From past players to current ones and undoubtedly future ones, too, Coach Don James (1932-2013) is more than a legend. He is a life changer. “I don’t know if there’s a more iconic figure in Seattle.”
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – Don James and his unparalleled legacy will live forever at Washington.
Not just for the national championship he won with the Huskies in 1991. Not only for the 18 seasons in which he led UW to six conference titles and a 153-58-2 record, or for being the national coach of the year twice. Not just for being behind only Paul “Bear” Bryant, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden with 10 bowl victories at the time of his retirement in 1993. Or for the 109 players he coached that were selected in the NFL Draft, including 10 in the first round.
No, the Hall of Fame coach who passed away Sunday at home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland after a fight against pancreatic cancer will always be beloved as Washington’s “Dawgfather” as much for what he did for his players off the field.
Ed Cunningham was the center on the 1991 Huskies team that James led to UW’s last perfect season and a share of the national championship with Miami — the same school at which James was a quarterback who set school passing records and had the highest grade-point average among Hurricane seniors before he graduated in 1954 with a degree in education.
Cunningham is now an Academy Award-winning film producer and ABC/ESPN college football analyst. He is also the last Husky football player to be an Academic All-American, 22 years ago.
Now 44, Cunningham credits James for what he’s accomplished beyond the Rose Bowls and national title he won as a Husky. He credits James for being a good father. For being a third-round NFL draft pick who played five seasons in the league.
For being a success in life.
"It is hard to pin down how many ways Coach James has impacted me," Cunningham said a couple weeks ago, when his beloved coach was beginning chemotherapy. "Hardly a day goes by where a lesson or principle I learned playing football at Washington isn’t employed.
“From time management to being polite to those who seem inconsequential, the things Coach James not only professed but made us practice have become an integral part of my everyday life."
Preparation was James’ hallmark. He had days scripted down to the second. His Huskies were required to be at meetings and practices before he arrived. If the coach got there 15 minutes early, a player had better have been there 16 minutes before the start time.
His players did what they were told, both because it produced wins and bowls and NFL draft picks – but also because they had no choice if they wanted to see the field. The practice field, that is.
The preparation was the quality that separated him from almost every other coach of his time. Or of this time.
“At first, I didn't quite understand the real purpose behind Coach's strict regimen and how everything was so precisely planned,” Cunningham said. “But as I matured, I was able to see how the young men around me thrived because a firm, fair hand was guiding them.
“As the years and responsibilities, especially having children, have built up, I have come to realize that the structure and discipline I learned at the UW are essential to my success.”
Yes, he said are.
HE’S STILL MOTIVATING THIS SEASON’S TEAM, TOO
James is survived by his wife of 61 years Carol — who is also a native of football-fanatic Massillon, Ohio — their children Jeff, Jill and Jeni, and 10 grandchildren.
The Huskies announced Monday that those family members will serve as the most honorary captains UW football has ever had Saturday night, for the coin toss just before the Huskies host California.
During halftime the Husky Marching Band will perform "A Tribute to The Dawgfather," including a memorial video and former UW football players.
Sunday at 3 p.m., UW will host a public memorial service for James inside Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion. It is open to one and all.
Huskies players will wear helmet decals for the remainder of the 2013 season remembering Coach James, while UW coaches and other sideline staff will wear a similar patch.
Yes, James will inspire the Huskies forever.
Twenty-two years after he led the best UW football season ever, James stood in front of Washington protégé Steve Sarkisian and this year’s team at the 50-yard line at Husky Stadium. It was a warm, late-August day near the end of preseason practices. And Coach James had the complete attention of all 90-plus players, Sarkisian and dozens of coaches, plus more trainers, managers and team staffers.
They leaned in to absorb every word of his annual preseason address to the team. James told the 2013 Huskies to play so ferociously in the much-awaited re-opening game of Husky Stadium against Boise State that the visitors would have no choice but to respect them.
Ten days later, with James watching from inside the Don James Center’s premium seating area midway up the north stands, the Huskies obliterated nationally ranked Boise State 38-6. It was Boise’s worst loss in 16 years.
“I don’t know if there’s a more iconic figure in Seattle,” Sarkisian said Monday.
Last month, Sarkisian addressed the team on Friday night before its home game against Idaho State. James was to begin his chemotherapy fight against cancer three days later.
“We could put a statue up for Coach James,” Sarkisian said to his players that night in a ballroom of their suburban hotel, as recounted by Mason Kelly of coachsark.com. “We could do all sorts of things, but when I talked to his wife, you know what he wants? He wants us to play Husky football tomorrow, the brand of football he used to put a stamp on this program.”
That brand: Tough. Hard-nosed. Physical. Fast.
“He built this place. He built that stadium,” Sarkisian told his players. “He’s the reason we chose to come here. All of us in this room, we had a choice, but we chose to come to Washington. He built it. We’re going to honor him tomorrow with the way we play.”
About 15 hours later Sarkisian’s – and James’ -- Dawgs stormed to a 42-0 lead in the first half. They won 56-0.
James is so influential, he once hand-picked his boss at UW.
Mike Lude, a former Marine Corps officer and college football and baseball coach, was the athletic director at Kent State who hired James in 1971 to be a first-time head coach. He first met James, a former Army officer, when Lude talked with the then-Colorado defensive coordinator for an hour on the field before a Penn State-Colorado game in Boulder in September 1970.
“That was a heck of a good chat,” Lude said Monday, on his way from his home in Tucson, Ariz., back to Seattle to be with Carol and James’ family in advance of the memorial services.
Lude, who sat next to James at that Boise State opener this season, found that he and James had a similar philosophy about football, and more important, about life.
After their talk, the Colorado defense James was coordinating went out and throttled Paterno’s Nittany Lions 41-13.
Lude became Kent State’s athletic director six months after Ohio National Guardsmen shot and killed four unarmed, protesting Kent State students. One month after Lude arrived, Kent State’s football coach resigned. Lude was going to call James the next day.
“Don James called me the next morning before I could call him,” Lude said.
“I knew I was hiring an outstanding man of excellent character, a man who believed in a philosophy of life that I believed in and I wanted our players to believe in.”
James’ immediate task: Turn around a bad team in quick enough time that it would become a rallying point for a grieving campus.
He did that. He steered the program through that tumultuous and tragic time to the 1972 Mid-American Conference title – Kent State’s first league title -- and to the first bowl game in the Golden Flashes’ history.
HOW JAMES GOT TO UW
Washington athletic director Joe Kearney noticed what James had done at Kent State and hired James two days before Christmas in 1974 to return the Huskies to national prominence.
In the winter of 1975 James and Carol stayed at Lude’s home in Kent while they returned to Ohio for the wedding of their son Jeff. In the kitchen during their stay, James told Lude that Kearney was about to leave Washington to become the AD at Michigan State.
After asking Lude if he’d be interested in being the Huskies’ athletic director, James called David Cohn, then the president of UW’s Tyee board of donors who also served on the UW’s Board of Regents. James’ call from Lude’s kitchen began his recommendation campaign for his former AD at Kent.
Though James had been at Washington for just over a year, the coach told the university’s administration its AD search should begin and end with Lude.
Though James had been at Washington just over a year, the administration listened to the new coach.
Lude was UW’s athletic director from 1976 into James’ 1991 national-championship season.
“Don James and I worked together over 15 years. We knew each other for 43 years. And we never had a fight – or even a bad word,” Lude said. “That just doesn’t happen -- anywhere.”
Two weeks ago, James had his brothers and wife at his side. He was weakened by the cancer and the shuttles from Virginia Mason Medical Center in Seattle to Evergreen Hospital in Kirkland to UW Medical Center and home and back for treatments. He asked Carol to have Lude call him.
“He was quite weak. We talked for about eight minutes,” Lude said Monday. “I was able to say goodbye. We got to talk about our feelings for each other.
“I’ll always cherish that call. He’s my best friend. He’s a special man. And I’m a better man for having worked with him and known him.”
James and Carol split much of the coach’s retirement between a winter home in Palm Desert, Calif., and Kirkland. They were Sarkisian’s guest at each of Washington’s last three bowl games in San Diego, San Antonio and Las Vegas, the last three Decembers.
Monday, Sarkisian said “without a doubt” his favorite memory of James came minutes before kickoff of the 2010 Holiday Bowl in San Diego when he and James talked on the sidelines. Sarkisian has a picture of that moment framed in his office overlooking Husky Stadium.
“Honestly, I look at that picture every day,” he said.
“If you remember going into that Holiday Bowl we had been beaten by 35 points by the same Nebraska team we were playing,” Sarkisian said. “I walked over to Coach James and we talked for a minute. He had a unique, quiet confidence about him that I am sure his players and coaches felt from him. He had an aura of, ‘We are going to go win.’ I felt it from him. Again, this was in ballgame against a team we had lost to two months earlier by 35 points.”
UW upset Nebraska that night 19-7, its first bowl win in a decade.
“It really resonated with me, the impact he can have,” Sarkisian said.
“We are trying to live up to a standard that he set, but that’s why I took this job. I came here to win championships, and Coach James set that standard. And that’s the beauty of coming here to the University of Washington.”
“The guidance and leadership he instilled into this program and community are still felt today, and will continue to be felt here for a long, long time."
And throughout college football, for that matter.
While at Kent State, James coached future Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert. He also coached Nick Saban, now head coach at the No. 1 team in the country, defending national-champion Alabama, plus Gary Pinkel, currently the head man at Missouri.
"He was a special man and meant the world to me," Saban told the Associated Press’ John Zenor in Alabama Sunday night. “There aren’t enough words to describe not only the great coach he was, but how much he cared for people and the positive impact he made in the lives of everyone he came in contact with. Coach James was my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession.”
Pinkel, a UW assistant under James from 1979-90, has Missouri unbeaten and ranked seventh in the country. So James molded the coaches for two of college football’s top seven teams right now.
Sunday night, Pinkel posted a statement on his website.
“It’s hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James,” Pinkel wrote. “He was my coach, my mentor...”
After graduating from Miami in 1954, James was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army. He served for two years then went back to school at the University of Kansas, doubling as the Jayhawks' freshman football coach to work for his former high-school coach from Massillon. He graduated from KU in 1957 with a master's degree in education. He moved back to Florida and became the head football coach at Southwest Miami High School for two years, then moved into college coaching as a defensive assistant at Florida State from 1959-65. He took the defensive coordinator job at Michigan (1966-67), then had the same job at Colorado (1968-70) before Lude brought him to Kent State.
And before James brought Lude to Washington.
“The Dawgfather” took particular pride in Husky Stadium -- specifically the fans and their fevered support of his Huskies.
“Oh, yeah, fan support. That’s one thing you have to have, and we had it,” James said in November 2011 on the eve of the old stadium’s renovation starting.
“If you don’t get that, if you don’t get fans out to cheer, you probably aren’t going to have your job long as a head coach.”
He stayed. He won. And Huskies fans roared.
His teams fit the rugged conditions: Huge, fast, bludgeoning defenses that swarmed relentlessly. Run-first, ball-control offenses with dominant tight ends. And the splash of fast playmakers outside in the passing game.
Asked for his greatest moment, James remembered the first season and Husky Stadium’s AstroTurf being drenched and pooling water for the 1975 Apple Cup.
UW rallied from 27-14 down late in the fourth quarter. Spider Gaines caught a tipped pass from Moon that WSU should have intercepted with less than 2 minutes remaining. Gaines ran the rest of the way for a 78-yard touchdown that gave James his first of 13 Apple Cup wins – and a sense he belonged at Washington.
“That ’75 Cougar game might be the one,” James said. “We came back from being down two scores. Al Burleson’ interception (for the first TD that final quarter) brought us back. I know Washington State felt like it was a game they should have won by three scores, at least by two scores and a field goal. But they threw a pass that we got, and then we get the deflection for another touchdown. What a game.”
What a coach.
James was inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
He will be ingrained in the players he coached and the lives he touched forever.
“I am forever grateful for my time at Washington and playing for Coach James,” Cunningham said of his mentor and molder.
“While winning as much as we did was a great thrill, the experiences and education were the real gifts, as they truly last a lifetime.”
The Huskies will honor James’ life and his impact on UW Saturday night at that Cal game that begins at 8 p.m.
No doubt the Bears, like Boise State, will respect the James’ Dawgs.
They will always be James’ Dawgs.