They want to tell you about his eyes.
Former University of Washington linebacker Dave Hoffmann laughs as he describes them, big and bulging and actively attempting to escape the man’s skull. When Jim Lambright got angry, Hoffmann says, “his eyes turned 14 different colors. The player in him would come out, and you could see, ‘That’s what Jimmy looked like coming off the ball back in the day.’ ”
Randy Hart, who shared a staff with Lambright for 11 seasons, jokes that “we all knew as coaches, when the eyes got intense and the forehead turned red, you better be getting your work done, because an explosion was coming. He was not going to be denied.”
Lambright — who participated in more games at Washington as a player, assistant coach, defensive coordinator or head coach (386) than any other person in program history — has died at age 77, his family confirmed Sunday. The cause of death was not officially announced, but a UW spokesperson confirmed it was not related to the ongoing outbreak of COVID-19.
In six seasons as UW’s head coach, from 1993 to 1998, Lambright compiled a 44-25-1 record and earned a share of the 1995 Pac-10 title. He joined UW’s staff in 1969 and was elevated to defensive coordinator under head coach Don James in 1978. Together, Lambright and James won six Pac-8 and Pac-10 titles as well as the program’s most recent national championship in 1991.
Those are the facts — but here, they fail to tell the story. And that’s where Lambright’s former coaches, friends and colleagues come in.
So, what else? Walter Bailey, for one, wants to tell you about his discipline. The former UW defensive back wants to tell you about the time, during two-a-days prior to the 1990 season, that Lambright performed bed checks at the old crew house on campus. Afterward, one anonymous Husky — Bailey won’t say who — decided to sneak out for the night.
And when he came back, he found Lambright lying in his bed.
“The person freaked out so bad that they ran straight to the locker room at maybe 5 in the morning and just got dressed and was like, ‘I’ll just take my punishment,’ ” Bailey says. “There was no sense in trying to stand up to him.”
Brock Huard wants to tell you about Lambright’s — uh — competitiveness. Prior to the 1995 Sun Bowl between Washington and Iowa, both teams participated in festivities that included a player performing a public impersonation of his coach. Offensive lineman Bob Sapp, of all people, drew Lambright duties.
The 6-foot-5, 285-pound behemoth rose admirably to the challenge, “with his cheeks red and his eyes busting out,” recalls Huard, the former Husky QB who was redshirting that season. “At that time coach used the word ‘uh’ quite a bit in his conversations. So there was a count of how many times he would say ‘uh’ (in meetings), and Bob was all over that.
“That offseason, without telling anybody, coach Lambright went to work on it. Just competitively, I don’t think he liked the impersonation and knew that he had been called out publicly. He went to work and it was eliminated.
“That first meeting the next spring, we all looked at each other like, ‘What the heck? Where did the uhs go?’ ”
Mike Rohrbach wants to tell you why they won — and why they allowed just 9.2 points per game in 1991.
“I just got chills. It went from one end of my body to the other,” says the former UW linebacker and team chaplain, when asked Sunday afternoon about Lambright’s dominant defenses. “He was the architect and builder of those defenses. That was him. He was surrounded by other great coaches, but that was Lambright, man. He lived that. He taught that. He definitely set the tone with all of that.”
Hart — who served on UW’s coaching staff from 1988 to 2008, and currently lives in Kirkland — adds that “you came to the University of Washington because of Jim Lambright’s approach to defense and Don James’ approach to team. And it was a winning combination.”
While he’s at it, Hart also wants to tell you about Lambright’s forearms, which “were doggone as big as his neck.” The former Everett High School standout developed physical strength through repeated fishing trips to Alaska with his father. And he used it as a UW defensive end under Jim Owens from 1962 to 1964. Lambright contributed to UW’s 1963 team that won a conference title as well as a berth in the Rose Bowl. The next year, he earned All-Coast honors as a defensive end, and also earned the program’s Guy Flaherty Most Inspirational Award.
He was inspirational, all right. And he was also pretty persuasive. Shane Pahukoa wants to tell you about the time his brother, Jeff, went to Washington for a recruiting visit. After driving him home, Lambright joked that he wouldn’t unlock the car door until Jeff — a future UW offensive lineman — verbally committed.
“That’s how they got my brother, and that’s how they got me — because I was going to go wherever my brother went, really,” says Shane, a Husky safety from 1989 to 1992. “They ended up getting both of us from coach Lambright’s fake kidnapping.”
Rohrbach wants to tell you about the toughness that Lambright instilled. He says that “you’d get your finger busted up and you’d stay out there and play, come back and have the trainer tape it together. You never said anything to Lambright. He wasn’t going to give you any sympathy. So I’ve got three fingers going in every which direction, and I actually take great pride in that. I say that’s from playing for Jim Lambright.”
Lambright could demand toughness, Hart insists, because he stood as a living example — because “he was 5-10 and 185 pounds and he was an all-league defensive end. That says it all. The players knew that he could walk the walk. He wasn’t a guy who was pontificating without experience.”
But Pahukoa also wants to tell you that his intensity wasn’t everything.
“Yes, you’ve heard the stories that he’s super fierce in the meeting room,” Pahukoa says. “But he’s also a very kindhearted person. I would always go to him first before I went to any other coach to discuss anything.”
Hoffmann adds, when reunited with Lambright at dinners and golf tournaments over the years, “my heart warmed up when I saw him walk in. It was always a treat, and I just feel so blessed to be his friend and to be one of his players.
“On and off the field, things were personal to him. He was an emotional guy, and I loved that about him. He wasn’t afraid to show it. He loved his family. He loved the guys who played for him on Saturday. He was just a great family man and a great coach and friend.”
That’s what made Sunday so difficult for Lambright’s family and former players. Bailey says he spent the morning cycling through emotions. “I’ve been sitting here weeping and then smiling and then weeping again.”
But it also stretches before Sunday. Huard says, when he saw Lambright a few years ago, “it was the first time where I went, ‘Woah.’ You could definitely see that he was starting to battle some of the dementia and the symptoms of that. That kind of stopped you a little bit, because you were just so used to seeing his competitiveness and intensity and toughness. You could see that the dementia had started to take its toll and weaken him.”
Rohrbach — a captain on UW’s 1977 Rose Bowl team who currently serves as team chaplain for UW basketball and Seattle Prep football — spent significant time with Lambright in the past several years. Once, he and fellow UW linebacker alum Mike Baldassin took Lambright to visit former Husky safety Nesby Glasgow, who was battling stomach cancer. But more often, he’d pick the longtime coach up at the memory loss care facility where he lived, and they’d have lunch together at Ivar’s. Then they’d go back to his room, where Rohrbach would read the chapel messages he previously delivered to his teams.
“When one of the points was to be fierce, I’d say, ‘You know what, coach? You taught me that,’ ” Rohrbach says. “He got a great joy out of that. I’m profoundly sad today.”
Rohrbach is certainly not alone in that sentiment. Lambright is survived by his daughter, Kris and son, Eric; and grandchildren Caroline and Matt. To honor him, the family suggests donations to the University of Washington Medical Center or any local charity or cause supporting efforts to suppress the COVID-19 outbreak — including first responders, local hospitals and local businesses.
Oh, and one more thing:
His Huskies want to tell you what else Lambright would have wanted.
“There’s obviously the pain of this news for his family and his loved ones, knowing the struggles he had been facing these last few years,” Huard says. “But he would want the team to come together. He would want Husky Nation to respond and to bond and to bring everybody together in this.
“To see the Lawyer Milloys and Olin Kreutzes and different people posting (on social media) today does bring you back to all the things that he taught and how important being a Husky was to him.”
For 386 games — and for life — Jim Lambright was a Husky legend. His eyes may have been 14 colors, but he only bled purple and gold.
“He lived and died for the University of Washington,” Hart says. “That was apparent at all times, in any situation.”