With hundreds of family, friends, former players, assistant coaches and fans in attendance, the public memorial for Don James at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Sunday went pretty much how the former University of Washington football coach would have wanted.
Actually, it went exactly how James would have wanted. Because he planned it.
Yes, James, the legendary UW coach who died Oct. 20 at age 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer, orchestrated the finer points of his own memorial service. And that wasn’t at all surprising to those who knew him best, those who knew him as a relentless tactician, always about the details.
Bob Rondeau, the longtime UW football and men’s basketball play-by-play broadcaster, said James and his wife, Carol, kept a file at their home containing information about what kind of music they wanted played at each other’s services.
“We even had the singers at the house the Wednesday before he died,” said longtime friend Sam Wick, one of several speakers during Sunday’s service. He described that Wednesday gathering as “an absolute beautiful time.”
So was Sunday afternoon, the kind of sunny, crisp fall day that James and his Washington Huskies so often dominated during the coach’s 18-year tenure at UW.
Former coaches — Bob Stull, Chris Tormey, Randy Hart, Keith Gilbertson, Jim Lambright, Jim E. Mora — were everywhere. The entire UW football team attended, along with coach Steve Sarkisian, who was one of the speakers. No fewer than 60 or 70 of James’ former players were in attendance, including linebacker Michael Jackson, who spoke of the promise James made him when he was recruited out of Pasco.
James assured Jackson he would receive a quality education and that he’d get a chance to play. By the middle of his freshman year, Jackson was contributing as a 205-pound linebacker, even though he was recruited as a safety.
It was a move that made him uneasy, Jackson said. But he trusted James, and that trust paid off.
“We’re going to tell our children about that man,” said Jackson, who played at UW from 1975-78. “We’re going to tell our grandchildren about that man. We’re going to tell our grandchildren’s grandchildren about that great man.”
James’ daughter Jill Woodruff spoke of the dedication James had to his religion and to his family, regardless of the demands made on him by his job.
Gary Pinkel, now the head coach at the University of Missouri, flew in from Columbia, Mo., to attend and give a short tribute. Pinkel played for James at Kent State in Ohio and was later an assistant at UW from 1979-90. And there was a video tribute from Alabama coach Nick Saban — a four-time national champion as a head coach — who said he got into coaching because James asked him to be a graduate assistant back at Kent State.
There were a handful of emotional moments. Woodruff acknowledged that while James’ career accomplishments are well-known — six Rose Bowl appearances, 153 wins in 18 seasons at Washington – his legacy of love for his family will be what they remember most.
She told the story of Carol, to whom James was married for 61 years, walking into James’ office one day, telling him he was spending too much time away from her and the kids.
James put his arms around her, Woodruff said, and told her: “I will resign effective today if that’s what I need to do. Because nothing will ever come before you and the family.”
There were lighter moments, too. Chuck Nelson, the former kicker who played on two Rose Bowl teams in the early 1980s, joked about James’ “open door” policy.
Players respected James to the point that they feared him, Nelson said. So the worst thing in the world was getting called into his office.
“We didn’t like the fact that his door was open,” Nelson said. “That meant you had to sprint by the door so he wouldn’t see you.”
Mike Lude, the former Kent State and UW athletic director, shared a story of hiring James at Kent State. “We worked together for nearly 20 years and never had a fight,” he said.
The coach’s devotion to the Christian faith was noted throughout the service. In James’ dying moments, Woodruff said, family members read him Bible verses. It was suggested that he be read John 11:25, and so he was: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.”
Shortly after, James took his final breath, Woodruff said.
The clock showed 11:25 a.m., as if it had been planned that way.