Don James won at life. He picked a career at age 24; he rose to the top of his profession. He got his dream job at age 41; he held onto it until he retired. He married his sweetheart after high school; they stayed together for more than 60 years. Death did them part last Sunday.
James, the best University of Washington football coach of the past 11 decades, was 100 percent substance and 0 percent style. Even among the no-nonsense coaches of his generation, James’ lack of pretense stood out. Unlike Joe Paterno, he advanced no grand mission. Unlike John Wooden, he proposed no path to success. Unlike Bear Bryant, he donned no signature hat. Don James just went about the business of winning football games—153 of them from 1975 to 1992 as the Huskies’ head coach.
It’s taken 20 years to get a coach around these parts as good as James was, and Pete Carroll couldn’t be less like him. Carroll starts with philosophy, and translates it to action. James couldn’t have told you what his philosophy was because he didn’t have one. He just did stuff. So it falls to those who followed his career to try to sum up what he believed. Here goes:
1) Just Do Your Damn Job James surveyed Husky practices from a tower, letting his position coaches do the job of . . . coaching positions. He rarely interacted with players, who had their own jobs to do. James’ job was to lead.
2) Manage Your Passions James made decisions like whether to go for it on 4th down before the game. He prepared a chart ahead of time so that his decisions wouldn’t be clouded by in-game adrenaline.
3) Adapt James was one of the first coaches to see that speed, rather than size, would be the key to college football success in the ’90s and ’00s. He retooled his recruiting and his schemes. Three Rose Bowls and the 1991 National Championship followed.
4) Make Every Moment CountJames’ practice schedules were detailed down to the minute; he was obsessive about punctuality.
5) Don’t Cheat Former Post-Intelligencer reporter Steve Rudman recently relayed an incredible story at SportspressNW. Rudman had seen something at an opposing team’s practice that could’ve helped UW win the one game that cost it the 1984 National Championship. Husky assistants wanted to hear what it was, but James ordered them to leave Rudman alone. “If we’re going to win, we’ll do it fairly,” James said.