BY Steve Rudman 04:05PM 10/20/2013

Husky Football Legend Don James (1932-13)

Don James re-defined football excellence at the University of Washington, compiling the greatest coaching record in modern school history, 153-57-2. James died Sunday.

Former University of Washington football coach Don James took the Huskies to 15 bowl games in 18 seasons, winning 10. / David Eskenazi Collection

Former University of Washington coach Don James (1975-92) lost his short battle with pancreatic cancer Sunday. The 80-year-old James, who oversaw the greatest era of Husky football, was diagnosed less than two months ago. According to a statement released by the UW, the details of a public memorial will be released later.

“My family and I are extremely saddened to hear of Coach James’ passing,” said current UW coach Steve Sarkisian. “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. 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.”

Sportspress Northwest documented James and his era in  Wayback Machine: Don James, Dawgfather, published Sept. 17.

A member of numerous halls of fame, including the College Football Hall of Fame (1997) and Husky Hall of Fame (1994), James is the most successful head coach in modern UW history. Oddly, he was not Washington’s leading candidate to replace Jim Owens in 1974 after Owens resigned following that season.

In fact, James was a distant third choice. But athletic director Joe Kearney saw something special in James, then the head coach at Kent State University, and brought him to Washington in late December 1974. James  became Kearney’s greatest hire.

During an 18-year tenure, James coached the Huskies to 15 bowl games (10 victories), a co-national championship (1991) and six conference championships. He produced numerous All-America players and transformed Washington into a national power.

But the end of his career was messy. Following Washington’s 12-0 season in 1991, news reports revealed that star quarterback Billy Joe Hobert accepted an illegal $50,000 loan. When the then-Pac-10 slapped Washington with a two-year bowl ban, which James felt was unduly harsh, he resigned, with the 1993 season opener just weeks away.

James never coached again following his hasty exit, but remained close to the program. Among his UW highlights:

  • Compiled a 153-57-2 record, best among modern-era coaches in Washington history.
  • His 99 Pac-8/Pac-10 victories set a conference record.
  • Took his teams to 15 bowl games in 18 years, compiling a 10-5 record.
  • Took the Huskies to nine consecutive bowl games from 1979 through 1987, once a Pac-10 record.
  • Coached the Huskies (12-0) to the 1991-co-national championship (with Miami).
  • Coached the Huskies in six Rose Bowl games, winning four.
  • Took the Huskies to the 1978 Rose Bowl against Michigan (W), 1979 Sun Bowl against Texas (W), 1981 Rose Bowl against Michigan (L), 1982 Rose Bowl against Iowa (W), 1982 Aloha Bowl against Maryland (W), 1983 Aloha Bowl against Penn State (L), 1985 Orange Bowl against Oklahoma (W), 1985 Freedom Bowl against Colorado (W), 1986 Sun Bowl against Alabama (L), 1987 Independence Bowl against Tulane (W), 1989 Freedom Bowl against Florida (W), 1991 Rose Bowl against Iowa (W), 1992 Rose Bowl against Michigan (W), and 1993 Rose Bowl against Michigan (L).
  • Washington played in a bowl game in 14 of his last 16 seasons, winning 10.
  • Finished first six times and second four times in the Pac-10.
  • Coached 10 teams that finished in the Top 20 in the final Associated Press poll.
  • Defeated a Top 20 opponent (AP poll) 34 times.
  • Coached the 1984 Huskies to a final No. 2 national ranking (behind No. 1 Michigan).
  • Coached seven first-team All-America players (Associated Press), an Outland Trophy winner (Steve Emtman), a Lombardi Award winner (Emtman), and a Doak Walker award winner (Greg Lewis).
  • Coached 10 first-round NFL draft choices, including Blair Bush (1978), Doug Martin (1980), Curt Marsh (1981), Ron Holmes (1985), Joe Kelly (1986), Reggie Rogers (1987), Bern Brostek (1990), Steve Emtman (1992), Dana Hall (1992), Lincoln Kennedy(1993), Napoleon Kaufman (1995) and Mark Bruener (1995).
  • 109 Huskies were selected in the NFL Draft.
  • Succeeded Jim Owens (1957-74) as Washington’s head coach and was succeeded by Jim Lambright (1993-98).

In addition to his highest individual accolade, his 1997 induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, James was inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame in 1994, the Rose Bowl Hall of Fame in 1994 and the State of Washington Sports Hall of Fame in 1998.

James was National Coach of the Year in 1977, 1984 and 1991, also winning the Paul “Bear” Bryant award in 1991 after the Huskies tied with Miami for the co-national championship. He was voted Pac-8 or Pac-10 coach of the year by his peers three times — in 1980, 1990 and 1991.

James began his coaching career at the University of Kansas in 1956 after playing quarterback and defensive back at Miami University in Florida from 1951-53. Prior to enrolling at Miami, James lettered in four sports — football, basketball, baseball, and track — at Massillon (OH). High School.

Born Dec. 31, 1932 in Massillon, James moved from Kansas to Southwest Miami High School in 1958 and had coaching stints as an assistant at Florida State (1959-65), Michigan (1966-67) and Colorado (1968-70).

James became head coach at Kent State University in Ohio in 1971 and served through 1974, compiling a 25-19-1 record, enough to convince Kearney that James was worth a gamble. In 1982, Sports Illustrated offered a list of who its college football writer considered the three greatest coaches in America: “1. Don James; 2. Don James; 3. Don James.”


  • poulsbogary

    Frank jordan. What is he doing now? Is he beer delivery truck driver? Teacher? Stock market analyst? Insurance agent? Who knows. Never did someone so steeped in anonymity now have greater effect on don james’ rising star, and on the subsequent fortunes of uw football.

    I remember his kick from 1977 as if it just happened yesterday.

    Usc vs ucla.

    mr james, thank you for all the memories.

  • jafabian

    My heart goes out to the James family at this time. Cancer is an insidious disease that affects more than just the patient. Thoughts and prayers to them.