Those of you younger than me (and that includes the majority of the free world and especially those working in Nike shops), one of the truest signs of “getting up there” is when someone passes that was a major part of your life. You then have to face the fact that someone you imagined would always be around, is gone.
This past Sunday, Don James, one of the most successful coaches in college football who timed his career to match my involvement with the University of Washington Huskies, bid this world goodbye.
I remember hearing that he was battling pancreatic cancer and knowing his passion for winning, I just assumed it would be a battle that would last for a long time. But cancer has no home team, shows no favorites and Don’s lifetime was contained to a mere 80 years on earth.
But boy, did he make it count.
When I arrived at the University of Washington campus in the fall of 1973, I wanted to fit in to my new home. As I settled into my dorm room at Terry Hall and registered over at Schmitz, I received literature about purchasing football tickets in the student section. Back then, that was prime seating on the north side of the stadium. There was no upper deck, just the lower level and a “stone” section which the students embraced. You would buy a package and each week, you’d be assigned a different section. The purple section was at the 50-yard line, so you could buy the package that put you at the 50 for whatever you determined was the ultimate game of the season.
I remember going to that first football game and being surprised to see protestors. They weren’t rallying against war or injustice, but rather the current football coach, Jim Owens. Jim had enjoyed great success in earlier years, but not recently, and there was a vocal faction that demanded a change.
That change came with the hiring of a soft-spoken coach from Kent State named Don James. I had heard of Kent State from the student shootings, but not for football. This would be interesting.
And it was. Don James’ first season he went 6-5. His second, 5-6. After that, he never looked back and enjoyed winning season after winning season until he retired.
While Don James and I weren’t buddy-buddies, I did get to meet him and got to be familiar enough to him that he’d know my face. I was that kid who was Larry Nelson’s producer at KOMO Radio, your Husky station. Our paths crossed often and he was always very cordial. I tried my best not to act like a star-struck fan, but it wasn’t easy. I helped him get into headphones for some studio work. Got to hang around while he was interviewed. But sadly, even though I was around him for four football seasons, I never had my picture taken with him. That has got to be my biggest regret.
Besides working with Don, I also sat and operated the board many a time for his wife Carol and local celebrity Rainer Rey, as they did some banter radio commercials for QFC back in those days.
When I moved over to KLSY, for one season, we hosted the Don James Show in the afternoons with Larry Nelson and Bob Rondeau side-kick Gary Johnson. Unfortunately, what I remember most about those shows is the difficulty we had getting the coach on the air on a regular basis.
In later years, when I was part of the Murdock & Hunter show, I remember one bowl game when we called up the hotel where he was staying and ordered breakfast to be delivered to his room. He was kind enough to call and thank us on the air. Our plan worked brilliantly.
He was the most successful football coach in the history of the University of Washington. Many great names and future NFL stars passed through his program during the Don James era.
Coach James resigned after the UW was clobbered with recruiting violations that he felt were unfair to the university and his players. His final three years at the UW, his record was 31-5 and he took the Dawgs to three consecutive Rose Bowls. We haven’t seen that kind of greatness since his tenure, but we’re slowly but surely scratching and clawing our way back.
His achievements, his style, his modesty and his leadership were a joy to see up close. You look back at how your life takes you to places and you wonder why in the heck you ended up there. But it’s our experiences that make our lifetime. I consider myself blessed for Coach James’ time at the UW to have touched my life.
Enjoy your well-deserved rest, coach. I know they’re working hard to get things back to the way you left them.