Days before the Huskies would defeat the Michigan Wolverines in the Rose Bowl, coach Don James was salivating for a national title.
Don James gets sick on turbulent flights.
Bumpy rides of any kind, really. On the morning before the Washington State game, the final regular-season leg en route to the goal of a national championship, he could feel the tremors as he walked up the tunnel leading into Husky Stadium.
Ever vigilant of his granite persona, James kept the sensation to himself. Players noticed nothing. But inside, the Washington coach was all bones and no muscle, a stick figure decimated by old fears of playing the Cougars and new fears about a report publicizing the off-field misdeeds of several Huskies.
“I felt physically and emotionally drained,” James said. “Weak.”
Holding together the wagon carrying the dream of a national championship has tested every fiber in the body and mind of the 5-foot-9 patriarch of Husky football. Getting to the Rose Bowl with a chance at the top spot in the polls required that James be flexible enough to change his philosophy late in his career, yet dogged enough to keep it all from unraveling.
But the stakes are tremendous for James, who with a victory against Michigan New Year’s Day can elevate Husky football to a level unknown previously.
Win, and Washington commands the attention of the East Coast.
Win, and the hotshot recruit in Texas begins to consider the merits of playing in rain. Win, and never again will a Pac-10 title seem the ultimate.
Win, and Don James becomes the Bear Bryant of his region – the standard by which all coaches will be measured long after he retires.
James says he’s not obsessed.
His associates aren’t so sure.
“He wants this bad,” said Jim Lambright, Husky defensive coordinator. “He’s very quiet about long-term goals. But there’s no question that as our success mounted this season and his intensity’s grown, he’s made No. 1 the primary goal.”
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
In the moments after the Washington State game, James looked across the field to find the Huskies’ national-title goal on fire.
Mario Bailey, Lincoln Kennedy and several other players were dancing. Noticing a television camera taping the celebration, James raced over and physically confronted the KSTW reporter, scattering the players with a quick, angry outburst.
James was right, of course. The polls are a beauty contest among undefeated teams, and the Victorian ethic that rules football considers dancing an ugly form of sportsmanship. Wiggling their hips, doing what comes naturally and seems fun, the Huskies looked like . . . Miami, the No. 1-ranked team they were trying to sway voters away from.
“That’s not the kind of celebration you want to have,” said James, who contends he only brushed the reporter. “Four or five guys acting like fools made the rest of the team look bad.”
These are natural byproducts of the team he created.
When James scraped the barnacles from the program in 1987 and ordered his coaches to recruit primarily for speed, the Huskies were bound to resemble the Hurricanes. The championship formula in the 1980s was quickness and emotion, a volatile combination that produced big plays and fancy displays.
The Huskies even enhanced the recipe. Lambright studied the Chicago Bear defenses of former coach Buddy Ryan, installing an attacking scheme that often puts as many as 10 players on the defensive front. With 48 sacks and 129 tackles for losses this season, Washington players had ample opportunity to show the latest moves from Club MTV.
At the same time, James carefully lobbied his coaching peers for support in the polls. Not by calling them and asking them for their vote, but indirectly, in code.
The 11-0 Huskies were the polite powerhouse, scoring more than 50 points five times but declining the chance to win by 60. They cultivated their arguments in case the race came down to a Miss America pageant between two unbeaten teams – the largest margin of victory in the country (33 points a game), a more impressive win against the one common opponent with Miami (Arizona), and reams of highlight-film exploits.
In recent weeks, James set up the Rose Bowl show with the modest proposal that maybe Washington and Miami can share the national title.
“He’s a little fox,” said Ken Meyer, quarterback coach of the Seattle Seahawks who has known James since they coached together at Florida State in the 1960s. “He says that maybe we could divide it in half. I think he’s just disarming people, myself.”
Whatever it takes.
James never has to say please with his players. Billy Joe Hobert, the Husky quarterback, said players consider James “a God out on the football field” because of the respect he commands.
“Probably 95 percent of it’s out of fear,” Hobert said. “For me, probably 98 percent. I’m just afraid to go to his office. I’ll poke my head in and say, `Hey, how you doing?’ just to be cordial, but it takes a lot of guts.
“Size has nothing to do with it,” Hobert says of the un-huskiest Husky, and points toward Husky Stadium. “His stature on the team is as big as that building right there.”
James is not a power guy, not in the purest sense. He does not measure his value in the number of people he can bully or the size of his empire. He holds no ambition for a top business position and laughs at the old, half-joking notion of running for governor.
What he wants is control.
He likes artificial turf because he can control the playing conditions. He refused to play in the 1978 Sun Bowl until officials let him use his game balls. He insists on riding in the lead bus on trips, and when his driver defied orders to speed ahead of the No. 2 bus on a trip to the Oregon game once, James fired him – before they even reached Eugene.
A national title could give him undisputed control over his program.
For the most part, he already has it. His stern warnings to boosters about recruiting practices keep the NCAA snoops away. New Athletic Director Barbara Hedges regularly seeks his opinion on matters.
As recently as this year, though, James’ authority was not universal. His friend, former AD Mike Lude, was ousted in a dispute with upper administration, and there were rumblings that control of academic services for athletes and other areas eventually would be stripped from the athletic department. Not exactly the treatment of a Bryant-in-the-making.
Now, with the Husky steamroller in high gear, watchdogs may become scarce. University President William Gerberding claims to have no reservations about the program gaining a larger profile, nationally and on campus.
James, who made $141,576 this year, last week signed a contract extension for an undisclosed substantial raise that could make him the highest-paid public employee in the state. He was second this year, behind UW Medical School Dean Philip Fialkow ($148,404).
Gerberding was 69th at $111,696.
“We are unmistakably and permanently involved in big-time sports,” Gerberding said. “If you end up ranked, being No. 28 is no different than being No. 1.
“The hazards are another question. They’re always there. It’s something the athletic department and the faculty must be eternally vigilant about.”
It’s a precarious scenario for a football coach – too much control, and a university community worries about losing perspective. Not enough control, and the coach worries about losing it all.
James is a bulldog about policing his kingdom. He has steered clear of recruiting infractions or most controversies that taint other programs, partly because he takes a rigid approach to discipline among his players.
He is judge and jury, and the accused are not innocent until proven guilty.
“Image is everything,” James said, “because I know what image does for a player. If I get rumors that a player’s into something, I’ll call him in and say, `This is the image that you’re creating. I can’t prove this, but if people come in and say that you’re a skunk . . . all I know is that you’re the guy who made your image.’ “
James considers himself the highest court, too.
When KIRO-TV last month detailed the academic, traffic and legal shortcomings of Husky players, James reacted as if the reports were a false and unwarranted challenge to his authority. Never mind that most of the news was old or superficial, and that the whole matter would have faded after a few days if station President Ken Hatch had not initially censored a part of the report.
James blasted KIRO, and later claimed Husky boosters had canceled $1.15 million in radio and television advertising with the station.
Glenn Wright, KIRO general manager, disputes the figure and said cancellations were limited to one advertiser, which pulled its radio spots for one month.
“I don’t have any problem with the media,” James said. “I do have a problem with the media editing things out to make their own case, and I have a real problem with media people that are trying to split my team. I don’t like them asking a player who was moved down (as a backup), `What do you think about that? Do you think you should be starting?’ “
James usually controls his anger. As much as any head coach, he sees himself as a chief executive officer who can run the company most effectively by remaining calm and organized.
He turned down a job with Woody Hayes once because he wasn’t sure he could handle working under the emotional Ohio State legend.
James’ composure is such that after losses, Gerberding says, “You can tell he’s a man of tremendous dignity.”
James was not always so placid.
Meyer said that at Florida State, James was more animated, a reflection of his youth and his respect for the role. Closer to the players as an assistant, James was enthusiastic, a quality he now promotes to others beneath him in the program.
Only the display of that emotion has changed.
“Let’s put it this way: You could always see where Don James was going,” Meyer said. “He was so well-organized, meticulous. You could tell that he was going to go up in coaching, no question about it.”
The 48 hours before kickoff are maddening. The game plan is in place, field preparation done. James thinks about the kickers, the trainers, the chin straps – everything – and wonders what more could he have done?
The night before the Rose Bowl could be hellish, his whole life flashing before him.
After a brief ceremony with his family on his 59th birthday earlier that evening, he will try to sleep. But can he put to rest thoughts of the national championship, his only unmet goal since he won the Rose Bowl in 1978? Or of the 1985 Orange Bowl team, which beat Oklahoma but finished No. 2 in the polls to Brigham Young?
Or of Carol, his wife, who waited in front of a television set each Sunday this season and relayed him the poll updates? Or of a friend in south Florida, who sent him the Sunday edition of The Miami Herald each week? Or of Chuck Mather, his high-school coach from Ohio, who will be in the stands watching for the first time?
“It’ll be hectic,” he said.