It’s an especially good week to tell Don James stories.

Just ask Gary Pinkel.

Before he became the winningest coach at a pair of programs — Missouri and Toledo — Pinkel was an all-conference tight end at Kent State, which opens its 2022 season at UW on Saturday. And before he was an all-conference tight end at Kent State, Pinkel was a true freshman on a team that went 3-7 … then hired Colorado defensive coordinator Don James.

In the 10 seasons directly preceding James’ appointment, the Golden Flashes went 33-61-3.

It wasn’t hard to see why the team wasn’t winning.

“My first year there, seeing the attitudes of all of the players, guys weren’t close,” said Pinkel, 70, in a phone interview from his home in Columbia, Missouri. “But coach James came in, and (suddenly) it was a program. There was a plan for absolutely everything that went down. There was a plan for developing teams, teamwork, leadership, getting guys stronger, faster, quicker. We bought into it. But a bunch of guys quit. I’d bet 15 to 18 guys quit that first spring football and winter conditioning.”

Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

The Washington Huskies prepare for the 2022 campaign. 

Players included are quarterbacks Sam Huard, Michael Penix Jr. and Dylan Morris; and DE Zion Tupuala-Fetui. 221261


Which, of course, was a welcome sight — considering the circumstances. In a phone interview with the Columbia Missourian (and, coincidentally, this future UW football reporter) in 2012, James said: “When I first got the job in ’71, the preceding coach told me there were a half-dozen really solid players, and a half-dozen really not-so-solid players that were a cancer to the team.”


Three of the really solid players were Pinkel, future NFL Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert and soon-to-be college football coach and Aflac commercial actor Nick Saban.

In four seasons at Kent State, from 1971-74, James went 25-19-1 — delivering the only conference title in program history and a 1972 berth in the Tangerine Bowl, the team’s first bowl appearance since dropping the “Refrigerator Bowl” (a totally-not-made-up name) to Delaware in 1954.

Of course, James was hired by Washington in 1974 … but not before taking a meeting with Pinkel — who was teetering between becoming a high school principal, an athletic director or a football coach.

“He looked at me and talked to me for about 20 minutes,” Pinkel said Tuesday, “and I walked out and thought, ‘I’m going to be a college football coach.’ ”

So Pinkel served as a graduate assistant at Kent State in 1974 and 1975, before James called and asked if he’d like to coach the Husky tight ends.

“I had Hawaii as a recruiting area,” he said. “All the other coaches were about ready to shoot me.”


And yet, Pinkel proved an invaluable addition — mostly as proof of James’ process.

“You should have seen all those players for about the first year coming over and asking me, ‘Coach Pinkel, do you think this stuff works?’ ” he recalled with a laugh. “Again, I was playing two and a half, three years earlier. I said, ‘Yeah, it works.’

“I think that was one of the reasons why he brought me on, because he knew I was a captain and I was very successful and I believed so much in the program. That was really brilliant on his part. Those kids trusted that I was an honest person and it just kind of smoothed everything over a little bit. And a year later they won the Rose Bowl.”

Pinkel believed so much in the program, in fact, that he rejoined James at Washington in 1979 — serving as the Huskies’ wide receivers coach, then offensive coordinator, over the next 12 seasons. They reached 11 bowl games and won three Pac-10 titles during that span, before Pinkel succeeded Saban as Toledo’s coach in 1991.

His first season featured an inauspicious return to Seattle — and a 48-0 defeat to the eventual national champion Dawgs.

“I remember Mark Brunell looking at me as the clock got down at the end of the game and smiling and giving me a thumbs up,” Pinkel said with a chuckle. “Someone sent me an aerial view of how that entire football team came over to pat me on the back and love me up a little bit.”


Of course, Pinkel proceeded to compile a 191-110-3 overall record at Toledo and Missouri — thanks, in large part, to James’ program.

It’s the same one he installed everywhere he went.

“My first and second years at Missouri, some (high) schools would not let a University of Missouri coach in there, because of the bad things that had happened over the years,” said Pinkel, whose Tigers compiled a 63-122-5 record in the 17 seasons prior to his arrival. “I went into the home of a kid in St. Louis, and the dad looked at me and said, ‘Coach, we’ve heard of Missouri coaches coming in over and over and over, saying they’re going to win. They haven’t won anything. They’ve had two winning seasons in 17 years.’

“I said, ‘I’ll tell you why it’s going to work. It worked at a place called Kent State University. They had never won a championship in the history of the school. And guess what? We won a championship, the first one in the history of the school. Guess what? Don James goes out to Washington, and I worked for him, and we went to three Rose Bowls and they won the national championship the year after I left. I picked that program up and took it to Toledo, Ohio. We went down there and we were undefeated my fifth year and won three divisional championships. Now I’m dropping this thing in, that worked at Kent State, that worked at the University of Washington, that worked at Toledo. I’m dropping it here in Columbia, Missouri.’

“I looked him in the eye and said, ‘This is going to work.’ And they just shut up. They didn’t say a thing, other than, ‘We believe you.’ It gives me chills, but that was a true story.”

That, in a sense, was Pinkel and James’ shared story — which culminates inside Husky Stadium on Saturday night. Though James died at 80 in 2013, and Pinkel — who retired after being diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in 2015, and has since launched the GP M.A.D.E. Foundation to help kids fighting cancer and other physical, economic and social challenges — can’t attend because of a prior obligation, UW and Kent State will meet for the first time in their intertwined histories.

Pinkel, for one, will certainly be watching.

“I’m going to be torn, because I always want my alma mater to win,” said Pinkel, who will return to Kent State for a 50-year reunion of the 1972 MAC championship team this fall. “But I have so much Husky in me that I’m kind of glad I don’t have to go to the game.”

Besides, Pinkel was already back in Seattle this summer, speaking at the 100th birthday party for former Kent State (1970-76) and Washington (1976-1991) athletic director Mike Lude. Surrounded by former colleagues and players, Pinkel knows there was one man missing.

“I just feel really blessed to be a Don James guy,” he said.