certainly weren’t going to miss the grand reopening of Husky Stadium on Aug. 31, 2013 — a victory over Boise State. “He had a great time,” she said.
The next morning, Don couldn’t get out of bed. The day after that, on Monday morning, Carol called for an ambulance. That afternoon, Don was diagnosed with cancer. He passed away seven weeks later, on Oct. 20, 2013.
Carol remains humbled by the outpouring of affection from Husky fans. Even this year, she’s still received letters from admirers and supporters offering their condolences.
And, on average, she says she hears from upward of a dozen former players each day.
“For us, it was always such a family thing. And I think that’s why all the kids — I call them kids, but some of them are grandfathers now — but that’s why I think they still feel close (to her),” she said. “They keep in touch with me, and I really feel blessed. How many people have that many kids looking after them?”
A turnaround season
The 1977 season was one of Carol’s favorite, despite the Huskies’ dreadful start that year.
“We lost three out of the first four games, and of course people were pretty upset,” she recalled. “It was our third year and you’re supposed to start doing well. Don one night said, ‘Carol, you know, we might be moving. My contract is so low anybody out there can pay it.’”
Don’s first contract paid him $28,000 annually. Adjusted for inflation, that’s the equivalent of about $111,000 today — or about 1/32nd of the $3.6 million salary Chris Petersen is earning in his third season as UW’s coach.
“I didn’t know what he was making until I started going through papers after he died, and I was shocked at what his first salary was here. I thought, ‘What!?!’” she said, laughing. “But we were happy. We’re not people that have to live fast lives.”
It was a fast turnaround for Warren Moon and that ’77 team, which won 54-0 at Oregon to start its run to the Pac-8 championship and the first of Don’s six Rose Bowl berths.
Always a team mom
There’s a video out there somewhere on the web that has Carol on stage, ball cap tilted backward, rap lyrics spitting out of her mouth.
After Don’s retirement, the couple spent its winters in Palm Desert, Calif. Carol continues that tradition, and last year she agreed to participate in a talent show with friends — and, yes, they rapped. Carol’s always enjoyed writing poems, so she agreed to write the rap lyrics and serve as the group’s frontwoman.
“It was fun. It was crazy,” she said. She’ll probably do it again this winter.
Most winters, Don and Carol would head down to the desert around the first of November. This winter, she plans to stay until after Thanksgiving. She wants to see how this promising Huskies season plays out.
“She kind of was and always will be a team mom,” said UW athletic director Jennifer Cohen, who has been close to the Jameses since she was young. “She was as much an invested person in what Coach James built as anybody.”
The big breakfasts
Sunday mornings were the busiest around the James’ Bellevue home.
“I had every recruit in my home for breakfast,” Carol said. “And sometimes I’d have 60 to 80 people. If the parents were there, they came. We usually had a professor from the schools that (the recruits) were interested in. And of course the key recruiters (came too). I had it down to a system.”
It was catered?
“No, no. I did it,” she said. “My kids would come and help. I did all the prep so I could circulate, then they would take over and make sure the dishes were filled and everything. I always served the same thing, and the butchers’ knew: I had ham that was pre-sliced and tied back together. I have a special recipe of eggs you can let set in a buffet dish for two or three hours and they still are good. I had doughnuts — lot of doughnuts. Orange juice, coffee, tea. What else? Oh, I have a hashbrown recipe; you could bake ’em up and just keep ’em warm.”
Carol would write letters to recruits’ mothers, often spurring a correspondence that spanned the player’s UW career.
“I was doing it because I love this,” she said.
A complete life
Introduced by a mutual friend, they met when they were 14 years old at the Massillon (Ohio) Fireman’s Festival. They were both born in December 1932; Carol is 26 days older than Don — “and he never let me forget it.”
They were practically inseparable from then on, attending the University of Miami together — he the star quarterback, she the cheerleader — and then moving all around the country together during his 36-year coaching career. Their coaching career.
Of course, she misses him. “Oh my gosh, every day I cuss at him for not being here.”
She has barely touched his office den in their Kirkland condo. It has many of his notable trophies, rings, pictures and newspaper clippings. Wonderful memories, all.
A few months before Don passed, during their last summer together, the topic of their bucket list was broached.
“We were sitting and talking, and he wasn’t feeling well by then, and we were asking, ‘Is there anything else we want to do before one of us kicks the bucket?’” she said. “And there wasn’t anything we had left.”
She paused, then smiled.
“Isn’t that unbelievable?”