Fans, family friends gather to honor James

SEATTLE — As homecoming weekend came to a close Sunday afternoon at the University of Washington, former players, assistant coaches, family, friends and fans gathered to pay respects to a Husky Legend who for many years called Washington home.

Don James, the man affectionately known by Husky fans as the “Dawgfather,” was remembered as that once again at a public memorial service Sunday afternoon on the University of Washington campus. His picture appeared on the jumbo screen at Hec Edmundson Pavilion with the words “Don James — Husband, Father, Grandfather, Dawgfather.”

James, who compiled a 153-57-2 mark at Washington from 1975-92 with six Rose Bowl appearances and a share of the National Championship in 1991, passed away at his Kirkland home on Oct. 20 from the effects of pancreatic cancer. He was 80.

On Sunday afternoon a few thousand people gathered to celebrate and tell stories about one of the most storied members of Washington athletics. Tributes were read by several family members and former players, including James’ daughter Jill Woodruff, University of Missouri head football coach Gary Pinkel and former UW linebacker Michael Jackson.

Current Huskies head coach Steve Sarkisian and the Washington football team were also in attendance.

“He set a standard here,” said Sarkisian, who added that he met James his first day on the job as Washington’s head coach. “A standard of excellence that is not only upheld by the football program but every team on this campus. He changed the face of Washington. … It’s the reason why I took this job. The excellence that he set.”

Sarkisian was one of the last speakers that also included Pinkel, who traveled to Seattle the day after his No. 5-ranked Tigers lost to South Carolina 27-24 in double overtime.

“I’m really honored to be here,” Pinkel said. “I can’t describe my emotions right now.”

Pinkel played for James at Kent State University and later coached with him at Washington. Pinkel, who informed the crowd “I’ll always be a Husky,” said a lot of his coaching style at Missouri is based off the “Don James program.”

“Coach James is a huge influence in my life personally and professionally,” Pinkel said. “I wanted to coach because of Don James. He was my idol and my mentor. … The three most important men in my life are my father, my high school coach and Don James.”

A video by University of Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who was convinced by James to get into coaching after playing for James at Kent State, was also played.

“We talk about coaching trees. Don James was a sequoia in that regard,” said Bob Rondeau, the voice of the Huskies, during the service.

The service also included a picture slideshow, a Legacy of Don James Tribute Video that played at halftime of Saturday’s Washington-California game and performances of some of James’ favorite hymns and songs.

Rondeau noted in the program that James was undefeated on Oct. 27 in his UW career, with James a perfect 3-0 on that date.

Sam Wick, a longtime family friend of James, said the coach was “about faith, family, friends and football.”

The memorial service capped a weekend of special events to honor James. At Saturday’s Huskies’ football game, James’ family was honored as honorary captains for the game, with many family members in attendance and on the field for the opening coin toss. The Husky Marching Band performed “A Tribute to The Dawgfather” at halftime, after a memorial video was shown on the screen reliving some of James’ greatest accomplishments.

The Space Needle was lit up in purple Saturday morning with a purple “DJ” flag. The Washington players will wear helmet decals with “DJ” for the rest of the season. Fans in attendance were handed buttons with the insignia as well.

“I think it’s safe to say the University of Washington lost a tremendous ambassador,” Sarkisian said at the service. “Someone who represented the purple and the gold better than anybody who ever stepped on this campus.”

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