James made Huskies into coolest act in Seattle

SEATTLE — It’s sometimes hard to remember in these days of Seahawks hysteria, but when it came to football, this used to be a Washington Huskies town.

Sure the Seahawks had some darn good teams in the 1980s, but by late in that decade and the early part of the next one, their mediocre seasons and a couple bad ones, combined with the rise of Washington, meant sports fans still in their formative years, like this child of the 80s, knew more about the happenings in Montlake than what was going on in the Kingdome. My friends and I didn’t know a ton about the Seahawks of that era — 2-14 will do that — but there was nobody cooler than Greg Lewis or Napoleon Kaufman or Mario Bailey or Dave Hoffman or, of course, Steve Emtman.

Don James did this. He made Washington football into something bigger than college sports. He made the Huskies into the coolest act in town even in a professional sports city.

“I don’t know if there’s a more iconic figure in Seattle,” current Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said a day after James died at the age of 80 after a battle with pancreatic cancer.

Not, “more iconic coach, not “more iconic college sports figure.” Just “iconic figure in Seattle.”

“It goes without saying we lost a legend, and not just here at the University of Washington but in college football and all around football,” Sarkisian said. “Coach James set a standard of excellence that is felt here every single day.”

Outside of Husky Stadium Monday, a low-key tribute honored a man who was larger than life as the coach who led Washington to six conference titles and a national championship. The video board above the stadium’s west entrance read “Don James 1932-2013.” In front of the Husky statue, someone placed a simple bouquet of flowers as well as candles that spelled out “DJ” and a lighter for anyone who wanted to light a candle for James.

A much more substantial tribute will take place this weekend, first when the University of Washington honors James at Saturday night’s home game, then again during an open-to-the-public memorial service at Alaska Airlines Arena. But for now James’ former players, fellow college coaches and so many more will remember the impact he had on their lives and the game of football.

In a statement, Alabama coach Nick Saban explained how James, his coach at Kent State, helped shape his career: “Coach James was my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession. Like I’ve said before, I didn’t plan on going into coaching. He saw something in me and asked me to stay on at Kent State as a graduate assistant after my playing career was over. I really enjoyed it, got hired full-time and went on from there.”

Sarkisian, the latest UW coach who has to try to live up to the standard set by James, spoke frequently with James since being hired after the 2008 season — and introduced in a press conference in the Don James Center. For all those conversations taught Sarkisian, however, the former coach’s ability to put off an aura of confidence was more memorable than any words they shared.

Sarkisian said that, “without a doubt” his favorite memory of James was the moment they shared before his first bowl game as Washington’s coach. The Huskies were playing Nebraska, a team that had beaten the Huskies by 35 points earlier that season, and while players and coaches were on the sideline eager for kickoff to come, a calm, confident James shared a moment with Sarkisian.

“He just had a unique, quiet confidence about him that I’m sure his players and coaches felt from him,” Sarkisian said. “He had an aura of, ‘We’re going to go win and we’re going to play really well.’ And I felt it then from him. Again, this was against a team we had just lost to two months earlier by 35 points. It really resonated with me, the impact that you can have. It’s not always about the words you say. … That moment for me was one of those ah-ha moments, man, this is how you can carry yourself and the guys will feel you.”

For 18 seasons, James’s impact was felt at Washington. In every year since, his legacy continues to be felt.

And if I can end this with a quick personal aside. I was asked by a friend yesterday if I was going to reflect on James’ death. I did not, and here’s why. As anyone in this line of work can tell you, the job, and this time of year in particular, can be demanding on your time, and in turn, challenging in your personal life. With the Seahawks playing a Thursday game, and the Huskies and Sounders both out of town, I had several weeks earlier made plans with my wife. And I can’t think of a better, albeit unintentional, tribute to a man who enjoyed 61 years of marriage to his wife, Carol, than to have enjoyed an evening out with my wife. Coach James the disciplinarian would have no tolerance for tardiness, but I like to think Don James the family man could appreciate a man keeping a date with his wife.

Besides, my memories of James are no different than most of yours. I was just a kid learning how exhilarating and heartbreaking sports can be when James was leading the Huskies to Rose Bowls seemingly every year. I could tell you how powerful James seemed from afar, how revered he and his teams were in the late 80s and early 90s, but if you were around this area back then, you already knew that.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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