The first time I ever saw Don James, it was immediately clear I was in the presence of The Dawgfather.
I was new to the beat covering University of Washington athletics and was headed to my first Husky football practice. Walking down the tunnel at old Husky Stadium, you heard practice before you saw it. Grunts. Primal groans. The heavy thuds of helmets hitting pads. Yells. Whistles. All echoing through the tunnel as you passed framed, giant bowl-game posters chronicling the UW’s past glory.
Emerging from the tunnel onto the playing field, one sight dominated. A metal scaffold rose 15 feet or so from the artificial turf like a Roman siege tower. And like a field marshal surveying his troops, coach James stood atop the tower on a covered platform, scrutinizing practice as it unfolded below him.
Different groups of players practiced with their position coaches at different places on the field. From his perch, James watched one area of practice for a while, then turned to catch what was going on in another direction and turned again to focus his attention elsewhere. He changed position every few minutes. You could see him at times jot down something on a pad he had. Every once in a while, he called down instructions with a bullhorn. I later learned that James demanded that each and every practice be scripted and planned out in amazingly minute detail.
It was a surprising scene to behold for the uninitiated, almost surreal.
And that was my introduction to “The Don” in August 1990.
Covering sports was new to me then. Working as a reporter was not. I was a 10-year veteran of The Herald’s news side, having previously covered the police, courts, education and Everett city hall beats as well as doing some general assignment. Moving to sports was a chance to try my skills at something very different and initially outside my comfort zone.
The Huskies weren’t my only beat. I also covered the Seattle Mariners. But the Mariners were so bad back then — much like they are now — that we put our coverage of them on the back burner when the Huskies got going with preseason camp in August. The Huskies were where reader interest was. They were good then and had been mostly good year-in and year-out since James took over the program in December of 1974.
James once described himself to the media as “more of an organized guy than an emotional guy.” He was not exaggerating. His obsession with organization, efficiency and thoroughness is the stuff of legend. I witnessed it as James guided the Huskies to three Rose Bowls and a shared national championship my first three years on the beat.
Although I had never talked with James before that first practice, I had some insight to his personality and demeanor. Vince Bruun, who covered the Huskies for The Herald just before I did, once called James at home for a story. When James answered, he said he was too busy to talk at that moment, but would call Vince back in 15 minutes. James returned the call precisely 15 minutes later. In my time covering James, I always found him to be a man of his word. If you set up a half-hour, one-on-one interview with him, you got a 30-minute interview. No more. No less.
One of the first things that struck me about James is that he surrounded himself with top coaching talent at the assistant level, and he managed them well. James coached the coaches. His assistants then drilled his gospel into players.
Another thing that stood out about James was his willingness to continually adapt his football savvy and style to assure his teams’ success. He was not a never-change, conservative coach. He was not locked into one way of doing things, not locked into one theory of how football should be played. He wanted the Huskies to be the best he could make them and realized that meant he couldn’t be stodgy in his thinking or set in his ways. He had to embrace change when change was necessary. James “always wants to do what is best for his football team,” offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson Jr. once told the media.
As James built the Huskies into a national power in 1990 and eventually guided them to be co-national champions in 1991, he drew a lot of media attention. Much of it was praise, but occasionally he was faulted. The criticism I remember most was for being aloof with his players.
Before I covered the Huskies, I had heard James stayed at a distance from his players, largely to maintain the objectivity he needed to accurately evaluate them. In my time covering the team, he seemed a bit more relaxed with his players. The Dawgfather certainly wasn’t going to be a best friend to any of them, but they understood that. And from what I saw, he always respected his players and treated them fairly. In addition to his methodical and precise nature, James’ character was defined by his fairness and even more so by his integrity.
James was stoic on the sideline. I can’t recall ever seeing him lose his cool. He was noted for never making decisions based on emotion.
Unlike some coaches I’ve encountered, James was not anti-media. He recognized you had a job to do and accepted it was his part of his job to deal with you and your questions. He dutifully talked with us after practice and games.
While never loquacious, James was rarely curt. Still, he wasn’t shy expressing his displeasure if he didn’t like your question or thought it was out of bounds. And if he didn’t want to answer a particular question, he told you so: “I’m not going to answer that.” He didn’t hem and haw, trying to skirt hard questions. Nor did he give evasive answers. He told you straight up or he didn’t tell you at all.
And when he started to fumble a bit with an answer, he’d often stop himself and say, “Look, I’m not trying to be evasive, I just don’t know how to answer that” or “I just don’t have an answer to that.” If anything, Don James was always forthright.
It was a rare occasion, at least with the media, when James pealed back the veneer on his no-nonsense demeanor. It was then that we got to know a genuinely warm and funny man with wit and a wry sense of humor. I remember standing with the other Husky beat reporters listening to James after a 1991 Rose Bowl practice in Pasadena. He was unusually relaxed and jovial that day, mixing in witty one-liners as he fielded our questions. He was happy. We were happy. Everybody was smiling and having a light-hearted good time.
While he his demeanor was always no nonsense, I found Don James a gracious and accommodating man. He never turned me down for one-on-one interviews, although they were done when his schedule permitted. He always returned my phone calls in a timely fashion and gave me his home phone number should I need to contact him there.
My favorite Don James recollection is from the 1990 season. I needed to sit down with him on a story — I don’t remember the topic — and set up an appointment. When I stepped into his office, he got up from his chair, walked around his desk and greeted me by name.
I’m a tall guy. Don James is not, and I towered over him as we shook hands. He moved back to his chair, gestured and told me to have a seat on the couch directly in front of his desk. I put my tape recorder on his desk top, flipped open my notebook and sat.
I slowly sank down on the couch’s soft, pliant cushions. Now, instead of being at eye level, as I expected to be, I had to look up at Don James sitting behind his desk. I swear he wore a slight smile.
It was a subtle reminder that I was not dealing with just anybody. I was in the presence of The Dawgfather.
Gary Nelson covered University of Washington Athletics for The Herald from 1990-97. He currently is a page designer and copy editor in the sports department. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on twitter @checkmefirst.