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Don James did not have -- or need -- a two-sided stone fireplace in his office.
He did not need an indoor practice facility, which is perhaps why his teams played so well in bad weather. He did not need ever-changing uniform styles each week. He did not need anything, really, other than a rather simple tower of scaffolding from which he oversaw practices and turned the University of Washington Huskies into one of the finest football programs in the country.
James, who died Sunday, was the greatest football coach Washington has ever had, which is saying something considering that Darrell Royal once coached there and Gil Dobie never lost a game in his nine seasons there. James took over a floundering program and turned it into the best team in the conference. He took the Huskies to 15 bowl games in 18 seasons, including six Rose Bowls. He won the co-national championship in 1991 and should have won it in 1984 (BYU? Really?).
|Washington's Don James was a no-frills coach who took Washington to new heights.|
He also routinely beat the Oregon Ducks.
This is why, when Sports Illustrated named the three best college coaches in the country one fall, the magazine's list was: No. 1, Don James; No. 2, Don James; No. 3, Don James.
James' first job as a head coach was at Kent State in 1971, the year after the National Guard shot and killed four students and wounded nine others. And yet, during this turbulent time, James had a winning record at Kent State and took the team to a bowl game. There wasn't much that could stop him from winning.
He was even better at Washington. He took over in 1975 and, within three seasons, had the Huskies in the Rose Bowl -- and upset Michigan there as well. In a 16-year span, he took the Huskies to the Rose Bowl six times and the Orange Bowl once.
James was very disciplined and incredibly organized. He built a program around defense, special teams and tremendous quarterbacks (beginning with Warren Moon). He was old-school, but he also adjusted to the changing times. When the team underwent a brief downturn in the late '80s, he changed his approach and started emphasizing speed. And then he took the Huskies to three consecutive Rose Bowls in 1990-92.
Watching his teams from the student section -- which has been relocated to the end zone to further increase revenues -- remain some of the happiest days of my college life. James was also the first coach I ever covered as a student journalist. I can still picture him in that sideline tower, wearing his purple jacket in the wind and rain, along with a stern, all-seeing expression.
College football during that era was simpler. This is not to say it was an innocent time. It wasn't by any means.
The Huskies were caught breaking recruiting rules in James' final years and, in 1993, when the school was hit with what he considered excessive penalties, he abruptly quit rather than fight through it. The program has never been the same. Washington has been back to the Rose Bowl only once since his departure, and that appearance was due far more to the talent of quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo than the coach at the time (Rick Neuheisel).
But those were simpler times, when revenues, coaching salaries and facilities were merely excessive, not obscene. James had a simple corner office that pales in size and comparison to Steve Sarkisian's new lavish digs with the fireplace and lounge. He competed against programs that did not require Brazilian hardwood flooring and Nepalese rugs. He was extremely well-compensated and among the highest-paid state employees (if not the highest-paid) but his pay was still a far cry from the multimillion dollar salaries of today's coaches.
And yet, he won. He won more than any coach the Huskies have hired since he left, and probably more than any coach they will ever hire.
It's not the facilities or the salary that make a great coach. It's the man.
Rest in peace, DJ. Mighty are the men who wore the purple and the gold.