They started playing football at the University of Washington in 1889 which is just 13 years after George Custer met his maker at Little Big Horn. Coming into Saturday’s game with UCLA the Huskies have won 714 games.
21 percent of those wins came by teams coached by one man.
Perhaps that’s the simplest way to explain why a statue of Don James will be unveiled Friday afternoon outside Husky Stadium. From this day forward a physical likeness of James will loom over the stadium plaza and Montlake Boulevard which is appropriate because his spirit and legacy have loomed over the entire program more or less since his arrival in late 1974.
James was hired by UW athletic director Joseph Kearney as the new coach at Washington due in part to an incident that took place at a restaurant in Ohio. James was the head coach at Kent State at the time and he and Kearney met for an interview. That they were in such a public place to discuss the situation at the University of Washington is a more than adequate example of life being a bit simpler in a time when everyone wasn’t carrying a camera and people didn’t feel the constant need to interject themselves into other people’s business.
Except, on this day, someone did. James was still at relatively small Kent State at the time but he had grown up in Northeast Ohio and was already a legend in the eyes of many fans there. As he and Kearney sat and talked about the UW job a guy who had a few cocktails under his belt approached the duo. He was a fan and wanted to talk football with James.
James’ football credentials were solid enough that he may have been hired by UW anyway. But it’s what happened next that really got Kearney’s attention. James politely engaged the over-imbibed fan for a minute or two before informing him that he was having a private discussion with his guest. The fan thanked him for his time and moved on.
Kearney later remarked that he was impressed with how James had handled the situation. He was able to give the man a little time before returning to the business at hand. And he had done so while maintaining a demeanor that in no way made the fan feel embarrassed for interrupting the meeting.
There’s another great anecdote about James’ arrival to Seattle that he delighted in telling people over the years. He and his wife Carol arrived in town the day before the news conference where his hiring would be formally announced. They decided to take a drive up to Husky Stadium to check out the place where he would be working. As they drove by, the reader board on the sign outside the stadium read:
“The University of Washington welcomes new football coach Don Jones.”
James smiled and had a twinkle in his eye every time he told that story. A humble by nature Midwesterner, he got a huge kick out of a gracious gesture from his new employer that included the wrong name.
What happened next is the kind of stuff that gets you a statue. James took a couple years to get going but eventually compiled one of the best overall coaching records in college football history. In 18 years he had exactly one losing season. Nine times his teams won nine games or more. 14 times they went to bowl games (in today’s world with the glut of bowls James would have gone to 17 bowl games in 18 seasons at UW). UW won four Rose Bowls and an Orange Bowl with James as head coach and in 1991 won the National Championship with a perfect 12 and 0 season. The University of Miami also claimed the National Championship with the same 12 and 0 mark that year and in the time before a college football playoff the two teams and their fans were left to argue for eternity over who would have won. In a nice coincidence to that story, James played college football at Miami where he quarterbacked the Hurricanes and set five school records in three seasons in the early 1950s.
The end of the Don James era at UW was a bit messy. Don resigned in August of 1993 after sanctions were announced against the Washington football program for a series of rules violations. I disagreed with his decision to resign but I certainly understood it. He knew that his program had gotten careless and thus run afoul of NCAA and PAC 10 rules. He also knew other schools had done far worse and received much less in penalties. He was mad at what he felt was a lack of support from the administration at UW and was furious at the punishment meted out by the PAC 10 which was so severe in nature that the NCAA of all people had to tell the PAC 10 to back down a bit.
I agreed with George Vescey of the New York Times who opined in a sensational piece of prose that the “the best revenge for Don James would have been to emerge from the Northwest mists clanking his chains, howling in the wind, like some vengeful ghost right out of Shakespeare.”
But James had made up his mind. He was done as head coach. That development led to him taking a job as the host of his own radio show. I was the lucky guy who got to be the co-host and in the process I got to know Don and Carol over the three football seasons that we worked together. I can say with complete confidence that he never once second-guessed his decision to leave and he never once considered any offer to come back and coach elsewhere.
He was that rare coach who was able to walk away from football and suddenly start enjoying the things he had been forced to miss. I remember him telling me in December of 1993 that he had never set up a Christmas tree because he was always busy preparing for a bowl game in December. That year, he set one up. He and Carol traveled around the world and while he remained steadfast in his belief that leaving UW was the right thing to do, he did so without any apparent bitterness. He loved going to games and supporting the team. He was extremely happy in his life after football which is a good thing because he ended up living another 20 years.
It’s great and appropriate that UW is honoring him in this way and it’s wonderful that Carol James will be a part of the ceremony. Carol was a key part of the success he enjoyed as a coach. She did so many things behind the scenes that helped him and helped the team. Their love story was a lifelong affair and was (and is) an inspiration to me.
Being inspired and feeling good about knowing Don and Carol isn’t a feeling unique to me. The players he coached, the coaches who worked with him, the families of those players and coaches, and all the fans who interacted with him would say the same thing. So would the guy who interrupted his meeting that day in 1974 with Joe Kearney.
The real measure of any of us is this: can we have a positive impact on the people we meet? Few did that better and more consistently than Don James.