October 23, 2013 at 11:30 AM
The greatness of Don James: A player remembers his first season
By Paul Strohmeier
Paul Strohmeier shares his rare perspective on Washington coach Don James, who died Sunday after coaching at Washington for 18 seasons. Strohmeier was a defensive lineman when James was hired and a graduate-assistant coach under James in 1976. Strohmeier, 59, is a sales executive for IBM, where he has worked since graduating in 1977. He and his wife live in the North Matthews Beach area of Seattle.
Shortly before Christmas 1974, Washington athletic director Joe Kearney announced an unknown coach from a small school as our new coach. Dr. Kearney had already received regrets from Dan Devine, who chose the Notre Dame job, and Mike White, the California coach. We were surprised to find out that the person willing to take the UW job was a guy we’d never heard of from Kent State named Don James.
I remember the first time Coach James walked into the team meeting room in January 1975. He entered the room precisely on time. (I don’t know what time it was but I am positive that it was exactly on time because Coach James knew no other time.) He then, in businesslike fashion, with no pleasantries and little enthusiasm, announced that we were going to win the league championship and go to the Rose Bowl.
We almost fell out of our chairs. He was addressing a football team that had won seven of its past 22 games. Just two years before we had set records for defensive futility and were generally regarded as one of the weaker UW football squads in the modern era. We were facing a loaded preseason schedule that included Arizona State, Texas and Alabama, each coached by Hall of Fame coaches named Frank Kush, Darrell Royal and Paul “Bear” Bryant, respectively. Our fear was justified. These three teams finished the 1975 season ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 6, in the final Associated Press poll with a combined record of 33-3. Also in the Pac-8 Conference that year were USC, reigning United Press International Coaches Poll national champion; UCLA, which would finished No. 5; and California, No. 14.
Our new coach’s audacious goal was unimaginable. Yet somehow his resolute pronouncement began the process of getting the UW back to respectability. We began to believe.
The early days
The early days were tough. Offseason conditioning was rugged. Coach James had instituted a conditioning regimen that he felt would give us a competitive edge. He had calculated that a player expends six seconds of intense energy on each down, so mat drills lasted exactly six seconds, with very short rests in-between. These were repeated over and over, day in and day out throughout the winter.
Practice began with what was called the “Gold Line.” This was exactly when practices would start but set at odd times such as 8:56 a.m. or 9:02 a.m. to promote attention to detail. We would gather at the exit of the stadium tunnel and run a loop around the far goal post, then form specific, predetermined lines with the No. 1 offense or defense in the front and alternating back to the Nos. 3s and 4s. After stretching, a horn would sound and we would break into position drills. These went off at odd intervals, and as the horn sounded, we would immediately move to the next drill. Every second of practice was used.
Coach James would circulate for a short while and would then climb into his tower at midfield. He would pull out his pen and notepad, begin to scan the proceedings and carefully make notations. Players never knew what he wrote, but I always felt he was looking at me, so I always applied extra effort to ensure I was executing my assignments as perfectly as possible.
Coach James, silent and observant, would rarely coach a player on the field. When he did bark at someone, it was nearly always one of his assistant coaches and it was fierce. As a position player, you’d want to make sure that your coach was not singled out, so players were highly motivated to get it right.
James’ assistants were some of the best in the business, and many went on to become head coaches. Jim Mora (the elder, not the current UCLA coach), Ray Dorr, Bob Stull, Dick Scesniak, Chick Harris, Skip Hall and Dom Capers were all on the 1975 staff, as were the best holdovers, such as Jim Lambright. All would go on to become college head coaches or NFL assistants. Almost every point was made in a positive way. Every interaction was supportive. Coach James’ assistants were masters of teaching the game and would go out of their way to reinforce good behavior and constructively correct mistakes. The positive method worked. We began to get better.
Preparation was unbelievably comprehensive and detailed. Each drill had a purpose. Each player had a role. Each play in practice – on both offense and defense – was scripted and based on detailed scouting reports and tendencies. Special teams were regarded as important as offense and defense. Hours were spent on all phases of the kicking game.
We felt we were ready for anyone. Then the season started.
The first season
Kush’s Arizona State team was first up, and we lost a night game in the desert, 35-12. The Sun Devils, led by Mike Haynes, finished the season 12-0 and ranked No. 2.
The Texas Longhorns were next. Darrell Royal and Earl Campbell beat us 28-10 at Husky Stadium. All I recall was seeing the bottom of Campbell’s shoes as he rumbled downfield. Texas finished 10-2 and ranked No. 6.
Navy was next in town. It proved to be Coach James’ first win, 14-13.
Next up was Oregon, and the Ducks went quietly, 27-17. It was Coach James’ first conference win.
Bryant’s Alabama Crimson Tide – and disaster – came next. Ozzie Newsome, Richard Todd and the rest dealt us a crushing 52-0 loss. It was a hot, humid day in Tuscaloosa and we were annihilated. Then came the shortest postgame speech most of us had ever heard. Coach James entered the shellshocked locker room and said, “That was a good old-fashioned country ass kicking. Let’s get on the bus.” Alabama ended that season 11-1 and ranked No. 3.
We heard that upon returning to Seattle, Coach James did not go home. Instead, it was said that he slept in his office on a cot to figure out how to win with this team. We learned that it was just one game and we began to mimic our coach and mentally prepare for the next one. We became a better team after that horrific loss.
Seattle Prep’s Mike Cordova and Stanford came to Seattle the next week. The result was a loss, but it was close – three points. But we fought hard, and though we were 2-4, our confidence increased. We would win four of our next five games.
Next up was Oregon State at Husky Stadium, and a 35-7 victory.
The next two games proved significant for a reason many have forgotten. At No. 13 UCLA, we saw for the first time the difference our coach could make as the ultimate game-planner. UCLA averaged over 30 points, but Coach James found a way to limit Dick Vermiel’s option attack to 13. The first of James’ many upsets came against a Bruins team that went on to beat No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and finish No. 5 nationally.
Next came a pivotal loss at Cal. The Pac-8 co-champ beat the Huskies 27-24 in Berkeley. But had we won in Berkeley, James could have put the Huskies into the Rose Bowl in his first season at Washington. His head-to-head victory over the Bruins would have broken a 6-1 conference tiebreaker, and Cal would have been 5-2.
No. 13 USC visited Seattle on Nov. 15, and the Huskies pulled another huge upset, 8-7.
Comeback against the Cougars
Finally, on a dark, rainy, November day in Seattle came the Cougars and James’ first Apple Cup. Washington State could have put the game away with a short field goal, but foolishly gambled on fourth down. The result is well-documented: Al Burleson intercepted a John Hopkins pass and took it 93 yards the other way to cut UW’s deficit to six points.
Coach James was the person responsible for putting us in a position to win that game. The Cougars had called time out to talk coach Jim Sweeney into letting them go for six points instead of opting for a field goal. We huddled in the downpour with coaches on the sideline. Coach James calmly told us that, in this situation, Washington State tended to run a “hot pass” to the tight end. He called for the defensive end to blitz and “hurry” the pass from the quarterback. Burleson was advised that if he cut in front of the tight end, he would be able to intercept the pass and score. That is exactly what happened. I remember that play well after four decades because I was the defensive end who forced the hurried pass. But Coach James deserves all the credit.
After we forced WSU to punt, Warren Moon passed to Spider Gaines for a 78-yard TD. We somehow escaped with an improbable 28-27 win.
Coach James finished 6-5, but few now realize how successful his first season really was. Though he inherited a senior-laden team, they didn’t know how to win. In the end, the Huskies beat both schools from L.A. and every other Northwest school. A three-point loss to Cal prevented us from playing in the Rose Bowl. We finished ahead of USC in the Pac-8 standings. Today, we would have qualified for a bowl game. Seven Washington players were drafted by NFL teams.
Life lessons learned
I’ve been a manager at IBM for many years and use many of Coach James’ lessons in running my business.
- Setting high goals, no matter how absurd they may be at the time, will result in levels of success that you never expected.
- As a team leader, success comes from surrounding yourself with outstanding people. The exec should coach the coaches and hold them accountable. James used to have a wooden plaque on his desk that read: “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”
- Time management and attention to detail gives you the edge you need to win when things get complicated. He was the most detail-oriented person I’ve ever met. I’ve worked in the business world for 36 years, and no one comes close. When I became a graduate-assistant coach, Coach James instructed me on the correct way to staple a game plan: upper left corner, one quarter inch from the top, parallel with the top line of the page.
- Never stand in the way of letting good people advance their careers. Highly qualified prospective candidates will see this and they will want to join your team.
- Always teach and coach in a positive manner. Desired behaviors are established quicker when people are receiving positive reinforcement and believe they are getting better.
- It’s OK for people bring you bad news. No penalties. If bad news and potential problems are withheld, then you won’t know what problems you need to fix.
- You don’t have to be considered a pleasant, approachable person to be successful or engender admiration, loyalty and respect. The only similar person I’ve ever met was a pretty successful guy – Lou Gerstner, former CEO of IBM.
The only thing that I regret is that Coach James had to leave in such an abrupt manner. Many of us do not know the complicated circumstances surrounding his resignation. Selfishly, I wish his departure was as well-planned and orchestrated as his game preparations over a long and successful career. His response – resigning weeks before the season to protest sanctions against his program – seemed out of character.
But Coach James must have had a plan all along. We just didn’t know it.
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