I’ve had a really hard time figuring out exactly how to approach this piece. On Sunday, Don James passed away after battling pancreatic cancer, and although I always knew I’d be saddened when the end came for Coach James, I was shocked by how much it affected me.
Don James wasn’t just the best coach in the history of Washington Football (he was). He wasn’t just the architect of one of the most consistently competitive football programs in the country (he was). He wasn’t just an innovative mind that had the rare ability to adapt to changing landscapes in college football (he was). No – Coach James was and is the reason that multiple generations of Husky fans bleed purple and gold.
My earliest memories are of my grandfather dragging me up the looooooong and windy ramp at the old Husky Stadium. Section 48 row KK. For those of you who don’t remember, that’s way WAY up there. We could see the entire field from the seats. We could see plays develop, holes open up and touchdowns coming from a mile away. Most importantly, we could see Coach James. My grandfather would point him out every single game – “See Coach? He’s right there. He’s the best.” He also showed me The Tower. “See that? That’s where Coach watches practice.” I would ask, “Doesn’t he go down to practice?” No, he certainly did not. He had his coordinators and his position coaches for that. They knew how he wanted things done, and they knew he was watching every single thing that went on during practice. He didn’t have to be down there. He had eyes everywhere.
Because of the program that Coach James built, every autumn Saturday for my entire life has been about Husky Football. First it was watching games on TV, then going with my grandfather and uncles. Eventually as my grandfather’s health began to decline I would take his tickets and go with my cousins. Now I have my own season tickets and this year took my 18 month old son to his first game – he is the 4th generation of my family to go to a Husky game. All of this because of what one man I’ve never met did.
As this year’s Huskies stumble towards another seven win season, there is a perfectly simple explanation as to why that is unacceptable to the longtime Husky faithful. Coach James wouldn’t have let that happen. He expected excellence of his teams, and as fans we came to expect the same. Coach James didn’t tolerate mediocrity. Any time he felt like his teams were falling behind, he adapted. When he arrived at Washington the Huskies were an afterthought. During his third season he took the Huskies back to the Rose Bowl with Warren Moon, a (gasp!) black quarterback – something unheard of in 1977. All Coach James knew was that Warren Moon was special, and he could win football games.
In 1988 the unimaginable happened. The Huskies were average. The grind it out style that had worked so well for so long was being phased out. The Dawgs finished 6-6 and 3-5 in the Pac 10. Coach James didn’t waste any time. His team was slow. They needed to be faster. He recruited athletes. Steve Emtman (a two star recruit, look it up), Tommy Harris, Dave Hoffman, Dana Hall. He recruited track stars. Orlando McKay, Mario Bailey, Chico Fraley, Napoleon Kaufman. The result? A four year stretch of football starting in 1989 that was unlike anything we’ve ever seen in Seattle.
We all know how everything came crashing down around Coach James in 1992. Billy Jo Hobert, the Camaro, all of it. It was an unceremonious end to a glorious career – the result of a few shady characters and California schools that were sick and tired of having their best players head up to Seattle. Nothing has been the same since.
Twenty years have come and gone since Don James walked the sidelines at Husky Stadium, but his mark on the program is as strong as ever. Despite the decline of the program since his departure, I still expect Washington to have a stingy defense. I still expect the Huskies to be better than Oregon and better than USC. None of those things have been true for a very long time, but because they were the norm for so long, I still think they should be true. That’s what Don James did for me. That’s what Don James did for Husky Nation. He made lifelong fans of Husky Football.
I want to extend my most heartfelt condolences to his family. There will never be another one like Coach James. Today, we bow down one final time for Coach. Go Dawgs.