You didn’t have to attend the University of Washington or root for the Huskies to appreciate what a special man coach Don James was. His passion for teaching the game and helping young people become productive adults was unmatched. Today the James family and the extended Husky family lost a good man to his battle with pancreatic cancer.
I had the good fortune of being the radio sideline reporter during some magnificent UW victories, including the 1991 National Championship season. Don treated me with respect like I was part of the team. I learned to be prepared with my questions like coach James was in his meticulous game planning and attention to detail.
He had a quick wit even during intense situations, which sometimes emerged during our half time interviews. During the 1990 Oregon game several Husky players left the playing field with injuries. I said to coach jokingly, “Don, I have some eligibility, do you need me to suit up at halftime?”
His reply, “Let’s hope not, thanks Bill.”
Don once told me he was not a superstitious coach, but he was a creature of habit. If the Huskies lost a road game, he would make sure they did not stay in the same team hotel the next time.
During the ’91 season I wore a bright green hat so the other members of the radio crew could spot me on the sideline. I was hosting the 5th quarter rally with coach James and a rather fired up fan yelled out, hey Swartz, take off that Oregon Duck hat. Don pulled it off my head and tossed it into the crowd to the delight of everyone. Then I pointed out over the loudspeakers, “fine, but that hat is 6 and 0!”
The following Monday there was a new purple and gold Husky hat on my desk at work with a note which read, “Bill, I hope you get that green hat back, but just in case, here is another one. Don.”
My fondest memory of the “Dawgfather” was the night before the 1992 Rose Bowl when our radio station did a live tailgate broadcast from inside the Anaheim convention center with nearly 10,000 Husky fans in attendance. Our radio team of Bob Rondeau, Sam Adkins and myself came out on a large stage along with the Husky marching band.
Coach James emerged from behind a curtain and the place went bonkers. The band struck up the song ‘Happy Birthday’ to honor the man born on New Year’s Eve. The next day his finest team would dominate Michigan, and complete an undefeated season.
I recall seeing Don with tears in his eyes announcing his Washington Huskies had been voted co-National Champions. He was named college coach of the year by 4 different wire services and polls.
In our frequent visits after his retirement, sometimes on the golf course , Don and I had many conversations about the children and grandchildren of whom he was so proud. After spending so many hours, days and months away from home, preparing his players for football games, he was so enjoying the chance to connect with family.
During one visit Don asked, “Bill , did you ever get that green hat back?”
“You bet coach, that hat and the purple and gold one you gave me both went undefeated.”
Bill Swartz, 1090TheFan
(TM and © Copyright 2013 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2012 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.)