The way it all went down when Don James resigned was explained in detail to me today. Much of this has been written about before but not all of it.
Dr. William Gerberding (no one ever called him “Bill”), President, University of Washington, held an animus toward major college sports, believing their popularity was a convolution of priorities, and was further rankled by the esteem with which Washington Head Coach Don James was held on campus (he was just a football coach, after all).
As it was explained to me, Gerberding’s politics were a little to the left of Barney Frank while James’ convictions, of course, were not. This further aggravated Gerberding as evidenced by Gerberding’s reaction when President George H. W. Bush, while in Seattle, invited James to join him (the two had met when the national champion Huskies visited Washington D.C.). Gerberding had not been similarly invited – apparently in Gerberding’s mind, a slight. Gerberding believed Bush invited James because James was a Republican, perhaps active in the party, and Gerberding read James the riot act for mixing politics with football.
James, who served in the army and has great affection for his country, reminded Gerberding that Bush was the President of the United States and, regardless of party, when the President of the United States invites you to dinner, you go. It’s a great honor. If the president was Lyndon Johnson, James would go. Jimmy Carter. But it didn’t explain why Gerberding wasn’t invited. Although, considering Gerberding’s political convictions, he probably would have declined the invitation had one been extended, Gerberding was not mollified.
Multiple allegations were made that 1) Billy Joe Hobert, needing money, obtained an illegal loan, 2) Washington players living in Los Angeles, while employed by a Washington booster during the summer, were being paid for work they weren’t doing (the informant was one or several of four players James had dismissed from the squad for ethical violations), and 3) another Washington supporter supposedly agreed to adopt a poor-but-talented player if the player signed with Washington.
Hobert’s loan was not illegal – the lender was the grandfather of a friend, and had no ties to Washington. Nobody agreed to adopt anybody. But there was indiscretion when overseeing the workers on the Los Angeles job…and Don James was very upset when he found out about it.
These allegations, reiterated and amplified by the Seattle Times, led President Gerberding in December 1992 to begin an internal investigation utilizing a large mid-west law firm with experience in NCAA investigations. I was told their legal fees totaled approximately $750,000. And Gerberding critically questioned James’s outside income sources.
The NCAA did not become involved; with the help of Barbara Hedges and upper campus representatives, the Pac-10 needed no outside help. A litany of minor infractions (“fruit-basket-gate”) was compiled.
Athletic Director Barbara Hedges gave Coach James the probable Pac-10 sanctions options which James did not consider too onerous: some lost recruiting visits, a loss of 20 scholarships (all schools across the country were going to loose five) and either 1) two years of lost television income (not the television appearances, the income from those appearances – the Pac-10 wanted Washington on television) and a one year bowl ban, or 2) a two year bowl ban and one year of lost television income. Washington had 10 days to appeal.
James told Hedges the situation was straight-forward because a) the vast majority of players had done nothing wrong, b) Washington had gone to three straight Rose Bowls, and c) through the football program, the athletic department had a $20 million surplus – they didn’t need the television money. James wanted sanctions which would least-impact the players. One bowl ban was unfair enough; the elimination of two grossly unjust.
After subsequently meeting with Hedges and upper campus representatives, James understood that Washington representatives would argue for a one year bowl ban – a brief blip on the screen – precluding momentum loss for the Washington juggernaut and, with winning seasons in the long run, the surplus would stay up there.
Barbara Hedges told James there should be no problem getting what he wanted.
To demonstrate how serious he was about what he wanted, however, James warned her that if the bowl ban was increased, he would resign. Hedges assured him it would never come to that. Months later, comments by Hedges (“I don’t think we realized how difficult this was for him. I believe the second year of the bowl ban did it.”) suggested she didn’t take him seriously.
Hedges and other Washington representatives attended the meeting with Pac-10 officials but Gerberding did not, apparently voting by phone. The implication is he didn’t need to be there or he didn’t care if he was there or, most likely, both.
On Saturday night after the meeting, Hedges called James and told him the Pac-10 had gone with one year of lost television revenue and a two-year bowl ban – the opposite of what James wanted.
James was able to later learn from other Pac-10 officials (not someone from Washington) attending the meeting that 1) not only did no one go to bat for the Washington football program but, rather, 2) Washington representatives argued that without the television revenue, minor non-revenue sports, e.g., men’s golf and women’s tennis, could be hurt. It was a politically correct position that resonated with other Pac-10 officials, and they agreed, cut the loss in television revenue from two years to one, and slapped a two-bowl ban on the goose laying the $20 million golden egg.
When former athletic director Mike Lude (who, at best, had little use for Gerberding) heard about it, he was livid.
It made no sense. Unless…
Betrayed, and a man of his word, James made the decision to resign. To prevent the administration from firing his assistant coaches, rather than coaching through the season, James resigned just before the season began, encouraging Hedges to make Defensive Coordinator Jim Lambright head coach. Hedges had no alternative and Lambo took over with the coaching staff intact.
James’ resignation was a combination of two things: 1) the extent to which he valued his word (even if others didn’t) and 2) his willingness to place his future well-being on the line to protect his players. Had Hedges understood James better, James probably would have coached for several more years. Or perhaps an accurate understanding wouldn’t have made any difference. Hedges wasn’t running the show.
After James resigned, he never heard/saw another word from Gerberding. The prospect seems impossible but, with James gone, apparently the Washington football program was going in the direction Gerberding wanted.