UW and thousands of friends, former players and coaches,plus current Huskies come to campus to remember a legend. Not just as a coach. Foremost as a person.
By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing
SEATTLE – The elegant, thoughtful public memorial service for Don James was more a celebration of a legendary father, mentor, friend and man than of a brilliant football coach.
And for a two-time national coach of the year, a College Football Hall of Fame inductee, national champion and the patriarch of Huskies football, that’s saying something.
Several thousand of those impacted by the coach and respectful of his life and impact beyond UW came to remember James inside Alaska Airlines Arena Sunday afternoon. The 90-plus minute ceremony, hosted by the “Voice of the Huskies” Bob Rondeau, was less than half about football — though former players such as Mike Rohrbach, Michael Jackson and Chuck Nelson spoke.
"You simply did not want to let him down," said an emotional Nelson, the All-American kicker for James’ Huskies of the early 1980s.
This honoring was wholly about how great a man of faith, trust, integrity and meteoric standards the “Dawgfather” was to so many.
A video scrapbook from the family’s photo albums chronicled on the arena’s giant scoreboard the remarkable life James shared with his wife of 61 years, Carol. The photos dated to when they were both dating, in high school in Massillon, Ohio, in 1950. The soundtrack for the pictures: Vince Gill’s “Look at Us” and Carrie Underwood’s “See You Again.”
True to James’ legendary planning and leadership, the coach himself planned Sunday’s service — right down to the music. Though he was gravely ill he had the trio in his house three weeks ago playing the songs it played today at UW.
Gary Pinkel played for James at Kent State and coached for him with the Huskies from 1979-90. Pinkel is now the head coach at Missouri. His previously undefeated and fifth-ranked Tigers lost for the first time Saturday night, in Columbia, Mo., 2,000 from Seattle.
Yet hours later Pinkel was at Sunday’s ceremony.
"I’m really honored to be here," Pinkel told the audience. "He was my idol. He was my mentor. … I think I’m one of the few to ever play for and coach for Don James.
"The three most important men in my life are my father, my high-school coach — and Don James."
Pinkel, wearing a dark suit with a “DJ” pin on the front and a purple, patterned tie, said he called James 3½ weeks ago. A week later a weakened James called back.
"I got to tell him I loved him," Pinkel said, choking back tears. "I will always be so thankful for that phone call."
When he was finished, Pinkel walked off the stage and individually hugged Carol and the James’ three grown children Jill, Jeff and Jeni. They were sitting in the first row on the arena floor.
Nick Saban, the coach of No. 1 and defending national-champion Alabama, spoke via a taped video from Tuscaloosa. His Crimson Tide won a home game Saturday over Tennessee.
"Coach James was my coach, my mentor and my friend," said Saban, who played for James with Pinkel and Jack Lambert at Kent State in the early 1970s. “There’s probably no one in my life that has influenced me more.”
Saban said his Alabama program is modeled after James’ programs at Kent State and Washington, after James’ care for players and for people.
A drained-looking Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian also spoke, saying “it’s safe to safe the University of Washington, the city of Seattle, lost an icon.
“He changed the face of Washington athletics and the standard of excellence that is acceptable – and that is championships,” Sarkisian said.
Sarkisian closed by leading a “GO! HUSKIES!” cheer alternating on each side of the arena, “because Coach James is listening.”
But there was so much more to James than football.
"You cannot control the length of your life," Mike Lude, James’ athletic director at UW from 1976-1991, said as one the service’s dozen speakers, “but you can control its width and its depth.”
The coach’s oldest daughter Jill Woodruff was the first to speak. She brilliantly and poignantly described what her mom, her siblings and 10 grandchildren believe is the coach’s legacy — with them.
She said when James was in his third year of his coaching career he became concerned over the possibility he was spending too much time, days upon nights, with football. When Carol came into his coach’s office to talk about that, her husband put his arm around her and told her he “would resign today if that’s what I need to do, because nothing comes between me and my family.”
Speaking through tears, James’ older daughter said her father was “the ultimate competitor” through his death Oct. 20 at age 80 from pancreatic cancer.
"He weighed his options and crafted a game plan, (then) made adjustments," Woodruff said of his chemotherapy.
On the morning of his death, all of James’ family was at the coach’s bedside at his home in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland. Jill read to him the Bible verse John 11:25 — “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
His daughter said James then breathed his last breath. The family took note of the time. It was 11:25 a.m.
Sam Wick described himself and James as “best friends” from when they and their wives first met at church decades ago. Wick was not a coach. He was the coach’s golfing buddy. He said he was at James’ house three weeks ago when James planned exactly how he wanted Sunday’s memorial service to go. That included the songs that guitar-and-vocals trio “The Three Wise Men” — Brian Fennell, Tim Meany and Brett Williams — impressively played throughout the ceremony.
"His lifelong trophies, his crowns, are his family, and the thousands of people he treated with the integrity and character with which he lived," Wick said.
Rondeau started a parade of stories of how famously punctual James was, how big a deal timeliness was to him in football and in life.
"Grandpa was constantly stressing to us," Jeffrey James said, speaking for the coach’s nine other grandchildren, “if you are 15 minutes early you are on time, if you are on time you are late, and if you are late you are left behind.”
The entire UW football team, coaches and staff attended. That included Kasen Williams. He sat with his left leg propped on a folding chair, his lower left leg immobilized in a white shell. The junior wide receiver sustained a season-ending fracture and dislocation in his foot during the Huskies’ 41-17 win over California Saturday night.
Coach Heather Tarr's UW softball team was also there.
Jackson, the Huskies’ star linebacker in the 1970s, was the most humorous speaker. He recalled the first time he met Coach James, as an 18-year-old high-school safety from Pasco.
"In 1975 he never visited my home. He called me and said he was at the Pasco airport, and that ‘I am on my way to see another guy. If you want to come see me I have some time,’" Jackson said.
"I said, ‘Sure I do!’"
James signed Jackson to a UW scholarship. A few months later Jackson was a 205-pound freshman and fifth-string safety. A rash of injuries at linebackers later, James shocked Jackson by moving him to linebacker. His first game was in Husky Stadium against Earl Campbell and Texas.
"I went on to become the all-time leading tackler for the Huskies and set records that still exist — because of Coach James," Jackson said.
"He was so generous. He was so loving. He was so mean. He was so little. He was so big, to this kid from Pasco.
"He is still looking over us,” Jackson told the crowd of the man who will forever be known as the “Dawgfather.”
“So you better watch out!"