When Don James became the head football coach at Kent State in 1971, he enjoyed a homecoming. The quarterback and defensive back at Washington High School in Massillon, his teams winning two state championships, returned and showed all that he had added to the Paul Brown pedigree during the intervening two decades. He played in college at Miami of Florida, then making stops at Kansas, Florida State, Michigan and Colorado, as an assistant coach absorbing lessons from programs reflecting the best ideas of the day, the work of Dietzel, Gillman, Bryant, Blaik and Wilkinson.

James felt ready to lead his own team. As many around these parts know well, he was right. In 1972, Kent won its only outright Mid-American Conference football title. James died last week at age 80, and what he brought to Kent State for four seasons turned into a much longer 18-year run at the University of Washington in Seattle, where I grew up and began a long relationship with the Huskies.

When I got here I couldn’t help but notice the echo, the shared assessment about all that James had meant to his coaches and players. What endures is the rare quality of his leadership, tough-minded and demanding, humble and steady.

His organizational skills are legendary, practices, weeks, seasons charted to the minute, all of it designed to make the most of the time, for attention to detail and exhaustive preparation. One place kicker kids that today in his office, he jumps from his chair at exactly 5 p.m. to attempt 25 field goals from one hash mark and 25 more from the other.

Players still recall the Thursday afternoon speeches James delivered to the team. As he told the Seattle Times, he learned along the way that pregame and halftime talks mean little. For the mental preparation to take, the message requires 48 hours to percolate.

All of that order and discipline had a larger purpose: It liberated the mind, opening the way for creativity. James wasn’t just an organization man. He had a gift for strategy, finding that weak point, arriving at the unexpected, all calculated precisely.

Washington fans have been weighing his top victories. The 1991 comeback at Nebraska, scoring 27 points in the final 20 minutes? Taking down Oklahoma in the 1985 Orange Bowl? Crushing USC 31-0 in 1990? I go back to the first Rose Bowl win in January 1978, a daring triumph over Michigan 27-20.

A James game plan, led by Warren Moon at quarterback, knocked the heavily favored Bo Schembechler and his Wolverines off balance. There were bold, deep passes, stretching things for timely runs. A fake punt even surfaced. It proved just enough, mighty Michigan rallying from a 24-0 deficit. The foundation was set upon which James would build. He would adjust to changes in the game and grasp more firmly the value of listening, his name added to the list of those others seek to emulate.


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