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Husky Football Blog

The latest news and analysis on the Montlake Dawgs.

August 21, 2011 at 12:17 PM

A visit with former UW coach Don James

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of the season in which the Huskies went 12-0 and won a share of the national title, and we’re going to recognize that accomplishment heere at the Times throughout the fall.

We kicked it off with a package today that included this main story on how the season came together.

The stories for this weekend’s package were based primarily on interviews with three main characters in the 1991 season — head coach Don James (pictured accepting the Rose Bowl trophy that year), center and team captain Ed Cunningham and defensive tackle Steve Emtman.

And as kind of an extra on the blog I thought I would put together a more complete version of some of those interviews — as is often the case, there’s a lot that doesn’t make it into the print version.

So here are some of the more complete thoughts of James on that season, and a few other topics.

On having to share the national title: “I know it’s a vote and so you have to rely on voters and I know after the Orange Bowl in 1985 we thought we were better then and we came in second, so now you’ve got two undefeated teams at the time, I just felt like it probably would have been a disservice to either team. There were two polls and we got the one we wanted, anyway. That’s about all you can hope for, I guess.”

On thoughts on how a game against Miami might have unfolded: “We were pretty good. There are always good team but I just felt like we could compete with anybody that year and the teams that had won it years prior, I think teams get better a lot of times each year because kids get bigger and stronger and faster and we were better than some of the teams that won national titles before. It would have been a good contest, hotly contested.”

On the scheme changes in the late ’80s: “I think it worked out well. We had been a one-back but when we were in one-back you pretty well knew we were going to throw the ball or run a draw. And we’d seen the things that the Redskins did with (John) Riggins, the counter tray, the Cougars did it pretty well and other teams had done it, and I wanted to have a running threat from the one-back to go with the passing attack and obviously one of the key guys was Keith Gilbertson, so I tried to hire him, and it worked. Gary Pinkel was the coordinator and said ‘if you’ve got to give him the coordinator’s job to get him then give it to him.’ And that’s kind of the way the staff was, it was just a bunch of good guys that wanted to do what was better. So we got Gilby and he got us into a passing attack that was a little quicker and we could do a little bit more and he got us into a running attack from the one-back so that helped. And then on defense we just got better. We’d known since I was coaching at Florida State in the ’60s that if you can get pressure on the quarterback you can play man, and man-to-man is the easiest thing there is from the standpoint of mistakes — at least you know who you are covering. You’re looking right at the guy and you might get beat and you will get beat if you give the quarterback too much time. So we had gotten to a place where our secondary was better and we just had such great speed at our defensive ends and outside linebackers and then with Steve Emtman.’

On the change to the attack style defense in 1989 being a key: “We had begin putting pressure on and I’ve been given a lot of credit for a lot of things and so has Gilby and so has Jim Lambright, but still it’s a staff deal, the offensive staff and the defensive staff, to put those things together and the key guys were Gilby and Lambright but there were just a lot of good coaching and good ideas, and the players give you the opportunity to do some of those things — that helped too.”

On what the goals were heading into the season: “We knew how close we came in 1990. I did a pyramid of objectives every year and the National Championship was at the top of the list and 90 percent graduation and Pac-10 title and Rose Bowl, and you work your way down. But I had that in the playbook every year to kind of encourage them to set realistic goals — if you were a beginner to make the travel squad and work your way up, etc., etc. So we had that and they picked out what they would focus on for personal objectives. But the biggest dilemma was the Mark Brunell injury and now we were going with a season that opened up at Stanford and at Nebraska with a rookie quarterback, and that’s just hard to do.I had coached at Colorado and we never beat Nebraska — almost nobody did.”

On the QB situation entering the season: “It helped a good bit that Billy Joe (Hobert) had the confidence that he could get the job done — it wasn’t bothering him as much as it was probably bothering the coaches. He was a guy who didn’t want to dump off or throw short, he wanted to go intermediate and longs, and he would make the reads and he was making pretty good judgments most of the time. And plus with Orlando McKay and Mario Bailey we had just great, great receivers and Aaron Pierce and those guys at tight end, so we had guys who could catch it. He had a good supporting cast.”

On if there was a moment when he realized it would all work out with Hobert: “He started out a little slow (against Stanford) and then he just caught on and had a great game and it was like ‘okay, we got this one out of the way’ and now we have to go to Nebraska. I remember reading a newspaper article about one of the coaches that said teams that were in that offense that we were running, the one-back and the passing and all, could not be as successful continuously that they could have a good year but not have great success. So a little bit of a challenge was thrown out to us.”

On if he thought a national title was possible when he took over at UW: “Well it was interesting, as I have mentioned many times, as coaches you go to conventions and if you are an assistant you talk about what are the best jobs in the country and you rate leagues. And we always rated the Pac-8 as USC, UCLA and Washington and then when I got the job and talked to Jim Mora he said ‘no, USC but you’ve got to put Washington number two.’ And that was from a guy that was from the West Coast and coaching in the league. I just had the feeling with the stadium and the university and the lake and all the support that we got from the fans. We had to clean up (recruiting) the state and beat people recruiting up here before we could do all those wonderful things. And then we branched out — that national championship team we had two captains from Virginia, so that was unheard of when I first got here for us.”

On putting emphasis on speed after the mid-80s: “We always had speed as a key factor, but we got slow. We either did a poor job of evaluating or something, but we got some guys that were supposed to be linebackers 4.6, 4.7 that came in and were 4.9, and those guys get you beat in a good league, and so I just got a little more strict with the coaches getting exact times, and tried to get guys in summer camps where you can time them legally and get true track times and we did more research on vertical jump. Through our research and the NFL stuff, we found out if you can’t jump you can’t run. And you could go to a high school and find a running back and put your hand up there and measure it and jump, takes you 10 seconds, and if they do 10-12 seconds they are not very fast. And you didn’t worry too much about linemen, but we found out right away that guys that could jump could really run, and some of the high school coaches didn’t have that date, so they knew if we were going to go in and recruit one of their receivers we are not going to take them if they tell us the truth, they know 4.6-4.5 is what we should be heating and then we get them up here and they are 4.8-4.9 — it doesn’t work.”

On the win at Nebraska being a key to the season: “That gave us the confidence. When you get that one under your belt, a good team like that on the road, you just have the feeling that you can play with people and we did. We beat some people really big scores and then of course the Cal game was the closest game we had down there. They were good and they played us great but Beno Bryant’s long run late, but they could have still tied us at the end and we stopped them and they got an extra play. But Walter Bailey (who made the defensive play on the last pass) was a great athlete, he could jump and he could run but that was quite a game.”

On the Rose Bowl and having to set a standard to compare to Miami, which was playing that night: “I don’t think you really go into a game you are playing and worry about someone else. It was just take care of our game and that will take care of itself. … The illness to Steve Emtman where he spent a couple of nights with a virus sort of thing and he was being fed intravenously, that was a big concern. He said he was okay but you never know — he was going to say that anyways. But he was not feeling well and had a temperature.”

On the 1990 loss to UCLA keeping the team from letting down in 1991 (and here’s a recap of that game for background): “That game was at home and Homer Smith was their offensive coordinator and he did the quick series from the shotgun so our rush was ineffective, we couldn’t get to the quarterback, and it was hard to pick those guys up that quick, throwing a three-step drop from under the center is different because you have a chance to get to him, or at least get in his face, whereas the three-step drop from a shotgun (is harder to get there). And they hit a fullback or tailback blast and you or I could have run it in, it was wide open. You learn something, and we did make some adjustments and didn’t really get hurt by it in the quick series passing from the shotgun (in 1991). And we also learned that we can’t take that weak safety out of there and go pick up for the strong safety just to get a strong safety blitz because he wasn’t going to get there because then there wasn’t a soul in the middle, not a soul. I can still see that play.”

On the 1990 team being as good as 1991: “That was a good team and in some respects we were better there at some positions with that team than we were the next year.”

On if he feels good about the direction of the UW program now: ”I don’t think there is any question. The one main thing is staff continuity. (UW coach Steve Sarkisian) Sark hasn’t lost a coach and you just think that you put a coach in an area and he’s got to learn the talent and learn the 10th graders and 11th graders, and especially now they are doing so much more with younger players than we ever did, so the continuity really helps. Plus they are recognizing the highly recruited kids and are getting commits and doing a pretty good job putting a fence around the state which is what you want to do. We got into Oregon, which is hard to do now because of Oregon and Oregon State, but California still has a lot of good players.”

On the team playing now the way his teams did: “I don’t care what level you are at unless you run the ball, if you can’t run the ball you are really in trouble and if you can’t play defense you are in more trouble, and their defense got better and they established the running attack and have an excellent tailback and Jake never did get the protection or have the receiving corps that some of the other quarterbacks but he was still a threat running the ball.”

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