That would be my fantasy headline. You’d see it and say, “Oh, wow, Tim knew Don James, the legendary football coach of the University of Washington Huskies! The guy they just unveiled a statue of, out in front of Husky Stadium.”
I actually DID know Coach Don James, on a professional level. Our paths crossed dozens of times, as I’m sure it did with so many other people who wanted to have a couple of minutes with the coach. Let’s face it, he was not only a nice guy, but a very talented football coach that left Kent State–a school more famous for its ’60s student shooting than its football program–to head for the University of Washington. There, he rescued a floundering program, taking it to unprecedented heights and even a national championship.
I worked at KOMO AM-1000 back in the early 1980s. I had gotten a low-voiced call from Seattle while I worked at KMWX in Yakima, went over for a job interview, accepted it and two weeks later, headed to the wet side of the mountains to be Larry Nelson’s morning show producer.
Going from a small market to Market 13 in the U.S. meant a lot of learning and growing was yet to come. That was back in the time when KOMO embraced their history as being one of the first radio stations in Seattle. The wall in front of the office I shared with Larry had cartoon drawings of the radio greats from the ’30s and ’40s. W.C. Fields, Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Jack Benny, Fred Allen and more.
That was a different era at KOMO. During my tenure there, they were a Full-Service AM station with music, news and up to 30 minutes of commercials per hour. Years prior, Fisher Broadcasting gave away the frequency that KUOW now occupies because, in the words of one general manager, “FM radio will never amount to anything.” KOMO had also let the Sonics slip away, but that allowed them to seriously go after the University of Washington sports broadcasts.
At that time, if you had the broadcast rights to a school, you got it all. What did you want to cover? Football, basketball, maybe some crew races? KOMO had access to everything purple and gold. Bob Rondeau, the voice of the Huskies, was the radio station sports director and did the morning sports reports during the week. On the weekends, he climbed into the broadcast booth. Because of that, it wasn’t unusual for the likes of Mike Lude (the Athletic Director) or even Don James to be seen around the building.
Between those occasions, a Rose Bowl trip in ’81, and even being involved somewhat in “The Don James Show” on KLSY years later, I can’t tell you how many conversations I had with the coach. Mostly chit-chat, but enough I could tell this was a seriously good guy. Oh, I heard he could be really intense on the football field. That’s what great coaches do. But off the field and one-on-one, he could turn it off and be just a guy named Don.
One year after I had moved on to KLSY and the Huskies were in Pasadena for the Rose Bowl, I remembered that New Year’s Eve was the coach’s birthday. So, we called the hotel where he was staying and had breakfast delivered to his room. Of course, we gave our studio backline number with the order and sure enough, Coach James called up to say thanks. That was awesome. That was Don James.
The last time I was fortunate enough to see him was at one of the Husky Spring Football games. He was in the Tyee section (the hoity-toity reserved section) and he was near the edge talking to someone and so I figured when that conversation was over, I’d sneak over and grab a selfie with him. For all the years I was around him, I had never bothered to get a picture taken with him. What a hallowed spot I would have on my Husky wall if I had only taken the time to get up there and say hi one more time. I looked away to watch the spring game, but when I turned around, he was gone.
We lost Don James way too early. Not only as a head coach, but also in this world. He was just 80 years old when he passed in 2014. It’s been 25 years since he last coached the Huskies. But when I look back, it’s not with sadness, but instead, with massive appreciation for being able to be alive during his era. I was there in the stands as a student when he first took over and not too much later, be fortunate enough to actually get to know the guy a little bit. I really wanted to be at Husky Stadium last week for the dedication of his statue out front, but work prevented it.
However, that statue is not going anywhere and eventually, I’ll get back to Husky Stadium for that long overdue photo with the coach.