Don James walked away from the University of Washington and I didn’t understand why. I was eight years old at the time, so I did what most eight-year-olds do when they don’t understand something and asked my dad. My dad had a way of whittling down the most complicated situations into an explanation that a kid could comprehend.
Take, for instance, the Rey Quinones situation. Earlier in my relatively brief existence, my dad had relayed a story to me about Quinones, a backup shortstop for the Seattle Mariners who holds the unique distinction of being the last Mariner not named Randy or Ichiro to don jersey number 51. Quinones, you see, was a crybaby. That made him unlikable. As an unlikable crybaby, Quinones’ departure from the team made a whole lot of sense. Why did Quinones get traded to Pittsburgh? Because he was an unlikable crybaby. I understood. No one likes a crybaby. Although I assumed at the time that Quinones only cried because he had either been spanked or sent to his room. I therefore made it a point to try my hardest not to cry when spanked or sent to my room from that point forward.
So I asked my dad why Don James left the University of Washington. Bad things had happened, my dad told me, and the coach needed to do what he felt was right. I tried to piece together all the bad things that could have happened. I heard about Billy Joe Hobert. I assumed he was a criminal – he took money, he had to be a criminal. Why did Billy Joe steal, I thought, and hurt his coach? Why did the coach have to leave? And what would happen to the Huskies as a result of the bad things that had been done? In some ways, my dad’s explanation made sense. In others, it just opened the door for more questions.
I wanted to understand but I couldn’t. Not at that point. Back then, Don James and the Huskies were still just a poster on my wall. The 1991 team photo overlooked my bed, tacked high upon the wall in the bedroom I shared with my little brother. I slept on the top bunk, my brother on the bottom. The picture hung behind my headrest, the last thing I saw before the lights went out and another day came to its official end. I studied the names on that photo for years. I memorized the players, I knew their jersey numbers. The faces of glowering, purple-shrouded behemoths guarded my bedroom. In the midst of all those glares was a bespectacled head coach who curiously juxtaposed the youthful menaces by whom he was surrounded. Non sequitur, he didn’t fit in with the rest of the image. And yet the eyes of any onlooker examining the poster immediately found their way to the man. He commanded one’s attention even in still form, even when each of the hundred or so faces sharing a frame with him seemed to clamor more fiercely for recognition.
James left before an entire generation was afforded the opportunity to understand him, before any of us could really appreciate his genius, pay witness to his craft, or heed the mastery he exuded upon the student-athletes who won games for him time and time again. There are those who remember Don James and those who don’t. And then there are those of us like me, twenty- and thirty-somethings, who saw him the way one sees a comet racing across the night sky, fleeting and unbelievable and memorable and awe-inspiring all at the same time.
Those of us wedged between the generations dividing two distinct eras are products of his work. We grew up Husky fans because of his football teams, because the Huskies were the thing in these parts when we were embarking on adolescence. We went to school and wore purple and it was okay because a University of Washington logo adorned the purple and the Huskies were cool. We grew up running from our classmates on the field at recess toting Nerf Screamers, pretending to be Napoleon Kaufman, Beno Bryant, Mario Bailey. We wanted to go to Washington because Washington was our school. Washington was the logical extension of our childhood. From elementary school, to middle school, to high school, to Washington. And then, I mean, what comes after that, anyway? It all culminated at that school, the one with Don James’ football team.
Even after he left, his legacy remained. Jim Lambright, with all due respect, was the guy who wasn’t good enough to be James’ replacement. Rick Neuheisel lacked the nobility, the righteousness of James. Keith Gilbertson was a product of the James era, but he couldn’t win with Neuheisel’s players and the foundation crumbled. Tyrone Willingham was supposed to possess James’ integrity, the same kind of integrity that molded men into champions, into heroes. But integrity or not, Willingham won even less often than his three predecessors. Now here we are, five coaches and two decades later, and Steve Sarkisian finds himself striving to achieve a level of success that seems near-unattainable since James resigned control over a championship-caliber program. Sarkisian fights a battle that no one thought would rage this long. Since James walked away, there has been no replacement, no answer, no national titles, no sustained excellence. James was the last great Washington football coach. And up until a few short days ago, he remained a living legend in our midst, a mythical figure that left behind his life’s work as a form of silent protest towards a governing body that had committed, in his mind, an injustice upon his program and his players.
Don James did all of this. He set a standard of excellence at the University of Washington that has yet to be matched. He inspired an entire generation of kids to dream of attending the University of Washington because of the pure awesomeness of his football program. He changed the way we thought about purple and gold, how we thought about the Huskies, what it meant to be a fan of that team, what it meant to be a sports fan in Seattle. His teams won, yes, but his impact extended far beyond the AstroTurf of Husky Stadium.
Twenty years after I asked my dad why the coach walked away, I sit here thinking about how my life has changed over that span. And the one thing I absolutely know for sure is that without Don James, without the appeal of the University of Washington, without my lifelong desire to graduate a Husky and my ultimate achievement in doing so, my life is certainly different than it otherwise could have been. And yours might be the same way, too. He is gone but he is certainly not forgotten. Thank you for all you did for us, Coach James.