SEATTLE — Don James arrived in Seattle in the mid-1970s as an unknown. He built a Hall of Fame coaching career, turning the University of Washington into a powerhouse program that won a share of a national championship.
No wonder he’ll forever be referred to around the school as “The Dawgfather.”
James, the longtime Washington coach who led the Huskies to a share of the 1991 national title, died at his home Sunday from the effects of pancreatic cancer. He was 80.
James had been undergoing treatment for the disease since late September.
James was 178-76-3 as a head coach at Kent State and Washington, counting three forfeit victories with the Huskies. After going 25-19-1 in four seasons at Kent State, he was 153-57-2 at Washington from 1975-92 and led the school to a six-pack of Rose Bowl appearances. His crowning moment came in 1991 when Washington had the most dominant defense in the country, and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish 12-0. The Associated Press media poll gave Miami — James’ alma mater — the national championship, while the coaches’ voted in favor of Washington in their poll.
“His accomplishments as a football coach stand alone, but what made him truly special is the quality of man he was away from the game,” current Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. “The guidance and leadership he instilled into this program and community are still felt today, and will continue to be felt here for a long, long time.”
James’ image was displayed on the video board outside the entrance to Husky Stadium on Sunday afternoon. Thoughts poured over social media from former players, fellow coaches and fans who watched the Huskies program rise under James’ leadership.
He is survived by his wife of 61 years, Carol, their three children and 10 grandchildren. The school said details on a public memorial service would be released at a later date.
“It’s hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Sunday night. “He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally.”
James played quarterback at the Miami, graduating in 1954 with a degree in education. He went on to serve as a commissioned second lieutenant in the U.S. Army and was as an assistant coach at Florida State, Michigan and Colorado.
He was an unknown when he arrived in Seattle in 1975, taking over for Jim Owens. He came from Kent State, where he led the Golden Flashes to the Mid-American Conference title in 1972. While at Kent State, James coached future Hall of Famer Jack Lambert and future college coaches Nick Saban and Pinkel.
“He was a special man and meant the world to me,” Saban said Sunday night. “There aren’t enough words to describe not only the great coach he was, but how much he cared for people and the positive impact he made in the lives of everyone he came in contact with. Coach James was my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession.”
It didn’t take long for Washington to become a contender under James. The Huskies went 6-5 in his first year after winning six games combined in the final two years Owens was coach. By 1977, led by quarterback Warren Moon, they beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl.
It was the first of James’ six Rose Bowl trips, topped by the 34-14 win over Michigan in 1991. Only once — his second season — did the Huskies have a losing record, winning at least six games every other year. Washington won 10 games seven times and went to a bowl game in 14 seasons under James. Washington nearly won the national title in 1984 after beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, only to be edged out in the voting by BYU. The Huskies were also in line for the title in 1990 before losing at home to UCLA.
Between the end of the 1990 season and November 1992, the Huskies won 22 straight games before losing 16-3 at Arizona on Nov. 7. The Huskies lost two weeks later to Washington State in a snowy Apple Cup in Pullman, but still served as the Pac-10 representative in the Rose Bowl. That New Year’s Day, Michigan got payback for the loss a year earlier with a 38-31 win in what turned out to be James’ final game.
James knew penalties were coming from the conference after an investigation of reports during the 1992 season that quarterback Billy Joe Hobert received $50,000 in loans from an Idaho businessman. Among the violations found by the Pac-10 were improper loans to athletes, free meals provided to recruits and improper employment of athletes by boosters. The conference also cited a lack of institutional control over funds provided to students hosting recruits.
But James protested when the conference added an additional year to the Huskies bowl ban, making it a two-year penalty. The Pac-10 also limited Washington’s football scholarships and recruiting visits, and prohibited the university from sharing in television rights fees for one year.
James was 60 years old when he resigned less than two weeks before the 1993 season began. He was replaced by longtime assistant Jim Lambright.
“I have decided I can no longer coach in a conference that treats its players and coaches so unfairly,” James said in his letter of resignation.
He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
James remained connected to the Huskies’ program. He was a regular visitor at practices after his resignation and served on the committee that helped in the redesign of Husky Stadium. James gave his annual preseason speech to the current Washington squad in August and attending the first game at the renovated stadium on Aug. 31 against Boise State. It was shortly after that his health took a significant turn.
James had two surgical procedures in September at Virginia Mason Medical Center for what was called a gastro-intestinal issue. James’ family issued a statement after the surgeries announcing that he was resting comfortable following the hospital stay but would be beginning chemotherapy treatment for a malignant tumor on his pancreas and asked for privacy.
“Coach James set the standard for this program and for all of us. It’s the reason you all are sitting here. It’s the reason I’m here,” Sarkisian said recently. “Husky football and what it all stands for is what he created and I was so happy he was able to come to the first game against Boise and the opening of Husky Stadium because if anybody deserved to be in that building that night it was him.”