He is as much a special part of this area as the Rain Forest, Mount Rainier and salmon runs. No, Don James is not superhuman. He's a natural wonder.
He was born in a garage, not a manger. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, sure. All babies are. They kept him warm on that cold winter night in December.
His parents were not rich; people struggled, back then. It was during the dark days of the Depression “brother, can you spare a dime?’‘ days.
But that child Thomas and Florence James brought into the world an hour before midnight on Dec. 31, 1932, would grow up to be somebody special. That garage on Gnau Avenue in Massillon, Ohio, was the humble beginning for a man whose name would be revered by some and whose believers would be many.
Before this gets too far, however, Don James does not represent the second coming. He may save football programs, timeouts and a little cash for retirement, but he’s not a savior.
Although he may be viewed as something of a miracle-worker after taking over the floundering University of Washington football program in 1975 and transforming it into a perennial national power, Don James is not godlike; he’s god-fearing. He is not all-powerful; he admits to weaknesses. He is not and doesn’t want to be perceived as anything but what he is: just a college football coach, perhaps the best in the country, but, still, just a coach.
“I’m not sure I have that (immaculate) image, I don’t want that image,” says the 52-year-old head coach of the Huskies. “I think the more that’s printed by the media, the more articles that say Don James doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, doesn’t swear, all these things, I’m not sure how that looks in print.
“All those things aren’t true. You should see me after I miss a golf shot.”
Truth is, Don James does have an occasional beer or glass of wine, although he won’t imbibe at the local pub. If the situation warrants, he’ll color his language, but “only light swear words.” And he may have glanced at more than just the Top 20 predictions in Playboy magazine’s annual preseason edition.
“It’s like National Geographic,” he once said. “There are pictures of places I never visited.”
This doesn’t make him less of a person. It makes him more like one of us. He’s more human than fans or players imagine. Like the rest of us, he has anguished over career moves, even wondering whether he’s cut out to be a coach. He has had anxiety over his retirement plans, about mortgage rates, traffic jams, and, of course, about Saturday’s opponent.
“I don’t want to be associated with failure,” the coach says.
“Before the game, when we’re finished with everything, I do sit down and worry. You can’t think about anything else. There is self-doubt.
You wonder sometimes how you can beat anybody. They look so good on film.”
But that feeling is private. “It would be dangerous for me to let them (players and coaches) know this,” he says. “I go before them with a pretty good attitude.”
That is the James method. He doesn’t let the light shine on the inside. He keeps his emotions under a tight mental grip. His image is welded in place. He’s always in control, always organized, always prepared. He’s stolid. He is portrayed as calculated, disciplined, urban, erudite and, above all, principled.
Reality does not stray far from that image. Even if it does, he still holds in the reins. “I try to protect those kind of things. I try not to do those things in public,” he explains. “I’ve tried to recognize that we do have an impact on the kids. If someone saw me smoking a cigarette, they might think it’s OK to smoke.
“Thinking back to the reasons why I am in this business, it’s because of the coaches I’ve played for. I’ve had great respect for them. Of all the courses I’ve taken in high school and college, I can’t remember my teachers, but I think I remember all my coaches.”
Because college football bases so much of its success on that positive image, particularly among recruits, how James is perceived is underlined in black ink. He is a rock, not only in his constitution but in his consistency. He displays the same integrity and veracity today as he did Dec. 23, 1974, the day he was hired by Washington.
“I had no doubt he could be a successful football coach from his first interview,” says Joe Kearney, the man who hired James out of relatively obscure Kent State. James, coaching at a school still traumatized by the killing of four students by the Ohio National Guard, took Kent to its first bowl ever in 1972.
“He was in coaching for all the right reasons. He was good for young people, good for the university. He is committed to his profession and values of his profession,” says Kearney, now the commissioner of the Western Athletic Conference in Denver. “He has integrity, his word is good, and he’s a fighter. He also has compassion for people. He cares.”
But it makes you wonder sometimes if James ever slides, just a little bit. Maybe at night when all the coaches have gone home and he’s alone in his office, does he take a boom box out of his bottom drawer, push the volume toward 10, put in his “Gonna Take You Down to Funkytown” tape and moonwalk across his desk?
Nah. Not Don James. Oklahoma’s Barry Switzer, maybe, but not Don James.
He can’t allow his image to fall. The stakes are too high.
Don James is the reason the 58,000-seat Husky Stadium is filled on certain autumn Saturday afternoons. That support provides 85 percent of the athletic department’s $10 million budget, allows the university to build a $12.6 million, 13,700-seat stadium addition, and helps the program command the nation’s largest radio contract — $5.5 million over three years.
James, who will begin his 11th season at the UW with Saturday’s game against Oklahoma State, has made a major impact on the Northwest.
The season before he took over, the team had a wimpy 2-9 record, but he has attracted enough talented recruits to produce an 86-31 record over 10 years. Last season’s team finished at 11-1, the No. 2-ranked team in the country. He has taken the Huskies to seven bowl games in those 10 years. Sixty of his players have been drafted by the National Football League.
Sports Illustrated once listed the three best college coaches in America. The magazine’s list read: 1. Don James. 2. Don James. 3. Don James.
But his greatest compliment may be the amazing number of inquiries he gets from other universities and pro teams annually. He is called constantly.
The Seahawks put the biggest scare into the university community in 1983. It seemed so natural that James would cross over and replace the fired Jack Patera. Supporters of the university program began formulating a “Keep Don” drive to supplement his $100,320 salary with the intention of making him one of the highest-paid college coaches in the country. James did not favor the drive, nor did he encourage it, and insisted that any money given to him would be earned through commercial endorsements or other personal services.
His wife Carol says when the Seahawks issue became all-pervasive, “we got together as a family and said, ‘Look, we have to put a stop to this. It’s disrupting our lives, our players’ lives and our coaches’ lives.’ That’s when we committed ourselves here. This is it. Either they fire us or we quit.”
Don James, The Dawgfather
By the numbers
150 Wins at UW, most in school history
97 Conference victories, second-most in Pac-12 history
6 Conference championships
8-foot-6, 500 pounds The size of his statue outside Husky Stadium, dwarfing the real-life James' 5-foot-9 frame
From the archivesObit: Legendary Washington football coach Don James dies at 80
The choice seemed perfect. In the Northwest, the James family has found everything they’ve always wanted. Coach James has complete control over his program and a reasonable amount of security. There are many perks such as use of a car, club memberships, lucrative radio-TV contracts and speaking engagements. He may make as much money on the outside as his base salary, which already makes him the state’s highest-paid employee and, some would say, one of the most powerful.
“I’m not a power person,” James says. “I don’t want to be governor. I don’t want any part of politics. I just want control of my football program.”
A dedicated family man, James is nurturing a strong homestead here, far from the Buckeye state. Three of his children and their families have settled here. His oldest child, Jeff, and daughter-in-law Rosemary moved here in 1979. They have a 1-year-old son, Jeff. Daughter Jill and her husband, Jeff Woodruff, who is part of James’ coaching staff, settled here for good in 1983. Their children are Jared, 5, and Jessica, 3 months. Don and Carol’s youngest daughter, Jenny, 16, attends high school in Bellevue.
Another anchor keeping James here is the family’s Case Inlet summer getaway, a place on the water that they purchased five years ago. It’s a home near Hood Canal where he can enjoy his family away from the pressures of his profession.
Carol, a bright, ebullient woman who is comfortable within her husband’s shadow, talks with enthusiasm about the sea creatures they’ve seen _ whales, sharks, seals; about the magnificent view of Mount Rainier; holding hands with Don and how he becomes almost another person. “He likes this so much. You can see everything fall when he comes here,” she says of Don, who has his own fishing boat, a screened-in oyster bed and a nine-hole golf course nearby. “He relaxes completely. That’s why the kids like coming here so much.”
It’s at the inlet that James puts on his jeans and tennies, his purple Huskies-Orange Bowl T-shirt (he can’t get away completely) and becomes, well, ordinary. One of the folks. Avuncular, domesticated, unassuming. He’ll putter in the garden or on the golf course. He’ll jog down a country road. He’ll walk through the dark paths among the giant cedar trees on the three-acre lot, sometimes, even without a reason.
His day, as always, is efficiently planned, but he may linger longer over the newspaper or troll an extra cove or two to catch that elusive lunker.
But when the first of August approaches, the metamorphosis begins.
“The last two or three days here, we begin to lose him,” Carol says. “You start to see it, the tension coming. Now his mind starts back to football. Then you lose him a little more when the coaches come in. Then a little more when the freshmen come in. We understand it. It’s just the way we are.”
It’s that James mind-set again, propping up that image and locking it in for another campaign. “I see that process that he goes through and it’s just amazing,” says Herb Mead, a prominent football supporter and friend of James. “He has two of the most outstanding traits of anyone I’ve ever known — his organization and his discipline.”
James has a strict dictatorial style about him. He conducts his business like IBM. He is the chairman of the board and his assistants simply have to meet his personal standards. His demand for punctuality, for example, is legendary. “If the bus leaves at 8 a.m., that means 8 a.m.,” says assistant Skip Hall. “We have passed by many a player who was driving up just as the bus was leaving.”
James’ coaching style is much like his personality. He systematically takes apart the opposition with a balance of off-tackle runs and short, conservative passes. He’s not known for bombs or fancy plays. On defense, where he developed his reputation, James likes speed and aggressive, almost violent, confrontation. His teams protect the end zones much as he protects his inner zones.
During a game, the 5-foot-9 James stands unobtrusively along the sidelines, almost hidden among the helmets, his arms akimbo, his attention rivited to the field. Through his headset, he is in steady communication with his coaches in the press box. He gives his assistants commands to carry out. The assistants have latitude in play-calling and defensive alignments, but don’t interpret that as autonomy.
“Most of the head coaches I’ve worked with come into a game with virtually no knowledge of the kicking game,” James explains. “I just can’t believe I could ever do that. Everything that goes on in the game is going to go through my headset. I’m not going to stand there and let someone else control something and not know what’s going on.”
During practices, he stands high in his “Tower of Power” so he can have a clear view of the entire field. He is in command over all he sees. Again, his coaches are his conduit for instructions to his players.
What all this does is feed his image as the all-powerful one.
He’ll descend from that tower to reveal the meaning of life, or at least how to defend against the veer formation. “A lot of young players do get intimidated by the tower,” says former Husky receiver Mark Pattison, who was drafted by the Los Angeles Raiders this past spring. “But it allows him to make objective decisions without personal involvement.”
There is a trade-off here. On one hand, James has earned admiration, commanded respect and is sought out for his wisdom; but on the other hand, he doesn’t let you get too close. “He has a style that’s not personable,” says Seahawks center Blair Bush, who played for James his first three years at Washington (1975-77). “It just goes back to the confidence he has in his abilities. He knows where he wants to go and how to get there.” Bush admits, however, that after his three years, he hardly knew him. Even James’ assistant coaches are at arm’s length.
Seattle businessman Chuck Snyder, who is the team’s unofficial chaplain, says James’ perceived aloofness and towering image is by design. “He’s not unlike anyone in the public eye,” Snyder says. “He gets hit for tickets, autographs of hats, people suggesting plays. It’s necessary for him to keep that wall. He’s an absolutely different person away from the game. There is not a more compassionate person around.”
James says that “there’s no question that you do remove yourself. But I don’t have the feeling that I have to get close to my players. They see me enough … It’s not like I’m always in that tower.”
Despite the tower stance, James believes in eye contact. With his narrow-set, brown eyes and thin auburn hair, he demands attention.
He always seems to wear a slight smile, but his manner is all business.
He is not a man of extremes. He won’t raise his voice, unless he needs it for effect. He’ll discuss any problems with his players or coaches in a low-key, frank and concise manner. His door, he says, is always open.
John James, who is six years younger than Don, says his brother “is a lot like me. He’s quiet, not a loner, per se, but less verbal.” John is a Syracuse, N.Y., cable-TV programmer. “He likes to protect his personal life. He might have some superficial acquaintances. He’s bound to have a lot in his business, but I’m sure he has a few close friends,” John says.
The original James Gang took Thomas and Florence nearly 16 years to assemble. Tommy was born in 1924 and the youngest, John, was born in 1939. Jimmy was the second child, but he was killed by a car at age 5 before Don was born. Art was born eight years after Tommy and 18 months before Don, who was delivered in that garage by a tuxedoed doctor called away from a New Year’s Eve party. The garage served as an 18-year “temporary” home for the family while Papa James built a house on the Gnau Avenue lot. He completed it in December 1941, just a short time before Tommy was called off to World War II. The chores came down to Don and Art.
“He and I were real close. We had a sibling rivalry,” says Art, who still lives in Massillon, next door to the family’s original house. “We split the chores, arguing over whose turn it was to mow the lawn. We’d make a big deal over nothing.
John, the so-called “baby of the family,” was the impartial observer.
“Don and Art argued about the car a lot. Sometimes it came down to fist fights,” says John. “That was when Dad stepped in with the razor strap and neither one got the car.”
Papa could get his point across.
“I vividly remember one time when we sneaked a smoke. I think it was cornsilk,” Art says, “and Dad dressed us down on the front lawn, making sure we never did that again.”
Dad wouldn’t tolerate departures from proper behavior, just as son Don doesn’t today. “We were raised in a church family,” says Don, who is Presbyterian. “My father was extremely hard-working. He worked two jobs (in the steel mill and bricklaying) to provide money for the four boys to get to college. They were education-oriented.”
His mother graduated from high school but Dad had to quit after sixth grade to go to work. Don also started work young, carrying bricks at age 9.
Carol, who met Don at age 14 at the city’s annual “Fire Festival,” recalls that Don was being pulled in many directions during those years. “He worked hard. He slept through many a date when he was supposed to pick me up because he had worked so hard, practiced with the football team and then would come home exhausted. He always apologized, but it was no big deal.”
Don, who played as a 155-pound quarterback and defensive back, led the Massillon Washington High Tigers to two state championships.
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Carol, who transferred schools to be with Don, became a cheerleader at Massillon. Crowds of 30,000 to 40,000 were not uncommon for the Tigers’ games. The school’s reputation was on a national scale. That kind of intensity did create a vacuum for abuse, as coach James admits.
“Growing up in Massillon, we were probably brought up cheating from the start,” he says. “We worked out year-round. In the summertime, we’d go out in the farm fields outside the city a couple nights a week and run plays. We’d all meet after our jobs.
“I think I grew up accepting that kind of cheating. Sure, they had rules against it, but we were still going to outwork you. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, I’m not sure the rules were quite the same as they are now.”
Cheating, apparently, is something that James left back in those cornfields of his youth. During all his years as an assistant and his 14 seasons as head coach, his programs never have had a hint of scandal. Since he has been at Washington, six Pacific 10 Conference schools have been in violation of NCAA rules (two of them twice) and have been placed on probation. Washington has never been pulled into the mud.
“I’ve just done everything I could to try to let the people around us know, the coaches, the alumni, that we’re not going to be buying youngsters,” James says. “I might be putting some extra dollars in his pockets, but the value system is shaken badly. And I think you are really doing great harm to that individual.”
Don James is above it all, literally and figuratively. His value to this area can’t be measured in win-loss percentages. His impact is not limited to crowd sizes or financial gains.
He gives only his best and expects the same effort from his people. He sets a standard of integrity and honor that is rarely achieved, but widely admired. He has demonstrated that he can be successful in sport, with its sometimes abusive influences, while still respecting the values of the profession. He doesn’t buy his players and no one can buy him.
James may have been an unknown to the university community when Joe Kearney lured him from the Midwest a decade ago. But his worth is apparent. He is as much a special part of this area as the Rain Forest, Mount Rainier and salmon runs.
No, Don James is not superhuman. He’s a natural wonder.