Ex-Husky coach James was a ‘gentle giant’

Physically speaking, Don James was not a big man. But his stature as the head football coach at the University of Washington made him a veritable giant to the players he coached in his remarkable 18-year UW career.

“He had an aura where everybody was scared of him,” said Jeff Pahukoa, a 1987 Marysville-Pilchuck High School graduate and an offensive lineman at Washington from 1987-90. “And it wasn’t that you were scared that you’d get in trouble. It’s that you were scared because you didn’t want to disappoint him.”

“There was always a mystique about him,” agreed younger brother Shane Pahukoa, a 1989 MPHS grad and a UW defensive back from 1989-92. “And once I got there and understood how he ran his program and how his coaches respected him and how his older players respected him, I kind of just stood in line.”

James, who died Sunday morning from the effects of pancreatic cancer at age 80, had a way “of making you feel like you were going to be a big part of the program,” Jeff Pahukoa said. “And he made the walk-ons feel like they were just as important as the full-scholarship kids.”

The Pahukoa brothers were two of several Snohomish County players James recruited to Washington in his tenure from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s. Another was Ron Gipson, a 1976 Everett High School graduate who was a fullback at Washington from 1976-1979. Gipson recalls James as “a gentle giant who knew how to get the best out of every ballplayer.”

Linebacker Jerry Jensen, a 1993 graduate of Cascade High School, was recruited to Washington by James, “and when he came to my house he had a presence that demanded respect,” Jensen said. “He was a man of very few words, and I was definitely in awe of him. The way he carried himself, you knew that he was a great person.”

Mark Stewart, a native of San Jose, Calif., spent five seasons at Washington from 1978-82 and became an All-American linebacker. The years he spent under James “had a life-changing effect on me,” said Stewart, the head football coach at Meadowdale High School from 2000-12. “When I came to Washington and had him as my head coach, I was able to grow up on and off the field.

“When I think of all the significant events in my life, and short of my son being born, him coming to San Jose and meeting my parents (is near the top). He was so big for me personally and for so many other players,” Stewart said.

“He was highly respected among his peers,” said Ronnie Rowland of Lynnwood, who came to Washington from Hayward, Calif., and was a running back in 1976 and 1977. “And he was highly respected among all the players he coached, without a doubt.”

James spent UW practices observing from a coaching tower while his assistants handled the actual coaching duties on the field. And his presence in the tower seemed to further the perception of James as an all-seeing, all-knowing figure.

“He knew everything that was going on out on the field,” Rowland said. “And he usually didn’t say too much, but when he did speak from his perch the practice would just freeze.”

“To this day, I can remember the two or three times he screamed at me from the tower and it was like a voice from heaven,” Stewart said. “And of the 120 people out there on the field, I’m sure we all felt that he was looking at us.”

“Even his coaches would be looking up (at the tower) to make sure they were doing things right,” Shane Pahukoa said.

But if every former UW player remembers the stern, demanding and authoritarian James, most in time would also come to know him as a kind, compassionate and genuinely caring man.

“He was a great person, and someone you could sit down and have a great conversation with,” Jeff Pahukoa said. “That’s kind of what made him unique. As an 18-year-old kid leaving home, he became a father figure to (his players). But when you became an adult, then you could sit down and talk to him as an adult. … He was somebody you could look up to and somebody you’d want to be proud of everything you did.”

“If you really got the chance to know him and talk to him on a one-and-one basis, he was a really great guy,” agreed Shane Pahukoa. “I just got done talking to Jeff about this and even though (James) wasn’t our father, he felt like it.”

When Gipson was being recruited as a high school senior, coaches came to the family home to meet with him and his parents. One Pacific Northwest college coach paid a visit and failed to impress Gipson’s mother. So much so, in fact, that she forbade her son to attend that school.

“But then Coach James came in and talked to my mother and father,” Gipson recalled. “And he talked very little about football. Coach James knew how to recruit parents and I remember him telling my mom, ‘Your son will have his education taken care of at the University of Washington.’ He wanted to make sure my mom’s concerns (about school) were met.”

After James left the home, Gipson’s mother told her son that he should become a Husky. “And luckily we went with my mom’s intuitions,” he said.

Recalling that in-home visit and the four subsequent years he spent at Washington, “I’d say I was blessed (to play for James),” Gipson said. “He had an opportunity to touch a lot of men’s hearts in the 18 years he coached.”

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