When former UW coach Don James passed away on October 20th, Husky Nation mourned. For wife Carol and immediate family, the loss cut deeper of course. It gives one pause to realize that this Christmas season marks the first Carol will spend in over 60 years without The Dawgfather.
For the wives of winning college football coaches, the holiday season also means bowl games and trips. This past weekend, Carol was asked to recall a couple of her favorite holiday memories as well as reflecting on her late husband.
Her first story came from her and Don's third season in Seattle in 1977. It was late November, and Washington's regular season was already over. The Huskies had a 6-1 record in the Pac-8 Conference, and their future hinged on the results of the USC-UCLA game. A Bruins victory would send UCLA to the Rose Bowl and keep Washington at home. Don and Carol planned to watch the game from the living room of their Bellevue home.
"It was really special, with us being from Big 10 territory -- the Rose Bowl was the ultimate," Carol said. "And so for us to have a chance to go to it was beyond any wild dreams we ever had. That night, we had planned on just having Mike and Rena (Lude), and (daughter) Jill and her husband over.
"All of a sudden, it became such a big deal, all of the press wanted to come," she said. "With (Sports Information Director) Mike Wilson's help, we made it happen. It was an exciting night of having the house full of people and watching that game."
Down in Los Angeles, USC trailed 27-26 and were driving into UCLA territory with just a few seconds left. The Trojans lined up and kicked the game-winning field goal, sending the Bruins down to defeat-- and Washington to Pasadena.
"Of course, with that field goal, the whole house went crazy," Carol said. "And within 10 minutes of that game being over, we had people in our house that we had no idea who they were. Part of the Husky Marching Band came over and was playing outside. Fans came over and lined our driveway. It was an exciting night, knowing we were going to the Rose Bowl!"
As is now the stuff of legend, Washington went on to stun heavily-favored Michigan 27-20 in the Rose Bowl and changed the fortunes of Husky Football for the next two decades. Carol was asked what struck her most about that bowl trip.
"The enormity of what was going on," she said. "And that we were there after starting that season 1-3. They had been getting ready to buy out Don's contract, which wasn't very big, so it would have been an easy job to do. So just to be going there to the Rose Bowl was a dream come true."
In 1981, Washington returned to the Rose Bowl for the 3rd time in 5 years, to face the favored Iowa Hawkeyes. The Huskies won 28-0 and tailback Jacque Robinson became the first freshman in history to be named Rose Bowl MVP. But off the field, another dramatic story took place.
"We were down for the 1982 Rose Bowl, Jared was just a little tike," Carol said. "We were in the hotel room after our team dinner and just enjoying the family and laughing. And suddenly the phone rang. I went and answered it. It was this man, I'm not going to tell you his name because I still remember it. He said `You know what? I just walked past your room and it was so nice to hear a family having fun laughing together. I just checked into the room down the hall from you. It was a wonderful thing to hear because I checked into this hotel to commit suicide.'
"I said WHAT?
"He said `Yes, my family is in disarray. My wife has left me and my children won't talk to me. Life is not worth living.'
"Of course, while I'm on the phone my family is still laughing and having fun. And I'm frantically waving my arms and trying to tell them to shut up.
"I said to the man, `I'm thinking you don't want to do this.' I started talking to him and he started telling me his life story.
"I said `Would you do something for me? Before you do commit suicide-- I'm with the football team and we have a wonderful chaplain here. Would you at least talk to him before you end your life?'"
The man replied that if the chaplain could be there in a few minutes, he would wait. "He'll be there!" Carol exclaimed. Carol and her daughter Jill rushed out the door to locate chaplain Chuck Snyder, then brought him up to the man's room.
"Jill and I were waiting outside the room," Carol said. "He ended going to church that night with Chuck and the team. And Chuck let us know what was going on.
"And the next morning I grabbed a bunch of our shirts and stuff that we were going to give to the kids. We went down the hall to his room and when we knocked he didn't answer the door. I thought `Oh my gosh!' I was sure he had committed suicide.
"So I ran down to the front desk in the lobby and they said `Oh no! He checked out this morning. He was going to go down to see his family and try to reconnect with his wife in Mexico.'
"So that was a great Christmas story for us," Carol said.
These days, the current Washington Huskies are preparing for their matchup with BYU in this Saturday's Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Carol said that extended family members will be getting together this Christmas and for that she's grateful. In reflecting on Don James, she was asked what she appreciated most about him in their 60+ years of marriage.
"Oh boy, there's too many," she said. "Oh gosh... He read the Bible every day for 40 years. He lived it pretty much, you know? His concern with the players. He would be many times late for dinner or something because a player needed to talk to him. He would always take the time to do that. I appreciated his devotion not only to his family but also to his extended family, which was the team.
"We were just so fortunate through the years to have so many wonderful things happen," she said. "We were so supportive of the family. If you've got your family's support, you've got it all, you know? And the fans were basically really good. We have no regrets. We were happy we were Huskies. We're happy for the support we had. And the love they're still showing us is unbelievable."