New book details the inspiration and detail of Don James’ legendary ‘Thursday speeches’
Former Washington linebacker remembers how speeches were such a motivating factor for him and other Huskies.
Seattle Times staff reporter
About the book
“The Thursday Speeches: Lessons in Life, Leadership and Football from Coach Don James” By Peter Tormey (paperback, 220 pages) is available at CreateSpace for $14.99. It’s also available on Amazon.com.The Kindle version is available for $9.99 on Amazon.com. A portion of the proceeds will be contributed to the UW’s Don James Football Endowment Fund for scholarship assistance to student-athletes who participated in the Washington football program.
Two days before Christmas 1974 — 40 years ago this week — the University of Washington plucked a 41-year-old football coach away from Kent State and empowered him to lead the Huskies’ turnaround.
Don James did just that, of course, leading the Huskies to the Rose Bowl in his third season, becoming the program’s most iconic figure and inspiring hundreds of young men who played for him.
It wasn’t an easy climb to the top for James, however. Former UW linebacker Peter Tormey, in his new book, “The Thursday Speeches: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Football from Coach Don James,” chronicles James’ 18 seasons at UW through the scope of the coach’s weekly addresses to the team.
The speeches, as the coach himself, eventually took on a legendary quality, particularly for players like Tormey who felt a personal connection to them.
Tormey, a Spokane product, was part of James’ second UW recruiting class, and he witnessed up close the program’s growing pains when the team went 5-6 in 1976, the only losing season of James’ UW tenure. The Huskies experienced similar growing pains this year during an up-and-down first season under Chris Petersen.
Now an associate director of university and public relations at Gonzaga University, Tormey first had the idea to write about James’ speeches for his own doctoral dissertation about a decade ago.
He asked James for permission and cooperation in writing the dissertation, and James agreed. The very next day, a FedEx package arrived at Tormey’s Spokane home. Inside, a stack of 11-by-14-inch yellow legal-size papers — the original speeches James had handwritten each Wednesday in his office at UW.
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, what a treasure chest,’ ” Tormey said.
Tormey went over the more than 100 speeches and also sat down with James for multiple interviews over several years. Tormey completed his dissertation in 2007 and shopped it around, hoping to find a publisher — the University of Washington Press initially showed interest — but nothing stuck.
It wasn’t until James’ death, at age 80, in October 2013, and after Tormey attended The Dawgfather’s public memorial service at Hec Edmundson Pavilion, that Tormey was motivated to rework the transcript and publish it.
He wound up publishing the 220-page book independently and in large part as a tribute to his coach and mentor.
“It was a great honor and a privilege to develop this book,” said Tormey, the younger brother of former UW assistant coach Chris Tormey. “It’s a long time in the making. …
“What’s unique about this book is it’s not a third-party person. It’s me interpreting his messages and themes, but when you get to actual speeches, it’s his words. I wanted it to be very, very authentic, and I think it really shows a side of him that no one else saw, except his players.”
Over the years — and especially those early lean years as James developed the program — some general themes emerged from the speeches. Attitude was often the overarching message. It was crystallized in Tormey’s favorite speech he heard the coach deliver in October 1979, “Two Men Looked Out from Prison Bars; One Saw Mud, the Other Saw Stars.”
“Possibility thinking,” the idea that a positive attitude, starting about 48 hours before kickoff, was fundamental to success according to James.
James, whose first contract with UW, for four years, paid him $28,000 annually, used lessons from Julius Caesar, George Washington Carver and Helen Keller, among others, in his speeches, and he was often more passionate, more animated than he ever allowed in public. Tormey published the speeches as James wrote them, including the rare grammatical error and the occasional, emphatic curse word.
“It’s amazing to think about how fired up he would get and how much he inspired us,” Tormey said. “My inspiration was … to share some of his wisdom as a man and as a person — really on how to get through life. So many of his speeches had nothing to do with X’s and O’s. They were just tips to dealing with problems and the importance of attitude and why that’s so critical.”
Tormey, like many Huskies who played for James, does see some similarities in the program 40 years later. Petersen and the Huskies (8-5) play Oklahoma State (6-6) in the Jan. 2 TicketCity Cactus Bowl in Tempe, Ariz., where they’re hoping to end an up-and-down season with some positive momentum. As James, Petersen preaches the importance of molding young men — “Build for Life” is his theme — something that is renewed throughout “The Thursday Speeches.”
In 1975, James’ first season at UW, Tormey writes that “a decisive turning point” came after the Huskies’ 52-0 defeat at Alabama (and its legendary coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant), which dropped UW’s record to 2-3 in mid-October. Upon returning to Seattle, James decided to sleep on the couch in his UW office that night. Without telling anyone, he wanted to send a message to the team.
“Someone, a janitor, saw me in my pajamas early one morning, and the word kind of got out,” James told Tormey. “But it got out to the team that I hadn’t given up on the season. And it was an important season, too.”
Four nights a week, Sunday through Wednesday, James continued to sleep in his office that first season. The Huskies would rebound and finish 5-2 in Pacific-8 Conference play that season, narrowly missing out on a Rose Bowl berth.
For James and the Huskies, the stars were beginning to align.