Don James' career at Washington began with a thud. His predecessor, Jim Owens, who had coached for Bear Bryant at Texas A&M, scheduled a game with Bryant at Alabama in 1975. But that turned out to be James' first season. In James' fifth game, the No. 7 Crimson Tide won 52-0 and it wasn't that close.
James responded by moving into his office. "I took my pajamas and my toothbrush and lived in my office from Sunday until Wednesday of each week for the rest of the season," he wrote in his autobiography.
By the time he retired, shortly before the 1993 season, James had won six Pac-10 championships, gone 4-2 in the Rose Bowl, and shared the 1991 national championship with Miami.
As a coach, James cut a stern, almost austere figure. He had a small corner office in the Washington athletic building, and neither his players nor his assistants enjoyed being summoned there. If James wanted to see a player, he had a red-painted padlock put on the player's locker. The player couldn't practice until he reported to James.
Stanford defensive line coach Randy Hart is in his 44th year of coaching. He worked on James' Washington staff for five seasons. Hart loved the man.
"The worst ass-chewing I got in coaching, was sitting with Don and the defensive staff, watching the game [film]," Hart said.
This is the respect James commanded: When the film ended. James shut it off, turned to Hart, and in his steely voice said, "Do you call that good defensive line play?"
Hart played and worked for Woody Hayes. He worked for Earle Bruce. He has been screamed at, had erasers thrown at him.
"Nothing was as bad, or sunk in as deep, as Don saying, 'We're going to get this straightened out,'" Hart said.
James preferred to look at it as being businesslike. He brought an almost scientific level of organization to the locker room. As W. Thomas Porter related in "Go Huskies!," a book of Washington football history published this year, James gave each player a notebook that included what he expected from the player, not just for the season, but for the entire year. James believed that if the player knew exactly what was expected of him, and the coaches taught well, then the player could produce.
James grew up in Massillon, Ohio, a celebrated football town, and quarterbacked Massillon High to the state championship. His oldest brother played at Massillon High for Paul Brown, who would go on to become an NFL legend. Brown also brought efficiency to coaching. James resembled him a lot more than he did Hayes.
"When I was a player, I knew the way I wanted to be treated by coaches," James said early in his career at Washington. "I didn't want a coach looking down at me, talking down at me, swearing at me. And I never wanted a coach to put his hands on me. I just try to treat the players the way I would want to be treated."
James didn't smoke and didn't drink. He married his high school sweetheart. He earned his pilot's license. He once took his entire Washington staff to climb Mount Rainier. He succeeded at pretty much everything he set his mind to do, nothing more so than football. He won in five seasons at Kent State, where his players included current head coaches Nick Saban of Alabama and Gary Pinkel of Missouri.
James took the game seriously but true to his Midwestern roots, he never took himself seriously. He had a martini-dry wit, and he often made himself the target. He opened his autobiography describing how when he arrived at Washington in 1975, a little-known guy from Kent State, the marquee outside Husky Stadium read, "Welcome Coach Jones."
When the Huskies started 1-3 in 1977, his third year in the program, James had a cumulative record at Washington of 12-14. "After the Minnesota loss (19-17)," James said, "I had a couple of good offers: real estate, insurance..."
But that Washington team caught fire, finished 7-4 and then stunned Michigan 27-20 in the Rose Bowl. After the game, James stationed himself at the door of the Huskies locker room. He wanted to shake the hand of each of his players when they returned from the field.
His best teams were his last. The Huskies shared the 1991 national championship with Miami and spent most of 1992 jockeying with the Canes at the top of the polls before a 16-3 loss at Arizona ended a 22-game winning streak. That Washington team finished 9-2 and returned to the Rose Bowl for a third consecutive time.
That game, a 38-31 loss to Michigan, would be James' final game as a head coach. He resigned in disgust shortly before the 1993 season when the NCAA and the Pac-10 stripped Washington of 20 scholarships, and meted out a two-year bowl ban over a $50,000 loan that a booster gave to Husky quarterback Billy Joe Hobert. And the amazing thing is, at age 60, he never went back.
After he retired, he spent his summers in Seattle and his winters in Palm Springs, Calif., where he remained physically active late in life. A couple of years ago, I asked him if he still played golf. He said he had pretty much given it up. "When I hit it," he said, "it didn't take me very long to walk to it."
James allowed his natural warmth to surface in his later years. A bemused smile was never far from his lips. But he always commanded respect.
"Even in his retirement, when guys went to go see him," Hart said, "guys would say to each other, 'You push the doorbell.'
"'No, you push the doorbell.'"