Sports

Former University of Washington football coach, Seattle icon Don James dies

University of Washington coaching legend Don James died Sunday from pancreatic cancer. James led the Huskies to the 1991 national championship and six Rose Bowls.  - Courtesy University of Washington
University of Washington coaching legend Don James died Sunday from pancreatic cancer. James led the Huskies to the 1991 national championship and six Rose Bowls.
— image credit: Courtesy University of Washington

Seattle lost a legitimate sports icon Sunday when Don James died at his home in Kirkland. The former University of Washington football coach was 80 years old and had pancreatic cancer.

"The Dawgfather," as James was known, was the top dog in Seattle sports during his 18-year career at the helm of the Husky program.

During his tenure from 1975 through 1992, James established Washington as not only the class of the Pac-10, but also a national power.

The Huskies won 10 bowl games and had a 153-58-2 record during James' 18 years. At the time, only Bear Bryant, Joe Paterno and Bobby Bowden had won more. James is currently seventh on the all-time Division-I coaching victory list.

James' teams won four Rose Bowl titles (1978, 1982, 1991 and 1992), six conference championships and finished in the top 20 in the national rankings 11 times. He had 109 players who were selected in the NFL Draft, including 10 in the first round.

But the highlight of James' coaching career came during the 1991 season when a loaded Washington team finished unbeaten and shared the National Championship with Miami. James won various coach-of-the-year honors, the first in 1977 and the last in 1991.

“I don’t know if there’s a more iconic figure in Seattle,” current UW head coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday.

James started his coaching career at Kent State, where he coached future Pittsburgh Steelers Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Lambert. He also coached Nick Saban, now head coach at defending national champion Alabama, plus Gary Pinkel, currently the coach at fifth-ranked Missouri.

"He was a special man and meant the world to me," Saban told the Associated Press on Sunday. “There aren’t enough words to describe not only the great coach he was, but how much he cared for people and the positive impact he made in the lives of everyone he came in contact with. Coach James was my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession.”

Sunday night, Pinkel posted a statement on his website that said, "It’s hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James. He was my coach, my mentor…”

James is survived by his wife of 61 years, Carol, their children Jeff, Jill and Jeni, and 10 grandchildren.

The Huskies announced Monday that James' family members will serve as the honorary captains Saturday night for the coin toss just before Washington hosts California at Husky Stadium.

During halftime, the Husky Marching Band will perform "A Tribute to The Dawgfather," including a memorial video and former UW football players. A public memorial service for James will take place at 3 p.m. inside the Alaska Airlines Arena at Hec Edmundson Pavilion on Sunday.

Huskies players will wear helmet decals for the remainder of the 2013 season remembering Coach James, while UW coaches and other sideline staff will wear a similar patch.

After resigning before the 1993 season, James remained connected to the Huskies' program. He was a regular visitor at practices and served on the committee that helped redesign Husky Stadium. James gave his annual preseason speech to the current Washington squad in August, and attended the first game at the renovated stadium on Aug. 31 against Boise State. It was shortly after that his health took a significant turn.

He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997, and the UW Hall of Fame in 1993.

Locally, Federal Way Deputy Mayor Jim Ferrell walked-on to the Husky football team, playing four seasons under Coach James in the mid-1980s. Ferrell suffered a devastating knee injury at the end of his second year.

"My fondest and most precious memory of him was his visit to me in my hospital room after my knee surgery in 1986," Ferrell posted on his Facebook page. "I was a walk-on linebacker, destined never to be a starter. But he sat in that room with my mother and I and brought cookies that (his wife) Carol had made. He was a great man that truly cared. I will never forget his lessons on perseverance and determination. I was truly fortunate to have him as a mentor and a friend."

 

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