SEATTLE — Don James, one of the most beloved figures in the proud history of University of Washington football, died Sunday after a battle with pancreatic cancer. He was 80 years old.
James set the standard for success for the program as the Huskies’ coach from 1975 to 1992. He remains the Huskies’ winningest head coach in the program’s 128-year history, with a 153-57-2 overall record in 18 seasons. James orchestrated the Huskies’ perfect season in 1991, culminating in a 34-14 victory over Michigan in the Rose Bowl that gave Washington a 12-0 record and a share of the national championship with Miami.
A disciplinarian with an acute attention to detail, James was affectionately nicknamed “The Dawgfather.” He was respected and feared by his players and opponents alike. Former players and colleagues describe him as a tough, humble man who was revered throughout college football as one of the game’s best coaches. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997, four years after retiring in protest of what he believed were unjust sanctions handed down by the Pacific-10 Conference against the Washington program. The Huskies’ accomplishments on the football field are now judged on the glory days of the Don James Era.
James led Washington to 15 bowl games in 18 years, winning 10 of them, including four Rose Bowls. He retired in 1993 as the most successful coach in the then-Pacific-10 Conference, with 97 victories, 38 losses and two ties.
“We’ll honor him every way we can,” current UW coach Steve Sarkisian said. “But the best thing we can do is embody the characteristics that he possesses, and that’s our toughness, mental and physical toughness, and then play a brand of football that he instilled here for decades.”
In a 1982 interview, James described his approach in recruiting players to Washington: “The players we go after are all one kind,” he said. “They are good hitters who are also good people.”
James had begun chemotherapy treatment in September for a malignant tumor on his pancreas. He is survived by his wife, Carol—who, like her husband, grew up in Massillon, Ohio—and their three grown children, Jeff, Jill and Jeni.
James was born Dec. 31, 1932 as the third of four sons. Their father was a bricklayer in the football hotbed of Massillon.
James played quarterback and defensive back for two state championship teams at Washington High School. He accepted a scholarship to play quarterback at Miami (Fla.), where he set five passing records.
He was named the team’s top scholar-athlete before graduating from Miami in 1954. He was commissioned as Second Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, serving two years before resuming his studies at the University of Kansas, where he also served as the Jayhawks’ freshman football coach. In 1957, he graduated from Kansas with a master’s degree in education.
He returned to Miami and became the coach football and basketball at Southwest High School. In 1959, he was hired as an assistant football coach at Florida State, and in his four seasons as defensive coordinator, the Seminoles recorded 13 shutouts from 1962-65.
He then served as the head defensive coach at Michigan for two seasons before joining the Colorado staff in the same role.
In 1971, Kent State athletic director Mike Lude gave James his first college head-coaching job. In his first game, James led the Golden Flashes to a 21-10 upset of North Carolina State, with a Kent State roster that included future Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert, current Alabama coach Nick Saban and current Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. That team won the first and only Mid-American Conference championship in Kent State history.
It didn’t take long for James to build a winner at Washington. James’ first two UW teams went a combined 11-11, but by 1977 the Huskies won the Pacific-8 Conference championship and beat Michigan, 27-20, in the Rose Bowl—the Huskies’ first Rose Bowl victory since 1961. Washington had a winning record in every season under James after that, rising to No. 1 in the nation in the wire-service polls for seven straight weeks during the 1982 season.
The 1984 UW team finished 11-1, with a victory over Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, and was ranked No. 1 in the season’s final poll by The Football News and the Chicago Tribune. In the 1980s, UW won more games, 84, than any other Pacific-10 team.
In 1992, James led UW to its third consecutive Rose Bowl berth, where the Huskies lost to a rematch to Michigan, 38-31. It was the last game James would coach.
On perhaps the darkest day for Washington football—Aug. 23, 1993 — the Pacific-10 Conference announced a two-year bowl ban and scholarship reductions after a scandal involving several UW players receiving money for little or no work done in Los Angeles.
James resigned the same day.
“We had done so much for the league,” James told The Seattle Times in a 2006 interview, “and rather than regard us as family, they went after us because we were so good. It wasn’t the NCAA. It was the Pac-10 and our administration.”
James was succeeded by Jim Lambright, a longtime Huskies assistant.
He spent much of his life with Carol in retirement in Palm Desert, Calif., on the edge of two Arnold Palmer golf courses.