Don James Prepared UW Players for Football, Life

Oct 25, 2013

Tributes are planned this weekend for legendary University of Washington football coach Don James. He died last Sunday from pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. James coached the Huskies from 1975 until 1992, leading them to six conference titles and a share of the 1991 national championship.

The Husky marching band will perform a special tribute to James during halftime of Saturday night’s game against California at Husky Stadium. A public memorial service is planned for 3 p.m. Sunday at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on the UW campus.

KPLU sports commentator Art Thiel says Don James will be remembered for what he taught players on the field, and off.

The Unique Role of the Football Coach

“There is an intensity that happens with Don that some of us have experienced in our lives, if we’re lucky. A great parent, a professor, a teacher, any kind of a mentor, a clergyman, the cop down the street that brings honesty, integrity, and an intensity to the experience,” he said.

The role of mentor is an important one for a college football player, who has to dedicate so much time, emotional energy, intellectual effort, and physical energy to the sport, says Art.

“The relationship you build with a coach as a college football player is so much different, more intense and an indelible than any other endeavor that you’re going to engage in that the successful coach that gains your respect, gains your trust is a guy that impacts your life forever,” he said.

Indeed, former players who played under James’ direction have said they realized the true value of the coach only after their time with him.

“But upon reflection, after these young men become adults and parents and workers and maybe coaches themselves do they fully appreciate what he was about,” he said. “Because Don James’ trademark was a passion for details and an intense absorption in every facet of the game so that these players were prepared to go out and anticipate anything the opponent can offer.”

In Between Plays, a Life Lesson

James was so detail-oriented that he used to run the Dirty Dozen Drill every Friday. The drill involved training all of the players on the weirdest gadget plays that an opponent might pull, and they weren’t ones the team had seen the week before.

“[They were] ones that James knew existed in college football—arcane things like end-arounds, double reverses, Statue of Liberty play,” he said. “These guys may have never seen those plays in their careers, but they were prepared if they did."

That’s the biggest legacy that Don James leaves, says Art.

“He prepared his players for every possible outcome, and they carried that through their lives. I don’t think there’s anything a coach can do that would be a better asset than to prepare these people for the unexpected in life. They had a mentor and they had a plan from Don James that resonated through all of their lives,” he said.

You can find Art Thiel's work at Sportspress Northwest and