Note: The great University of Washington Husky football coach Don James died on Sunday in Seattle from pancreatic cancer. To those of us who bleed the purple and gold, James is and always will be an icon and a legend of Husky football. Upon taking the Husky head job in 1975 James rapidly built the program into a national power, going to bowl games in 14 of his 18 seasons, winning four Rose Bowls, the 1985 Orange Bowl and 10 of 14 bowl games overall. His record as head coach of the Huskies from 1975 to 1992 was 153-57-2. Between 1990 and 1992 the “James Gang” won twenty-two consecutive games and the 1991 National Championship. A master recruiter and administrator, it was said of James’ Husky football teams, as a result of being two or three deep at every position and with redshirts in the wings, that they didn’t have to re-build each year; they just re-loaded. The passing of Don James is a loss keenly felt by all long time Husky fans. Here is my personal tribute to the man they call “The Dawgfather”…MA    

Don James

Don James

As a kid growing up in Seattle in the late 1950s and early 1960s the University of Washington football Huskies were not only my team, they were the only game in town when football season rolled around. At that time there was no pro football in Seattle; the Seahawks would not arrive for a decade and a half. Those were the glory days of head coach Jim Owens and his magnificent Rose Bowl squads of the 1959 and 1960 seasons. Both of those post season games ended in victories for the Huskies, first over Wisconsin 44-8 and then over Minnesota 17-7. My Husky heroes of those years were their slick quarterback Bob Schloredt, and running backs Don McKeta and Charlie Mitchell.

Jim Owens

Jim Owens

Those teams were great and, based on those infant years of my football fandom, it seemed to me that the Huskies would always win. Understanding this, you can see that it was one of my first big time sports disappointments when the team faded through the mid 1960s into mediocrity. They did go to the ’64 Rose Bowl, losing it to Illinois, but that team was a poor imitation of those great ’59 and ’60 teams and the balance of the 1960s  was one long slide down.

With the emergence of a rifle-armed, Cherokee Native American quarterback named Sonny Sixkiller (a name that has got to be the best ever for a quarterback) from 1970-72 the Huskies had a brief return to respectability, but with Sixkiller’s graduation the team once again hit the skids. At the end of the ’74 season, with two consecutive losing seasons under his belt since the Sixkiller years, Jim Owens called it a career and retired.

What now? Jim Owens was the only Husky head coach many of us, including me, had ever known. It seemed he had been the UW head man forever. In retrospect Owens leaving the Huskies was the best thing that could have happened to the team at the time, for into the void stepped an unknown man from the Midwest named Don James.

Who was this guy James? None of us had ever heard of him. The papers said he had been the head coach at Kent State University in Ohio before coming to the UW. All I knew about Kent State was that four students had been gunned down there by the National Guard during the 1970 protests against the Vietnam War. I didn’t even know they had a football program. But UW Athletic Director Joseph Kearney knew and also had taken the time to find out about Don James. In December of 1974 he hired him as the Husky head coach. Even if posthumous (Kearney died in 2010), someone ought to give Kearney a medal, for acquiring Don James was surely the best UW football hire ever.

James arrived in Seattle and went right to work straightening out the Husky program. As Steve Sarkisian is finding out now, it takes time to restore a program to respectability once it has lost it, and there was nothing in James’ first two mediocre seasons to indicate the greatness that was in store. In 1977 that would all change.

Don James and Warren Moon

Don James and Warren Moon

For his quarterback those first couple of seasons James had selected a young black man named Warren Moon. During the mid ‘70s there was still considerable prejudice against the idea of a black kid playing quarterback and Moon had come to Washington with the promise that he could compete for the job. James picked Moon as the starting quarterback because he simply was the best QB on the team.  Race was not an issue to him; good quarterback play was. During those first two mediocre seasons, despite pressure from fans and the media to change quarterbacks, James told Moon he was sticking with him. It all paid off during Moon’s senior 1977 season, James’ third as head coach, when Moon led the Huskies to an 8-4 record and a stunning 27-20 Rose Bowl victory over the heavily favored Michigan Wolverines and coach Bo Schembechler.

I remember that team so well. I attended a couple of games at Husky stadium during those early James years and I got to see Warren Moon loft those beautiful long passes to wide receiver Spider Gaines; and I got to see Joe Steele bust an 80 yard touchdown run against Stanford. When that ’77 team went to the Rose Bowl and beat Michigan, Husky football was back and James kept it there for the next 15 years.

1978 Rose Bowl Program

1978 Rose Bowl Program

How he did it had a lot to do with the quarterback position. A record setting quarterback himself during his college career as a Miami Hurricane (he set five passing records there), James just had a knack for picking and coaching up great ones. His selection of Warren Moon as quarterback was just the first of a string of exceptional signal callers he recruited and coached at the UW. The list is long and illustrious. Moon, of course, went on to fame and fortune in the CFL and NFL and went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as one of the greatest quarterbacks who ever lived. Following him as Husky great QBs were, in no particular order, Hugh Millen, Tom Flick, Chris Chandler, Steve Pelluer, Cary Conklin, Mark Brunell and Billy Joe Hobert. During James’ tenure the UW was a quarterback factory with a number of them having long professional careers after leaving the Huskies. The school was dubbed “Quarterback U” for James’ phenomenal success at recruiting and developing this most crucial position.

For all of his success at the UW, it is the teams James coached from 1990 to 1992 that stick with most fans as the greatest of his years there. If you are not a Husky football fan you may wonder why we Husky faithful despair so when we watch these recent editions of Husky football teams play. The reason is that Don James spoiled us. Because of the greatness he achieved, peaking with those teams from 90-92, we will never be satisfied until the UW is returned to its rightful stature as a national power. Through his career James accustomed us to great and intimidating defense and we just can’t take it when we see receivers running wide open in the secondary and opposing quarterbacks going un-sacked and un-pressured. His offenses were equally special, loaded as they were with great running backs and receivers, great offensive lines and exceptional quarterback play.

But those teams from 1990 to 1992 were extra special, even for James.  Their greatness actually started several years earlier when the Huskies lost the 1986 Sun Bowl game to Cornelius Bennett and the Alabama Crimson Tide. You should remember Bennett. As a linebacker he was incredibly fast and went on to a stellar, All Pro career in the NFL with the Buffalo Bills and Atlanta Falcons. I recall watching that Sun Bowl game and marveling at Bennett’s speed. I wasn’t the only one impressed. A few days later in the paper I read that Don James had realized the need for speed and was making a commitment to acquiring more of it in his recruiting.

All American Stave Emtman

All American Stave Emtman

Due to the nature of college football and recruiting that commitment did not manifest fully on the field until the fall of 1990, but then it made its impact big time as James unleashed the beast he had created on the rest of the Pac 10 conference. The Pac 10 wake-up call took place on a sunny, Saturday afternoon, September 22nd, 1990 with the much ballyhooed and 5th ranked USC Trojans visiting Husky Stadium. The UW destroyed the Trojans that day 31-0 and no one who saw the game will ever forget it. The Husky defense spent the entire afternoon in the Trojans backfield with players like Steve Emtman, Dave Hoffman, Donald Jones and Jaime Fields sacking and battering USC quarterback Todd Marinovich senseless. With the game over a defeated Marinovich made his famous comment about the Husky defense he faced that day:

“All I saw was purple,” he said. “No jerseys, no numbers, just purple.”

For the next two years that defense, along with great offensive players like Greg Lewis, Mark Brunell, Beno Bryant, Mario Bailey, Billy Joe Hobert and All American offensive lineman Lincoln Kennedy dominated not only the Pac 10 but virtually every team they played, going to three straight Rose Bowls and a 12-0, National Championship, 1991 season. Those three years took Husky football to a pinnacle of performance and winning like nothing Husky fans have ever witnessed before or since, and the architect of it all was Don James.

Around that time, in a stroke of PR genius, someone in the Husky athletic department had the bright idea to make a poster that played upon the fact that James’ nickname “Dawgfather” rhymed with “Godfather”. The poster they created has itself become a collector’s item of that era. Calling to mind the movie “The Godfather”, it shows Don James sitting sternly at a table with five of his players standing intimidatingly behind him, and all under the banner, “The Dawgfather”. The poster captures perfectly and at once a sense of the fear and apprehension that team must have instilled into their opponents.

"The Dawgfather"

“The Dawgfather”

My God, but it was great to watch those Husky teams play! I get misty-eyed just thinking about it.  All Husky fans are forever indebted to Don James for what he did in his years here at the UW. Through him, for a time, we were able to witness greatness. And boy was it fun!

The passing of Don James brings to mind a wise saying I once heard that goes something like this:

“Death smiles at us all. All we can do is smile back.”

For us Husky fans, James has made that task much easier when our time comes. All we’ll have to do is think of Warren Moon launching those gorgeous rainbow arcs to Spider Gaines, Steve Emtman wreaking havoc in the USC backfield and Don James leading another Husky team down that tunnel and out into Husky Stadium.

Think of these things and our smiles will be immortal.

 

Copyright © 2013

By Mark Arnold

All Rights Reserved

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8 Responses to A Tribute to “The Dawgfather”-Don James-1932-2013–by Mark Arnold

  1. Stan G says:

    WOW !!! What great memories I have of those years and those great teams. Don James was indeed the greatest. SG

  2. Steve Rodriguez says:

    What a great article Mark!! May the Dawgfather rest in Peace while his legacy lives on as a treasured piece of immortality in the lives and minds of the Husky Nation.

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Thanks Steve! Yes, I found myself shedding a tear or two as I wrote this. What a great coach and he will always be in the hearts of Husky nation. MA

  3. Kerry Berlin says:

    Hi Mark,

    Great article, brings back a lot of memories. I attended the 1978 Rose Bowl, still the greatest game I have seen in person.

    I have a quick question – I have a good friend that wants a copy of that “Dawgfather” poster in your article. Do you know if they are still available anywhere?

    Thanks in advance for any help you can offer.

    Kerry Berlin

    • Mark Arnold says:

      Hi Kerry! Thanks for your nice comment on my article. The “Dawgfather” holds a hallowed spot in my sports memories as well. I remember when I was writing the article I ran across a way to get the poster but cannot remember exactly what it was. If your friend searches the internet he/she will probably find it. Best, Mark Arnold

  4. Richard says:

    Great article. Brought tears to my eyes.

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