The past week brought an outpouring of grief over the death of Don James, the former Washington football coach who died Oct. 20 at age 80. I’ve rarely received more emails, letters and phone calls on one subject than I did about James. And while it’s impossible to reprint all of them, here are excerpts of emails from a former UW student, a former UW player and a longtime coach. None knew James well, but taken together, the stories help explain why the Dawgfather is one of Seattle’s most revered sports figures.
The student: ‘A girl who loves football’
By Christy Kucinski
Christy Kucinski is from Bremerton and graduated from the University of Washington in 1991 with a degree in Political Science. She remains a Husky fan and lives in Kirkland with husband John Murphy and their three children.
In 1989, I came to the University of Washington. I was someone who enjoyed football, and for $50 and flashing my student ID, I purchased season tickets for Husky football. I had a few friends on campus but mostly I commuted to school because I needed to live closer to my job. I might have felt a bit disconnected were it not for Don James. Football brought me the greatest connection to the university. I attended every game.
Watching the speed and agility of a Beano Bryant or Napoleon Kaufman, the power of the best college defense in the country led by Steve Emtman and not one but two outstanding quarterbacks in Billy Joe Hobert and Mark Brunell are thrills I will never forget. This extended into the classroom. Every day I walked on the UW campus I tried to live up to a standard inspired by tradition, loyalty and legend. Don James represented all of this. He inspired me to do better.
Fresh out of college, it took me a year to scrape up the funds for season tickets. My boyfriend – who I later married – and I attended every game. We would go early and purchase a sandwich in Montlake, then sit in the tailgate area. Pretty soon we recognized some people and began a tailgating tradition. All of these friends had been students while Don James was coach. All of us shared a common bond – our Dawgfather.
As our lives moved on Husky football has remained part of us. We bring our children to tailgates and games now, too. I brought my entire family to our new Dawg House so that we could retake Montlake with the rest of our Husky family. We eat. We drink. We talk about football. We talk about life. We bond. We are Huskies.
About a year ago I had an opportunity to meet this man who inspired me so much. My husband and I volunteered at a Don James golf tournament. I was placed on the 17th hole. As groups of golfers came through all day, I hoped I would have a chance to say hello to the Dawgfather. The moment came when one of the last groups arrived.
Coach James was first to hit his ball, the best shot of his group. While the other guys loudly hurried down to the green, Coach James stayed behind a moment. He laughed at the other members of the foursome and told me they were drinking whiskey. He told me that he had never had a drink until he was 27 years old. I was surprised and intrigued, and I asked him why.
“My coach told me not to,” he replied. Again we shared a laugh. He told me a story about drinking his first beer when he was an assistant coach at Florida State.
I told him I loved watching him coach football and that I graduated in 1991.
“That was a good year!” he said. Then he had to catch up with his group and went on his way. It such a special moment, but I realized I forgot to tell him how profoundly his legacy had affected my life.
Luckily, another opportunity came about a month later. A family friend had bid on a Don James dinner at the auction at his golf tournament, so I stopped by and said goodbye to my Dawgfather. I told him that I had always liked football but that because of him I grew to love football. I thanked him for this and waved goodbye.
When I heard the terrible news, I was so sad. It is as if a family member has died. I keep breaking into tears, and I am not a girl who cries. I am a girl who loves football. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to express my love of the Dawgfather and the things that he stood for. I feel so blessed to have met this great man and I feel so blessed to be a Husky.
Thank you, Coach James. You will live in our hearts forever.
The player: ‘opportunity to experience his leadership’
By David Matthews
David Matthews grew up in Seattle and was a non-scholarship player for Don James’ Huskies. He lives in Phoenix, where he works in the banking industry, and returned Sunday to attend the public memorial for James at Alaska Airlines Arena.
Like many Husky fans, I have lived and died with the team since I can remember.
I really wanted to play football for the Huskies, even though I never played in high school because of my involvement with the Roosevelt High School jazz program. So I turned out for spring football in 1980.
The next fall, I was on the scout team and was preparing for John Elway and Stanford. One day at practice, I ran a deep corner route, jumped to grab a pass and got hammered by starting safety Kenny Gardner. We came down in a crumpled heap, but I caught the ball. The scout team went nuts. Gardner patted me and said nice catch. I couldn’t help but look up to the tower where coach Don James was. He said nothing and scribbled a few notes. Yet I’m sure he saw my catch. He never missed anything.
On Oct. 17, 1981, we were beating Oregon State 56-17. Coach Al Roberts told me to go in after coach Gary Pinkel, up in the booth, asked to have me play. I’m sure Don James approved it or it would never have happened. They were routine running plays, yet every hit, every wind sprint, every weight-room session, every sore muscle and every rainy practice was well worth it.
In September 2010, I got a chance to play golf with Coach James in a golf tournament. He was as gracious and engaging and humble. I was coaching my younger boys team at the time and asked him a couple of strategy questions. He was very eager to answer and to help. We joked about his greatest game, and I suggested it was the Oregon State game in 1981. He laughed after I told him that was the game I got to play in.
Later, he stopped me in my tracks with something he told me: “I had no idea you were such a good golfer.”
Are you kidding? A Hall of Fame coach telling a too-slow walk-on receiver he was a good golfer. Really?
As we played our last couple of holes, I told him not a day went by when I didn’t think about my experience in the program in some way. I obviously didn’t have the physical ability to compete at a top level, I said, but the opportunity to experience his leadership, organizational skills, discipline and attention to detail, were life lessons.
He treated everyone, from the stars to the lowliest walk-on, with dignity and respect, and I am sure he is doing the same right now in heaven.
The coach: ‘He might have been one of a kind’
By Rick Turner
Rick Turner spent 10 years in the Sonics’ front office before becoming a college and professional basketball coach. He chronicled his adventures in a book titled “If My Name Was Phil Jackson … Would You Read This? The Anonymous Adventures of an Anonymous Coach.”
I pulled in to the parking lot at the Mercer Island Boys and Girls Club a little early on a Sunday afternoon, parked and opened up my Twitter feed. The first tweet I saw said a legend, former University of Washington football coach Don James, had passed away that morning. Immediately, I could start to feel my eyes well up. Once the first tear broke loose from my left eye, I just let go. The tears rolled down my cheeks as I sat in my car.
My favorite thing to do is go to Husky football games. Yet I never had the great fortune to play for Coach James, though somehow I feel like I did. Even though I had only briefly met him a few times when I worked at KJR radio, I felt like I had known him forever. And, in some ways, I did.
Coach James took the job as head coach of the Huskies when I was 8 years old and kept it until I was 26. That is a room-service fastball right down the middle of the formative years, which are the DNA of any kid’s sports fandom. The Huskies were always going to be MY team.
The players’ names changed year to year, but one name remained constant. That was Don James.
When I left the comfort of the Sonics and leaped out at 30,000 feet in search of a coaching career, hoping and praying to ultimately land softly, there were many basketball coaches whom I admired and tried to steal from. But the man who I tried to emulate more than anyone wasn’t a basketball coach. It was the man who coached football at the University of Washington for 18 years.
He had character, integrity, organization, discipline, intensity and success. I wanted to run my programs like his. I tried to hire the best assistant coaches, just like DJ did. I wanted to maintain an even keel on the outside, just like Coach James. I had a quiet, burning intensity within to be the best no matter where we were. I wanted to win and win and win some more, but do so with integrity.
I don’t know if I ever came close on any of those fronts, but Coach James gave me an incredible target for which to aim.
Even though we like to think we are a big-time town, Seattle is still pretty provincial. We love it when our own do well, we harbor an inferiority complex from being tucked away in the Pacific Northwest and we put a high value on loyalty.
There was never a question where Don James’ loyalty was. We never had to worry that Coach James would sneak away to interview with the 49ers. We never had to endure Coach James throwing his players under the bus after a loss. And if he was ever asked if he was interested in the job at USC, he would actually answer the question. He wasn’t looking for the next best opportunity. He knew he already had it.
I didn’t play for Coach James. I didn’t really know Coach James. I never spent a lot of time with Coach James. But he was still my coach. He was our coach, and I’m afraid that he might have been one of kind.
Some guys you wish could coach forever. Others you wish could live forever. Long live the Dawgfather.
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