Don James, the longtime Washington football coach who led the Huskies to a share of the national championship in 1991, died Sunday. He was 80.
The university said James died at his home from the effects of pancreatic cancer. He had been receiving treatment for the disease since late September. James was 176-78-3 as a head coach at Kent State and Washington. He went 153-58-2 with the Huskies from 1975-92 and led the school to a six-pack of Rose Bowl appearances. His crowning moment came in 1991 when Washington had the most dominant defense in the country, and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish 12-0. The Associated Press poll voted Miami the national champions, while the coaches’ poll gave the nod to Washington.
James played quarterback at Miami, graduating in 1954 with a degree in education.
He was an unknown when he arrived in Seattle in 1975, taking over for Jim Owens. He came from Kent State, where he led the Golden Flashes to the Mid-American Conference title in 1972. While at Kent State, James coached future Hall of Famer Jack Lambert and two current college coaches — Alabama’s Nick Saban and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel.
Pinkel, who also coached under James for 12 years at Washington, told ESPN.com in 2012 that James had the greatest influence on his coaching career.
“The foundation of our program I took to Toledo, took that to Missouri, and it’s the Don James blueprint,” Pinkel said. “It’s his foundation. He’s had a remarkable influence on me.”
Saban credited James for starting him in coaching.
“Don James, my college coach, influenced me a lot because he really got me started in this profession,” Saban told ESPN.com. “Organizationally, and character-wise, he was first-class.”
It didn’t take long for Washington to become a contender. The Huskies went 6-5 in his first year. By 1977, led by quarterback Warren Moon, they beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. It was the first of James’ six Rose Bowl trips, topped by the 34-14 win over Michigan in 1991.
James resigned in protest just days before the start of the 1993 season after sanctions were handed down by the Pac-10 Conference against the program.
James gave his annual preseason speech to the current Washington squad in August and attending the first game at the renovated Husky Stadium on Aug. 31 against Boise State. It was shortly after that his health took a significant turn.
James had two surgical procedures in September at Virginia Mason Medical Center for what was called a gastro-intestinal issue. James’ family issued a statement after the surgeries announcing that he was resting comfortable following the hospital stay but would be beginning chemotherapy treatment for a malignant tumor on his pancreas and asked for privacy.
“Coach James set the standard for this program and for all of us. It’s the reason you all are sitting here. It’s the reason I’m here,” Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said recently. “Husky football and what it all stands for is what he created and I was so happy he was able to come to the first game against Boise and the opening of Husky Stadium because if anybody deserved to be in that building that night it was him.”