SEATTLE — The first staff meeting of Don James’ long, legendary football coaching career at the University of Washington began with an edict that exemplified the coach’s famed attention to detail.
This is how Jim Lambright, a holdover at that time from former coach Jim Owens’ staff, remembers that meeting prior to James’ inaugural season at UW in 1975.
“Everybody take a look at your watch,” Lambright recalled James telling the staff. “This meeting is to start at 7:30. So when I come through the door, it is 7:30. If I come through the door at 7:40, it is 7:30. If I come through the door at 7:15, it is 7:30. Do you hear me?”
Yes, Coach. Loud and clear.
James, who died Sunday morning at age 80 at his home in Kirkland after a battle with pancreatic cancer, will be remembered for his unrelenting organizational skills, a key ingredient to his storied 18-year tenure as the Huskies’ coach. He will be remembered as the best to ever hold that position at UW, leading the Huskies to six conference championships, four Rose Bowl victories and, most notably, an unbeaten season in 1991 that led to a share of the national championship.
Simply put, to more than one generation of Huskies’ fans, Don James — “The Dawgfather,” as he became known — set the standard of success for football at the University of Washington. His achievements remain the benchmark for all coaches after him.
“He brought a style and a class all his own,” said former quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, who helped lead the Huskies to their 12-0 record in 1991. “That sounds cliché, but he was so classy and so elegant about the way he handled things throughout his entire career there. I don’t see too many men who operate the way he did.”
James operated with detail and precision and demanded the same of his players, who came to revere — if not fear — his strict, disciplined approach.
It’s why James observed practices from a tower high above the field, taking notes and providing assistant coaches with a list of improvements he wanted made after each session.
He kept a file of potential assistant coaches, organized by age, background and experience. He always — always — sat in the first seat on the right-hand side of the team bus. His approach to recruiting was typically thorough, his lists and profiles immaculate.
“Don was matter-of-fact in everything,” said Lambright, who was promoted to defensive coordinator in 1977, a position he held until James’ retirement in 1993, when Lambright was promoted to head coach. “He wrote everything down. He could tell you how many golf balls he’d hit this year up to this date, and last year up to this date, and the year before up to this date. He could tell you how many miles he’d driven on his car this year and last year.
“That’s why he also did his coaching from the tower, because Don was not a coach where his comfort zone was down on the field with his arm around one of the players. He was in his comfort zone when he was in a tower, taking notes on what was happening at practice.”
James might have been all business, but he had a lighter side, too. Former Washington State coach Jim Walden remembers fondly his relationship with James, who didn’t mind lobbing a friendly verbal volley toward Walden from time to time.
The two were friends despite their “Mutt and Jeff” differences in personality, Walden said, and they routinely golfed together during the offseason.
“He had a much better sense of humor than he ever got credit for,” said Walden. “He had a system, he had a regulation and by golly, that’s what he did. I liked that about him.”
The number of victories, future NFL players and accolades accumulated by James during his UW career are staggering. His teams won 153 games in 18 seasons, and played in 14 bowl games. He saw 109 of his players drafted by NFL teams – 10 in the first round, Steve Emtman and Lincoln Kennedy among them – and coached seven consensus All-Americans.
James, born in December 1932 in Massillon, Ohio, played quarterback at the University of Miami (Fla.), earned a Master’s of Education from the University of Kansas, was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, and was hired to coach UW in 1975 after leading Kent State to a 25-19-1 record in four seasons.
He had skeptics, especially after his first two seasons at UW yielded records of 6-5 and 5-6. But after senior quarterback Warren Moon led the Huskies to a 10-2 record in 1977 and a victory over Michigan in the 1978 Rose Bowl — followed by back-to-back Rose Bowl appearances in 1980-81 — James was entrenched as one of the nation’s most commanding coaching figures.
So consistently talented were the Huskies under James that Sports Illustrated once listed college football’s three best coaches as Don James, Don James and Don James.
Alabama coach Nick Saban and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel each played for James at Kent State, and both, along with countless others throughout the years, have said they consider him one of their most important mentors.
“It’s hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James,” Pinkel said in a statement released by Missouri. “He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally.”
The end of James’ UW tenure was unceremonious, a conclusion unbefitting his accomplishments. He retired prior to the 1993 season after the NCAA levied sanctions against the Huskies for “lack of institutional control,” handing down a two-year bowl ban that James felt was unfair — and that the UW administration, he felt, did little to avoid.
“He kept so much stuff inside of him that you really never knew what he was thinking about,” Lambright said. “But we knew he was really struggling with all of that and how unfair it was.”
Regardless, James was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 1994, then was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997. A premium seating area in Husky Stadium bears his name.
He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Carol, and their three children, Jeff, Jill and Jeni, as well as 10 grandchildren. A release from the university notes that he once made a hole-in-one during a golf game and summited Mount Rainier.
Details of a public memorial service are forthcoming, according to a release from UW.
It will be well-attended.
“I just can’t tell you how much Don’s leadership meant to me and my career, and how much I learned from him,” Lambright said.
“I loved him, respected the way he coached, the way he coached his coaches, and you have to admire the results,” Walden said. “He did some stuff that they haven’t been able to do since.”christian.caple@ thenewstribune.com blog.thenewstribune.com/uwsports @ChristianCaple