Jim Lambright was many things.
He was a titan of Snohomish County football, as the Everett High School graduate blazed the trail that led from the county to the University of Washington. He was a Huskies coaching mainstay, where his trademark death stare came to be one of the defining images of the defenses that dominated a generation. And he was a man who was always consistent in who he was.
Even when it came to his food choices.
“Jim loved fish and chips, I believe that was his favorite food,” said Keith Gilbertson Jr., a Snohomish High School graduate who coached at Washington with Lambright. “Any time we’d go to lunch or dinner he’d order fish and chips every time. The last meal I had with him was a year ago at The Ram (near UW) and he ordered fish and chips.”
Lambright, who spent 30 years as a coach at Washington, including the final six as head coach, passed away last weekend at the age of 77 following years of declining health.
And while Lambright’s death was a blow to the Snohomish County football community, his legacy lives on.
An Everett legend
Lambright grew up in south Everett, graduating from Everett High School in 1960. Despite measuring just 5-foot-10 and 170 pounds, he was a star defensive end on the Seagulls football team, becoming one of the first area players to be recruited to Washington. He lettered for the Huskies from 1962-64, earning first-team All-Pacific Coast Conference honors in 1964. He was named The Herald’s Man of the Year in Sports for 1964.
“He was five years ahead of me, but my dad was an assistant coach at Everett High School when Jim was playing, and Jim was my idol,” Dennis Erickson, who coached in both college and the NFL, recalled. “I was a junior high kid and he was just my idol. He was always nice to me when I was little, and I followed his career when he played at Washington, I don’t think I missed a snap. He was always my favorite player, and talk about a tough football player, he was as tough as it gets.”
Lambright always wanted to be a football coach, and after spending time at Fife High School and Shoreline Community College he was hired by Washington in 1969 as a defensive assistant. He went from coaching linebackers to becoming the defensive coordinator from 1978-92, to head coach from 1993-98. The Huskies went 44-25-1 during Lambright’s six seasons in charge.
Lambright was also the first of Snohomish County’s golden generation of football coaches — the group includes Mike Price (Everett class of 1964), Erickson (Everett class of 1965) and Gilbertson (Snohomish class of 1966). That group relished its shared ties to the county.
“We laughed and joked about it,” Gilbertson said. “Everybody knew everybody in those days, everybody in Snohomish County was related in some way. We all knew the same people, had the same coaches, it was a really small circle, the football people in Snohomish County were a really tight group.”
And Lambright was the one who got that ball rolling.
It’s in the eyes
When speaking to those who played for Lambright at Washington, the first thing they all bring up was his stare.
“He was intense,” said Lake Stevens High School graduate Richie Chambers, who played linebacker for Lambright from 1990-94. “He was one of those guys whose eyes pierced right through to your soul. You knew when you did something wrong.
“When you look at coaches and see ex-football players, you think they’re going to be bigger,” Chambers added. “He wasn’t a giant man, but while he underwhelmed in size he overwhelmed with intensity.”
That intensity became Lambright’s defining characteristic.
“He was so inspirational in his speeches, you were always on the edge of your seat,” said Marysville Pilchuck High School graduate Shane Pahukoa, who played safety for Lambright from 1989-92. “It was a gradual work-up. At the start of the meeting he’d talk about things, we’d watch film, he’d get fired up about a play, and by the end of the meeting we were all wanting to play right now because we were so fired up and inspired to get out there and compete and win.”
Lambright was Washington’s defensive coordinator during the greatest period in program history, when the Huskies went to the Rose Bowl three consecutive years from 1990-92 and shared the national championship with Miami in 1991. The strength of those teams was a swarming, hard-hitting defense that intimidated opponents.
“They were always tough, they would hit you and knock your head off,” said Erickson, who had to deal with Lambright-led defenses when he coached at Washington State in 1987-88, then was the coach at Miami in 1994 when Lambright’s Huskies ended the Hurricanes’ 58-game home winning streak. “When you played a Jim Lambright defense you had to be ready to play, because if you weren’t they physically beat you up.”
Gilbertson, who was the offensive coordinator for the 1991 national-title Washington team, explained why Lambright’s defenses were so strong.
“First, they had outstanding players, just great athletes and great team speed,” Gilbertson said. “Then they were tough and aggressive. The way his defenses played was to have everybody up on the line of scrimmage, and he could do that because he had great corners like Dana Hall and Walter Bailey. The corners would be in press coverage, the safeties would be low, and the linebackers were right up in there. That defense stressed offensive systems, and (playing against that in practice) made us better and able to handle that stuff.
“He was a great defensive football coach, but I don’t know if he gets enough credit as a recruiter,” Gilbertson added, as Lambright was responsible for recruiting Seattle and north along the I-5 corridor. “I think of the outstanding players from Snohomish County he recruited: Curt Marsh, Jerry McClain, the Pahukoas, Jerry Jensen, Toure Butler. There’s a long list of Snohomish County guys who had outstanding careers at Washington.”
And while Lambright was known for his intensity, his soft side was often overlooked.
“A lot of people know him as the hard-ass defensive football coach,” said Pahukoa, who first met Lambright at 14 when Lambright was recruiting his older brother Jeff, and maintained a relationship until Lambright’s death. “But even when he was coaching he was a very compassionate, sweet, understanding guy who you could go up to and have a conversation with, and that never changed in 35 years. I’ll always remember him that way, more of an understanding, compassionate human being than as a hard-ass football coach.”
A lasting legacy
Lambright may not be held in the same kind of regard as his predecessors as head coach at Washington, Don James and Jim Owens. But no one matches Lambright when it came to loyalty to the Huskies.
“He’s a legend at Washington,” Erickson said. “How many guys played, coached and spent all that time in one place? I don’t know if anybody in Husky history ever did that. He’s got to be the man of men in that program.”
Lambright was a part of four Rose Bowl-champion teams at Washington as an assistant, and although the Huskies never won the Rose Bowl when Lambright was the head coach, he still played a role in Washington’s last Rose Bowl victory following the 2000 season.
“The last Rose Bowl the Huskies won I was lucky enough to be the offensive coordinator,” Gilbertson said. “That was 2001, and the University of Washington had let Jim go in 1999. But that team that went to the Rose Bowl, that was a Jim Lambright team. It was recruited and trained by Jim, it was a team that was tough and competitive and worked hard. So Jim had a really big impact on the last Husky Rose Bowl champion.”
Lambright may be most closely associated with Washington, but the 2011 Snohomish County Sports Hall of Fame inductee never forgot his Snohomish County roots.
“I remember he spoke at the Everett Man of the Year banquet, and he talked about coming from Everett and how he was always keeping track of the Snohomish County kids,” Pahukoa said. “And he was really proud of me.”
Lambright’s lasting influence is still being felt in the Snohomish County football community, both on and off the field.
“Since the day I left UW I kind of adopted wearing K-Swiss,” Chambers said. “The reason I did was because coach Lambright did. It wasn’t necessarily in honor of him, but I figured if it was good enough for him it was good enough for me, and I still wear K-Swiss to this day.”
Such is what Lambright meant, both at Washington and in Snohomish County.