BY Art Thiel 11:27PM 10/27/2017

Thiel: Huskies’ James rises again to the heights

A warm evening in temperatures and friendships was wrapped around the unveiling of a statue of Huskies football icon Don James, all eight-foot-six of him.

Gary Pinkel and Warren Moon, who played for Don James in the 1970s, hang out at the statue of their mentor Friday night at Husky Stadium. Carol James is at right. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest

At a height of eight feet, six inches, two ways are available, both up, to consider the statue of Don James that debuted Friday on the University of Washington campus.

As ceremony emcee Bob Rondeau put it, “If Don were here to see this, he’d say, ‘If I’d been that tall, I’d never need a tower.'”

The other is: As much as James towered over the Huskies program and the Seattle sports landscape, the statue was short by about a hundred feet.

His time at Montlake, from 1975 to 1992, already aging into sepia tones, is now available in bronze. Back then, it was purple. The memories shared Friday were gold.

Pro Football Hall of Fame member Warren Moon, the first of many NFL quarterbacks James tutored, told the story of his recruitment by James. When the coach came to the family home in Los Angeles on a recruiting visit, Moon already received offers from UCLA, USC and other big-time programs. Moon’s mother made clear her preference that her son play college ball close to home.

After James left, Moon quoted his mother: “That’s where you’re going to school, whether you want to or not.”

Moon didn’t spell out what James said, but for the hundreds who gathered for the event on the northwest corner of the Husky Stadium plaza bordered by Montlake Boulevard, he didn’t have to. In some form or other, be they players, coaches, staffers, media or fans, they knew what stood out to Mom: Earnestness. Directness. Honesty. Intensity. Sincerity. Preparedness.

“It was like talking to God,” Moon said. “You believed everything he said.”

Gary Pinkel, the retired University of Missouri coach who played for James at Kent State, recalled taking an assistant’s job on James’ early staff at Washington and receiving the plum recruiting territory of Hawaii. The other assistants immediately razzed him.

“They called me ‘Donnie’s Boy,'” Pinkel said. “I took that ticket and went to Hawaii.”

When Pinkel earned his first head coaching job at the University of Toledo, he had an exit interview with James. At the end, after they stood and shook hands, Pinkel stepped to the door. He asked James for any words of wisdom.

In his ever-serious manner, James peered out over his glasses and gave him The Look, the one on the statue.

“Things are going to get tough, really tough,” Pinkel quoted James. “Keep your focus hour to hour. If you don’t, the pressure will eat you up.”

As with many things said to many people, Pinkel never forgot what James said.

I recall a moment with James that said nothing about his football coaching skills but everything about his understated dry wit.

At some mindless bowl-game reception by the host committee, James, his staff and the traveling media had to take time for the obligatory, numbing photo ops and thank-you-for-the-wonderful-hospitality gestures. James was eyeing the door when he was cut off by a purple-clad fan already sipping heavily the hospitality.

After indulging the fellow’s coaching tips for about 20 seconds, James fixed him with The Look.

“How about you let me do what I do best, and how about I — ” here James reached out and tapped the man’s cocktail glass — “let you do what you do best.”

James was out of the room before the man knew he was bleeding.

The reminiscing, storytelling and embracing carried on, reunion-style, as the clan of the James era re-engaged. It was a rare thing — a warm October evening with speakers Pinkel, Moon and athletics director Jen Cohen hitting the right notes, 20 members of the James family, including wife Carol, joining the party, and Rondeau keeping the program tight, as James would have it.

The statue ceremony climaxed conveniently during a revival of the program under coach Chris Petersen, whose 6-1 Dawgs play UCLA Saturday during the old-fashioned daytime. The twilight vibe on game’s eve was good.

The statue’s story is almost as good as the James anecdotes. A group of James’ former players, led by DB Jimmy Rodgers, co-captain of the 1985 Orange Bowl champions, began conversations more than four years ago about a statue. Inexperienced at fund-raising, they nevertheless targeted a goal of $150,000, none of it from the athletics department budget or Tyee Club booster funds. They began churning social media, phones and shoe leather.

More than 325 players donated, along with other friends of the program. Cohen in 2016 gave the project an official blessing. A bid was accepted from Chicago artist Lou Cella, the same one who did the statues at Safeco Field of Ken Griffey Jr. and Dave Niehaus.

One of donors was Mike Lude, the Kent State athletics director in 1971 who gave James his first head coaching job. James returned the favor in 1976, successfully lobbying the university to hire Lude as athletics director.

The tandem took the program to the heights. When Rodgers made the call to Lude, a $5,000 check was shortly in the mail.

Now a robust 95, Lude flew up from his Arizona home for the occasion and had smiles and backslaps for all. Plus, of course, a story, one he said he hadn’t previously shared.

Lude coached at Colorado State from 1962 to 1969, and heard about this smart young defensive coordinator at Colorado. After Lude was fired (29-51-1), he briefly was a scout. Before a game at Colorado he went down on the field and, under a goalpost, spent a half-hour getting to know James.

When Lude took the Kent State job, the Golden Flashes had a vacancy at head football coach. Lude prepared a list of six candidates, and vowed in the morning to make his first call to James.

That night, the phone rang. It was James. He was born and raised in Ohio, and Kent State, well . . . he wanted the job. Lude said yes. The man, Lude said, was always prepared.

Thus began a relationship that, 46 years later, had another pinnacle moment Friday night, this one eight feet, six inches in bronze.

It was a fine night to celebrate the Dawgfather. / Art Thiel, Sportspress Northwest


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YourThoughts

  • Jamo57

    Thank you for the excellent reporting, Art. A lot of nostalgia for me as I arrived in Seattle the same year as the Dawgfather. It didn’t take long to realize Coach James was going to be a Seattle icon.

    • art thiel

      James was a remarkable leader. It was amazing to hear his ex-players talk of how influential he has been in their lives.

  • Michael McCoy

    Excellent work Art. Thank you.

    • art thiel

      Pleased that you took the time to say so.

  • DAWG
  • Bayview Herb

    Many forget or never knew, that James quit in disgust when after his quarterback took payments from alums and caused the league to put sanctions on the UW. The then athletic director failed to fight for the coach and Don James walked.

    • Dawg-gone

      Close, but not quite. Billy Joe got a 50k loan with a contract and interest payments guaranteed by his future earning potential as a pro. In other words, when he signed his draft day contract. The loan was approved by university “officials” who went ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ and threw him and the football program under the bus when it came to light and the ncaa had a hissy fit. There were no ‘cash payments from alums”, it was an upfront business deal with one businessman that was approved and then used to sanction the program. When Babs turned on the program and wouldn’t fight, James walked.

      • Bayview Herb

        Well, you had records to peruse. I have a 79 year old memory. Close is about as good as I get.

      • Husky73

        There was nothing illegal about Hobert’s loan. It was a private business transaction. He was an adult. In my view, James should have battled Hedges and Gerberding as a coach who is loyal to his players and assistants. Instead, he quit.

    • art thiel

      See above, Herb. What you said was true; he was also a great coach and leader who was flawed. As are all of us.

  • Husky73

    A great coach, and a fine man…..who walked away from his team. A person that demanded loyalty, quit in a snit. Gerberding, Hedges and the conference be damned– he quit on his coaches and players.

    • art thiel

      I agree, 73. It was a bad way to go out. and I wrote it at the time. The backlash was unpleasant; no one likes to hear the truth at a time when the perps were hardly holding the high ground. Nevertheless, his career arc and influence was worthy of the Friday accolade.

      In college football, almost no one gets out clean.

      • Jamo57

        I have to take this at face value for what it is, but I remember hearing some reporting that James’ doctor had serious concerns over how that episode was affecting his health. That’s a very difficult subject to judge the risk vs reward in another human being. I any event, if true, and it seems reasonable, it’s something for the rest of us to consider.

      • Husky73

        True that…Frosty Westering did.

  • David Michel

    I had the honor of talking to him once at a golf tourney in Wenatchee. He was standing by himself, and I went over. Soon, a couple of friends of mine were there too. The 3 of us talked Husky football with him for 15-20 minutes. He was gracious and classy.