Catching up with the Dawgfather

By Derek Belt
UW Daily
Nov. 22, 2002

SEATTLE — Retirement means different things to different people.

It’s been 10 years since legendary football coach Don James left the UW, and the Dawgfather has been sure to enjoy a little bit of everything. The 69-year-old lives in Kirkland with his wife, Carol, and splits his time between his family and traveling around the world, all the while keeping a close eye on Husky football.

“We’ve had a great time the past 10 years,” James said. “We’ve done a lot of cruises, and I’ve spent more time with my grandkids than I did with my own kids.”

The couple, which celebrated its 50th wedding anniversary last summer, has three children and nine grandchildren to deal with. James admits becoming a grandfather has been a remarkable experience—one that changed his life.

“The birth of my grandkids was very special,” he said. “I guess you could say we’re a normal family, and we’ve been blessed with many more highs than lows.”

During his 18 years at Washington, James was as unusual in his methods as anyone to coach college football. He ran disciplined practices from a tower 30 feet above ground and could tell which plays were running simply by checking his watch. He believed it was his job to coach the coaches and, in turn, let them work exclusively with the players.

Nevertheless, James compiled a 157-53-2 record at the UW and led the Huskies to 15 bowl games, including six Rose Bowls. His 1991 team finished the season a perfect 12-0 and won the program’s only national championship. He was inducted into the Husky Hall of Fame in 1993 and the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997.

James resigned in August of 1993 following a series of NCAA violations that were discovered by The Seattle Times including former quarterback Billy Joe Hobert’s acceptance of nearly $50,000 in personal loans from a family friend. After the Pac-10 slapped two years of probation and postseason ban on the UW for what was deemed a “lack of institutional control,” James stated he no longer wished “to coach in a conference that would treat its members so unfairly.”

Since then, it’s been smooth sailing for James—literally. He and his wife have traveled to Rome four times and Paris twice, as well as going on a healthy dose of cruises that have taken them to places like South America, Australia and New Zealand.

The couple also spends half of the year at its winter home in Palm Desert, Calif. It’s a great way to forget about the gloomy Seattle weather and gives James a chance to work on his golf game while other Northwesterners trade in their clubs for a pair of skis. He is a member at both Inglewood Golf Club in Kenmore and Indian Ridge Country Club in Palm Desert.

“You can’t beat day after day of sunshine and 70-degree weather,” James said. “I was an 8 handicap when I retired, but now I’m closer to a 17. As I’ve gotten older, my ball hasn’t gotten any straighter, but it’s gotten a lot shorter.”

Despite spending the winter playing golf in sun-soaked California, James has remained in the public eye back home in Seattle. Following his resignation, James had a weekly radio show on KJR-AM for four years alongside Mike Gastineau. He’s also taken part in numerous public-relations projects, including a commercial stint with Poulsbo RV.

Public appearances aside, James hasn’t forgotten about the program he single-handedly built into a national powerhouse. He’s remained involved with the University in various ways throughout the years, including contributing heavily to the Booster Club. In 1994, the UW honored James by renaming the Tyee Center after its most decorated coach. James and his wife attend each home game and watch the action from the comfort of the Don James Center.

“It’s kind of a plus way to go,” said James of watching Husky football from the Don James Center. “I always forget it’s in my name unless I look up and see my picture on the wall.”

James has been sure to keep Husky football close to his heart the past 10 years, and has followed the team through all of its ups and downs. From Jim Lambright’s decision to turn the helmets purple to the hiring of current UW coach Rick Neuheisel, James has always kept himself up to speed.

But James is content with knowing his coaching days have long since passed, and considers himself nothing more than a fan now. The Dawgfather, however, hasn’t always seen eye to eye with the UW on a few of its recent trends, especially the school’s new logo.

“You mean the Husky weasel?” James said jokingly of the logo redesigned by Nike. “They’re not just into a coach’s contract anymore; now they’re into shoes and designs and marketing and stuff like that. It’s a tradeoff, though, because you get millions of dollars for equipment.”

Neuheisel realized early on that James was a highly respected figure within the UW community and has asked him to speak to the team on more than one occasion over the past four years. Neuheisel knew it would be uplifting for his players to meet and greet the legendary James.

“You can’t be a part of Washington football and not realize the amazing contributions that [James] made to this place,” said Neuheisel. “Many of the traditions related to the UW are directly attributed to him, and it’s nice to know he still cares so much about our program. It’s always a treat for our players and our coaches to hear from one of the all-time greats in the profession.”

From the outside looking in, this season has been especially tough for James to watch, considering the UW’s high expectations to start the year. But the overall competitiveness of Pac-10 football since he left coaching is what truly mystifies James.

“I think school legislation has really leveled the playing field,” said James. “Teams with the better images are going to get the better players. What’s really surprised me, though, is the quality of quarterbacks in our league. It’s just amazing what these guys can do.”

Football has been an integral part of James’s life for more than four decades and will likely continue to play some sort of role throughout his retirement. But whenever the urge to coach seeps into his veins, James reminds himself of sticking an eight-iron six feet from the cup on a cool California evening.

“As you see undisciplined things happen (on the football field), it disturbs you,” James said. “I always look at things like that and say, ‘I hope my team didn’t look like that.’ But I coached for 38 years, and I was ready to retire.”

Ten years have passed since James left the UW, and the football program is nowhere near the level set forth by the Dawgfather. He was unique from a coaching standpoint, yet he won more games than anyone in Washington history. James was on top of the world while at the helm of Husky football, and he’s managed to keep that success going well into his retirement.