Don James Reflects on the Huskies

At a recent book signing at the Downtown Bellevue Barnes and Noble, former All-American linebacker Dave Hoffmann and I discussed our new book, The Husky Hitman. As we sat before the crowd, I pitched Dave questions and he described what it was like playing in three Rose Bowls, winning the National Championship and playing for a coach like Don James.

At one point, I turned toward Dave and said: "Oregon coach Chip Kelly runs the hurry-up offense in the same manner that you guys ran your high-octane practices. Your defense never got a chance to rest. Man, wouldn't that have been an intriguing matchup? The ferocious Husky defense of 1991 vs. the explosive, innovative Oregon offense of 2012."

Hoffmann shot me a look of irritation. He then told the crowd that given the way the Husky defense prepared for and attacked opponents, the Dawgs would have dictated the game's tempo and outcome, not Oregon. The Huskies, said Hoffmann, would've conquered the Ducks every time in that particular matchup.

Yesterday, I spoke with former Husky coach Don James. When I told him of that exchange with Hoffmann, the man known as The Dawgfather said, "Dave has always been confident."

So I posed the same question to Coach James. Between the '91 Husky Defense vs. the '12 Oregon offense, who wins?

"Every year we've seen rules changes and adjustments," he said, referring to the evolution of football during his long coaching career. "In fact I sat on the rules committee for six years. And you adjust. It used to be the Tight T, and then the Wing T, then power sweeps, then with Gilby and Dennis Erickson along with the Washington Redskins, who got involved with the one-back and the ability to run the ball and be a running threat from the one-back.

"We did a lot of one backs (at Washington). That was why I hired Keith Gilbertson (in 1989), just so we could get a little better running attack out of the one back. People knew what we were going to do when I got into it. We were going to run the draw or throw the ball. So we adjusted.

"(Against the 2012 Ducks) we would have adjusted," he said. "You can't ever compare teams. But I know that our secondary guys were big and physical and I know that you need to teach your defensive ends to stay home. We made that mistake on the goal line against Oregon (in 1987), and I never will forget it. Our backside defensive end or linebacker just closed way down and they ran a little reverse for a touchdown (that gave the Ducks a 17-14 win). There are some plays you can't stop that are going away from you, especially against modern offenses, so you better learn to stay home until you absolutely know where the ball is going. That's the one thing.

"Gap integrity is also a key part," James said. "But you get caught up in the speed going away and you think you need to get over there and help out. However, a number of times during the game, the play is going to come back toward your side. And if you're not there and you're responsible for containment on that side, then the play is going to go for big gains. So that would be one of the things that you try to contain against Oregon, and that would be the big plays. And Stanford was able to do it (when they won at Autzen Stadium this year)."

James went on to cite another pitfall to avoid.

"The other thing that teams do, and like we did this year, was to help Oregon so much in the first quarter," he said. "Make dumb mistakes, and fumble, and throw interceptions. And a team like the Ducks will put points on the board in a hurry and then you're never going to catch up. You can't make mistakes against a high-powered offense. I don't know what the key is. (My UW teams) were not flawless. We turned the ball over some."

In the years since his retirement from football in 1993, Don James and his wife Carol have continued to follow the Huskies closely. He looked on this year as Washington skittered through a bi-polar regular season,  recording a 7-5 record. Big victories against Oregon State and Stanford pumped excitement and optimism into the program. But difficult defeats to LSU, Oregon, Arizona and Washington State quashed some of that confidence.  

When asked his general assessment of Washington's season, James referred to coach Steve Sarkisian's handling of quarterback Keith Price. "The dilemma that Sark had was that he had a great returning quarterback who had bad knees," James said. "So now the decision is do I beat him up and make him practice like everybody else and get his knees hurt? Or do I try to protect him? And there was no question that  Price was like another guy this year. He was not as good. He scrambled a lot, primarily to his right. He is a good runner. What he could do a year ago is that he could find receivers when he was running and get the ball to them. He even did that better than Jake Locker did. But this year was totally different. I think if you treat a player with kid gloves all spring and early fall, then you don't get him ready to play like the year before."

As for positives this season, James expressed appreciation for running back Bishop Sankey, and thought the defense played better in the secondary. But he feels that for the Washington Huskies to progress to the next level, one deficiency looms large.

"I don't have numbers in front of me, but they had a lot of dumb penalties," James said. "Just critical penalties. One after another. I think the whole team has to play a little smarter."

A look at the numbers shows that Washington committed 106 penalties during the year, which came to an average of almost 9 per game -- 2nd worst in the conference.

Washington, of course, finishes up their 2012 season this Saturday against the Boise State Broncos in the Las Vegas Bowl. Moving forward, great anticipation exists for the newly remodeled Husky Stadium to publicly debut next August. It'll be there that the Huskies square off once again against Boise State.

"I was on the (Stadium) Committee," James said. "It took a long time. Nothing against the track program, but I felt from a pure football standpoint, our fans were a long way from the game. If you sat in the west end zone and the ball was on the other side of the field, I don't know how you could see what was going on. So we're moving our fans closer. And nothing against our students, but we had to be one of the few stadiums in the country that had the students on the fifty yard line. So it's better for football now. I don't know if it's better for anybody else."