Before I knew about Don James, who died Sunday, I was lectured about Don James.
I had just taken a newspaper job in this faraway place called Tacoma. My friend Rick Talley, a fellow former Chicagoan who had relocated to Southern California, was familiar with the Pacific Northwest from his days as a sports columnist for the Los Angeles Daily News.
“You will be writing a ton of college football in Tacoma,” Rick told me, “and you will become very familiar with Don James.”
Don James. The name rang a bell, and I could sort of place the face, but otherwise, I had nothing more insightful to offer than, “I heard that guy’s a pretty good coach.”
“Pretty good?” Rick said “Is that what you just said? Pretty good?”
The tone in Rick’s voice had changed, from helpful big brother to frustrated teacher.
“Kid,” he told me, “you’ve got some homework to do. Don James is one of the greatest college football coaches of all time.”
When I saw James in person a few months later, he didn’t look like the one of the greatest college football coaches of all time. In fact, he didn’t look like a college football coach. He was shorter than any of his players. He wore glasses. He resembled a history professor.
But James’ eyes could turn to steel, and his glare had the power of a shotgun. When he replaced Jim Owens as Huskies coach for the 1975 season, some veteran players were put off. Owens had a bit of Southern charm about him; he not only knew the names of the players on the roster, he likely knew the names of their parents.
James didn’t bother with such chit chat.
“He was a little bit detached and let the coaches do the touchy-feely things,” former Huskies center Blair Bush once recalled to writer Greg Brown. “There wasn’t much of that from the assistants, either. …
“In our first meeting with James, he made it very clear that we were going to spend time in the weight room. We were going to get in shape, and we were going to do it his way or we weren’t going to get on the field. He came in with a very mature group of coaches – a whole bunch of experienced coaches. He basically said, ‘Sign up or sign out.’
“It was not a warm and fuzzy place. But then again, college football isn’t warm and fuzzy.”
A pivotal turning point in James’ UW career came in 1977 after two rebuilding seasons had produced a combined record of 11-11. The Huskies were 1-3, and many fans were restlessly awaiting the benching of struggling senior quarterback Warren Moon.
But James reassured Moon that no changes were imminent at quarterback, and then the coach went to work on salvaging the season – and carving his legacy.
“After that third loss,” linebacker Michael Jackson once recalled, “James came back and just pounded us to death in practice. There was never anything good said to us. I remember we were all talking about the Rose Bowl, and Coach James said, ‘I don’t want to hear the “Rose” word in your mouth ever again.’ This was right before the Oregon game. We were so mad at each other Oregon didn’t have a chance.”
The Huskies won, 54-0, and ended up beating Michigan in what would be the first of six Rose Bowl appearances under James.
Punctuality was important to James – if you were just on time for a meeting, you were late – and efficiency was paramount. As a strategist, he let the talent dictate the scheme, instead of the other way around, and the Huskies eventually cornered the West Coast market on talent.
James was only 60 when he retired, in the summer of 1993, as the most successful coach in school history. Conference sanctions against the football program had been announced, and while neither James nor any other coach was specifically found guilty of giving improper benefits to players, the league determined there had been an absence of “institutional control.”
The Huskies, with the apparent approval of then- school president William Gerberding, were slapped with a two-year bowl ban and one year off TV; James thought Gerberding should have accepted a one-year bowl ban and two years off TV.
“I have decided I can no longer coach in a conference that treats its players and coaches so unfairly,” James wrote in a statement released on Aug. 22, 1993.
Despite the chaos surrounding his decision to quit, James remained a fixture around the Huskies football program. If he had any regrets about a career in which he won an astounding 70 percent of his games, they were too few to mention.
A prevailing memory of James is of him walking out of the hotel and onto a bus awaiting to take the team to the airport for its return flight to Seattle after the Rose Bowl, on Jan. 2, 1992. The Huskies had been awarded half of the national championship – the University of Miami, where James once had been a quarterback, shared the other half – and there was an almost beatific smile on his face.
College football is not a warm and fuzzy place, which made coaching it a perfect profession for Don James. He was not a warm and fuzzy person.
But he had his moments.john.mcgrath@ thenewstribune.com