Legendary Washington football coach Don James dies at age 80
James set the standard for success for the football program as the Huskies’ coach from 1975 to 1992.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Don James, one of the most beloved figures in the proud history of University of Washington football, died at approximately 11:20 a.m. Sunday surrounded by family at his Kirkland home.
He died from the effects of pancreatic cancer, the school said. He was 80 years old.
James set the standard for success for the program as the Huskies’ coach from 1975 to 1992. He remains the Huskies’ winningest head coach in the program’s 128-year history, with a 153-57-2 overall record in 18 seasons.
James orchestrated the Huskies’ perfect season in 1991, culminating in a 34-14 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl that gave UW a 12-0 record and a share of the national championship with Miami.
“It’s tough,” said former UW athletic director Mike Lude, who considers James his best friend. “For every outstanding, sensational Broadway production, there’s always a final curtain. And the final curtain came down this morning.”
A disciplinarian with an acute attention to detail, James was affectionately nicknamed “The Dawgfather.” He was respected and feared by his players and opponents alike. Former players and colleagues describe him as a tough, humble man who was revered throughout college football as one of the game’s best coaches.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997, four years after retiring in protest of what he believed were unjust sanctions handed down by the Pacific-10 Conference against the UW program.
The Huskies’ accomplishments on the football field are now judged against the glory days of the Don James Era.
“I don’t think there’s an adjective that could adequately describe his contribution to Washington football. ‘Titanic’ would be woefully insufficient to even try to describe it,” said Hugh Millen, a UW quarterback from 1983-85.
In August, James made a visit to a Husky practice to give his annual speech to the team. Players took a knee and huddled around him at midfield inside Husky Stadium. He was then in attendance, sitting next to Lude, for the Huskies’ victory over Boise State on Aug. 31 for the reopening of Husky Stadium.
Two days later, doctors found a malignant tumor on his pancreas. He began chemotherapy treatment a few weeks later.
He is survived by his wife, Carol — who, like her husband, grew up in Massillon, Ohio — and their three grown children, Jeff, Jill and Jeni, and 10 grandchildren.
“The James family would like to thank the thousands of friends, former players and fellow coaches, and fans who prayed and expressed their love and support for Don these past few weeks,” the UW said in a statement released Sunday afternoon.
James led UW to 14 bowl games in 18 years, winning 10 of them, including four Rose Bowls. He retired in 1993 as the most successful coach in the then-Pacific-10 Conference, with 97 victories, 38 losses and two ties.
“My family and I are extremely saddened to hear of Coach James’ passing,” current UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “His accomplishments as a football coach stand alone, but what made him truly special is the quality of man he was away from the game.”
During James’ UW tenure, 109 players were selected in the NFL draft, including 10 in the first round.
In a 1982 interview, James described his approach in recruiting players to Washington: “The players we go after are all one kind,” he said. “They are good hitters who are also good people.”
James was born Dec. 31, 1932, in Massillon as the third of four sons. Their father was a bricklayer in the football hotbed of Ohio.
James played quarterback and defensive back for two state championship teams at Washington High School. He accepted a scholarship to play quarterback at Miami (Fla.), where he set five passing records. He was named the team’s top scholar-athlete before graduating from Miami in 1954.
He was commissioned as second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving two years before resuming his studies at the University of Kansas, where he also served as the Jayhawks’ freshman football coach. In 1957, he graduated from Kansas with a master’s degree in education.
He returned to Miami and became the football and basketball coach at Southwest High School.
In 1959, he was hired as an assistant football coach at Florida State, and in his four seasons as defensive coordinator, the Seminoles recorded 13 shutouts from 1962-65. He then served as the head defensive coach at Michigan for two seasons before joining the Colorado staff in the same role.
Lude, then the athletic director at Kent State, gave James his first college head-coaching job starting in the 1971 season. James’ first team at Kent State included future Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, current Alabama coach Nick Saban and current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. That team won the first and only Mid-American Conference championship in Kent State history.
James, 25-19-1 in four seasons at Kent State, was hired at Washington on Dec. 23, 1974. In 1976, James helped Lude land the job as UW’s athletic director.
“He stood for all the right things. He was a very strong individual,” Lude said. “His philosophy of life, and his philosophy of coaching, was unparalleled.”
It didn’t take long for James to build a winner at Washington. James’ first two UW teams went a combined 11-11, but by 1977 the Huskies won the Pacific-8 Conference championship and beat Michigan, 27-20, in the Rose Bowl — the Huskies’ first Rose Bowl victory since 1961.
Joe Steele, a UW running back from 1976-79, recalled the speeches before practice on Thursday afternoon that became part of the James legend. “By the time you were done with a lot of those speeches, you were jumping out of your chair and out on the field,” Steele said.
Washington rose to No. 1 in the nation for seven straight weeks during the 1982 season. The 1984 team finished 11-1, with a victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and was ranked No. 1 in the season’s final poll by The Football News and the Chicago Tribune.
In the 1980s, UW won more games, 84, than any other Pac-10 team.
“It was a special time and a special place,” Steele said, “and he was really a special person.’”
The dominant 1991 team, led by All-Americans Steve Emtman, Mario Bailey and Dave Hoffmann, outscored opponents by an average of 41.2 to 9.6 points, and the Huskies finished the season No. 1 in the USA Today/Coaches poll.
In 1992, James led UW to its third consecutive Rose Bowl berth, where the Huskies lost to a rematch to Michigan, 38-31. It was the last game James would coach.
On perhaps the darkest day for Washington football — Aug. 23, 1993 — the Pac-10 announced a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions after a scandal involving several UW players receiving money for little or no work done in Los Angeles. James resigned the same day.
“We had done so much for the league,” James told The Seattle Times in a 2006 interview, “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.”
James was succeeded by Jim Lambright, a longtime UW assistant.
An avid runner, James finished the Seattle Marathon in 1987. He was a dedicated golfer, and he once climbed Mount Rainier. He spent much of his life with Carol in retirement in Palm Desert, Calif., on the edge of two Arnold Palmer golf courses.
Former UW quarterback Damon Huard, now a UW football administrator, gave Don and Carol a tour of the new Husky Stadium during their August visit to campus.
“I had no idea he was sick,” Huard said. “I took him and Carol up every stair. The guy he is, he never let you see him sweat. And then he addressed the team. I’ll always remember that, my last time with Coach James.
“He was so proud and so fired up about this stadium. He was the guy, in a lot of ways, who built this place.”
Staff reporter Bob Condotta contributed
to this report.