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October 20, 2013 at 7:02 PM

Former UW players share memories of Don James

Don James leads yells in the Washington locker room after defeating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 20, 1985. (Harley Soltes/The Seattle Times)

Don James leads yells in the Washington locker room after defeating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl on Jan. 20, 1985. (Harley Soltes/The Seattle Times)

Legendary Washington coach Don James died Sunday morning at his Kirkland home.

Here, several of his former players share their memories of Coach James.

JOE STEELE, UW running back from 1976-79 and a team captain in 1979:

(James’ death) was kind of shocking. He was such a big part of a lot of people’s lives and had a big impact on a lot of people through the years. The influence that he had on many, many people’s lives was pretty incredible.

You hear the stories about him and his leadership abilities and the influence he had on different people’s lives at a young age, but a lot of those attributes that he had and the life skills that he passed on, you continue to live those your whole life. He was an incredible man.

Those moments of just driving into everybody’s head the organization, preparation and tenacity and toughness of doing what it took to build a program in those early years.

Those tremendous Thursday before-every-game speeches that he would have. By the time you were done with a lot of those speeches you were jumping out of your chair and out on the field. He lived his whole life at that time to drive toward being successful.

The speeches were sometimes prepared in July for a game against UCLA in October. He was very organized and a program put together. He had a different style — he wasn’t the warmest, he wasn’t really that close to a lot of the players on a day-to-day basis. But it was great to see him later in life and he was very warm and very friendly and would joke around. It was great to know him in your adult life. The sad part is that he wasn’t able to carry that on for another 10-15 years and influence some of the players that came in after he left. It was a special time and a special place and he was really a special person.

DAVE MATTHEWS, UW walk-on receiver in 1981 and 1982:

I was on the 1981 and 1982 Rose Bowl teams. I guess what I liked was his organizational skills, leadership, discipline, yet sense of humor and complete lack of arrogance. Whether you were on the first team or last team, like me, everyone was treated with dignity and respect. The best players played, but everyone followed the rules. That is all he asked. If you did, you were fine. But a few broke some and their lives changed. He announced the first day only two things would get you kicked off the team. 1, missing a practice. 2, stealing. And James was the only person who could excuse you. If you were dying of the flu, take an ambulance down and he would excuse you. But don’t just not show. Again, very disciplined. I got the feeling he would have been successful at anything he did.

I had dinner with him about three years ago and asked him what else he would have ever done. He said when he played he just idolized his coaches and knew then he would be a coach. He could also be just like your grandfather, no matter your ability. He and I both knew I had no business being on the field. Yet he still encouraged me and I even got into a varsity game my senior year. And I have two Rose Bowl rings and watches and jerseys for my two boys when I die.

He had a policy that every spring, every single player have a one-on-one interview with him. My senior year, even though I was an inferior athlete, he asked me about my major, my favorite classes and other stuff. Then he smiled and invited me to fall camp. I could have jumped across the desk!

There were only about 12 seniors on the team in 1981. I was the only walk-on receiver that year. We were beating Oregon State 56-17, and in the fourth quarter he called my name. I got to play for a series, even though there were other better players, but since I was the only senior receiver, I got in. Talk about something I have thought about every hour for 32 years.

HUGH MILLEN, UW quarterback 1983-85 and a team captain in 1985:

I don’t think there’s an adjective that could adequately describe his contribution to Washington football. ‘Titanic’ would be woefully insufficient to even try to describe it.

He had an utter command of all situations. For a man that was small in stature, the command that he had really defied any explanation. I played (in the NFL) for Jimmy Johnson, Don Shula, Bill Parcells and Mike Shanahan and those guys have won a lot of Super Bowl rings, and I’ve never been around a coach who had the command of Coach James. And he was extremely disciplined. He was never, ever, at least in the eyes of the players, out of command. So that discipline and regiment, there was always a certain tension because of his presence and I think that that tension prepared the players to play in pressure situations because there was always a certain tension and pressure with his presence so you felt that if you could function in his highly structured system then you could survive the pressures of Saturday. There was an attention to detail that I think was of the highest order.

For meetings, he would come in literally right on time down to the second and the room would go deathly silent. It was incredible how fast 110 testosterone-filled teenagers and young men could get silent when he would step to the podium and address the team. It was always just no-nonsense and all business.

Even in the NFL, there was a real reverence in the football community for Don James. They literally would be like, “What was it like to play for Coach James?’’

DAMON HUARD, UW quarterback 1991-95 and current UW football chief administrative officer:

Don James and his staff were so good to my dad as a young high school football coach in the area. My dad really learned everything he did about coaching high school football from Coach James and his staff on down. Gary Pinkel and Ray Dorr in the early years. Coach James was always so good to him. The door was always open and my dad would always be up here. We ran basically the Husky offense at Puyallup High School. You think about all the guys from our high school that came on up to play here … and a lot of that happened because of Don James and the way he let high school coaches in the building to learn. That was huge.

I was coming up to the Husky camps in eighth, ninth grade. I always knew I was going to be a Husky, and Coach James was very, very special to me. I never really was the starting quarterback for him, but my first action as a Husky quarterback was for him in 1992. I was a redshirt freshman. I came in and I was 6 for 6 and threw like a 70-yard touchdown pass. But I got sacked and fumbled at one point, and our guys recovered it. I remember getting to the sideline and Coach James just laying into me: ‘Come on, Damon! You better learn how to hold on to that football.’ When Coach James talked, you listened.”

Another great story: I’m a true freshman. We used to have to do these stretches for our necks. Your head would be on the ground and you had to roll your feet to the side. Does that make sense? It hurt so bad. So I would kind of cheat and go on my knees and roll on my head. And back then we had all these guys out there, 150 players including all the walk-ons. I came to a meeting and my QB coach one morning and he just starting yelling at me: ‘Coach James saw you stretching on your knees. You better figure that out. You better stretch like everyone else.’ Coach James saw me from the lift above. The guy didn’t miss a thing. He was the eagle eye. He didn’t even miss how anyone stretched — that’s how detailed this man was. He didn’t miss a thing.

I just loved the guy. The day he stepped down, I’ll never forget that, in our team meeting, a week before my first college start. That was a sad day. A difficult day, and one now, as I’m older and more involved in this whole college football thing again; at the time you’re a 19-year-old kid, you don’t understand. Now you do. He really stood for what he believed in. I’m totally with him 100 percent in that decision. He was treated wrong. And for a guy who was so on top of things and was by no means out there helping anyone cheat. He was stickler for the rules. For the Pac-10 to come down on us the way they did — a two-year bowl ban, which was essentially a death penalty — it wasn’t right. And he knew that. I will stand by him in that decision forever. It was unjust, it was wrong. It was completely wrong.

The great thing is, really being home these last four years, I ran into him a bunch doing some fundraising and different events. … I’d like to think I was the first guy to show him this new stadium this summer. I had no idea he was sick. I took him and Carol up every stair. The guy he is, he never let you see him sweat. And then he addressed the team. I’ll always remember that, my last time with Coach James. He was so proud and so fired up about this stadium. He was the guy, in a lot of ways, who built this place.

Bob Condotta contributed to this report. 

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