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Don James says quitting UW probably saved his life
Special to The Seattle Times
Could it be nearly 14 years since, on that warm August afternoon in 1993 when we all remember where we were, that Don James angrily resigned as Washington's football coach?
What if he had stayed at Washington?
Bobby Bowden and Joe Paterno kept on coaching, after all.
"Our family doctor told me I would have been dead within five years with the wear and tear of coaching," James, 73, said this week.
He never entertained another offer to coach after he left Washington, even though he had just turned 60.
He said he never questioned his decision to walk away from a football team two weeks before the start of the season, even though many others did.
On the surface, you can't say he made much of a statement in quitting, other than that he was indispensable. His resignation didn't make the world free from war, it simply left Washington with a football program like everyone else's.
But leaving did set him free, free of an administration at Washington he detested, and free to enjoy another life.
A few years after quitting, he was hitting golf balls at Inglewood Country Club with another former coach, Tom Flores.
"We were talking about how our lives had changed," said James. "Tom asked me, 'Do you know how much a new car costs these days?' Neither one of us had bought one in 25 years."
In between the Washington sanctions in 1993 and the possible problems at USC, the Pac-10 hasn't probed and punished its football teams, save a one-year bowl ban Cal endured when the Bears were so bad it didn't matter. Cal had been judged guilty of serious academic fraud.
"We had done so much for the league," said James, "and rather than regard us as family, they went after us because we were so good. It wasn't the NCAA. It was the Pac-10 and our administration."
The Huskies had been to three Rose Bowls and won 22 straight games in the period before James resigned. They were a juggernaut.
To this day, James doesn't believe his school was cheating, or that cheating was rampant in the league.
He saw the loan to quarterback Billy Joe Hobert as outside the school's jurisdiction. He wondered about the alleged jobs in California where athletes were paid but didn't work.
"The accusations of that happening came from four players I had dismissed from the team for character issues," he said.
Outside Seattle, the question wasn't whether the Huskies were guilty, but whether the penalties fit the crimes.
"I had the sanctions from the Pac-10 in my pocket for a week," said James, "and I was ready to live with them. We could have gone on."
At the last minute, a poorly conceived appeal of the penalties by Washington ended up making things worse, not better. History changed on a bad idea.
It was a time of political correctness. Barbara Hedges, the athletic director, and president William Gerberding saw a two-year ban on television revenues from football as unfair and costly to Washington minor sports, which hadn't done anything wrong.
The irony was that the Huskies didn't need the money. Because of football they were rich. They had nearly $20 million in the bank. The minor sports were fine.
The Pac-10 academic-types bought into the appeal. They limited the Huskies to a one-year TV ban — saving the university about $1.4 million — but in the process exchanged the penalty for a second year of no postseason football.
The golden goose was cooked.
James said he could live with one year of sanctions. After all, the Huskies had just been to three straight Rose Bowls. But he couldn't live with a second year, or that his school, his bosses, his friends, had cashed in football for the glory of men's golf or women's soccer.
He thought about coaching out the season, taking his $400,000 and running, but said he feared his assistant coaches would be lost in the process. He said he thought they had a better chance of staying on if Jim Lambright became coach.
James had taken the Huskies to 15 bowl games in 18 years, winning 10 of them, including four Rose Bowls. He should have been able to coach at Washington forever.
"I couldn't stand the league or our upper campus [administration]," he said. "I didn't want to be around them."
Even though he attended Miami and got a graduate degree from Kansas, he considers Washington his school. He attends football games every fall. He's pained by what has happened, but remains hopeful.
He spends half the year in Palm Desert, Calif., where there are two Arnold Palmer courses out the door.
His wife, Carol, is recuperating from a slight stroke. She walked a mile on the treadmill this week; James did four miles, lifted weights and swung a weighted golf club 100 times. They have plans in August to safari in Africa, highlighted by two days with gorillas in the forests of Rwanda.
"We got to Rome four times before we got to Philadelphia," he said. "That's how it goes when you are a coach."
Not just any coach.
E-mail comments to Blaine Newnham at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company