September 13, 1975. A future College Football Hall of Fame coach who had found unprecedented success at the second-tier Kent State University lost his debut coaching the Huskies to Arizona State, 12-35. Within three years however, Don James had won a Rose Bowl and set the Huskies on the path to many more Rose Bowls culminating with the 1991 national championship.
August 22, 1993. Don James resigns in response to a jealous President William Gerberding and an incompetent Athletic Director Barbara Hedges scuttling the program, eventually sinking our proud program to the depths of 0-12 under Tyrone Willingham. The Huskies rebounded from rock bottom under a supremely mediocre coach in Steve Sarkisian but at least he was able to leverage the history and resources of Washington into several quality recruiting classes that, despite a number of holes at key positions, stocked the Huskies with Pac-12 caliber talent.
December 2, 2013. Steve Sarkisian accepts the position as head coach of at the University of Southern California. Lured by former Rhodes Scholar and USC quarterback Pat Haden, an idiot who hates USC football, Steve Sarkisian left the Huskies to win seven* games per year in the sunny confines of Memorial Stadium.
December 6, 2013. A future College Football Hall of Fame coach who had found unprecedented success at the second-tier Boise State University is announced as the next head coach at the University of Washington. Husky fans rejoice.
It doesn't matter if Chris Petersen loses his first (real) game when the season starts against Stanford on September 27 because one game does not make a career. What matters is long term success, continual improvement, and winning NOW!!! If we channel our inner Denny Green and Chris Petersen is who we think he is, then he is the next Don James and he is someone who can take a good program and make it elite. Inheriting a team with the existing talent, playing a schedule with such patsies as Eastern Washington and Georgia State, and facing opponents Stanford, UCLA, and ASU at home, there is no reason Chris Petersen shouldn't win 10+ games this year. Don James would. Sure, it took Don James three years to win a Rose Bowl but the quality of team he took over was lower than the current team and the difficulty of schedule he faced was much more difficult (Navy, #8 Texas, and #7 Alabama out of conference). Fortunately for us I think Chris Petersen is the next Don James. He will build a strong program over time but have success immediately due to the tremendous resources he has today. The earlier comparison of James and Petersen with superficial analogies of setting records at their previous schools (Don James took Kent State to a bowl game when that actually meant something and Chris Petersen obviously exceeded the success of his predecessors with multiple BCS bowl victories at Boise State) is not truly meaningful. What is meaningful, why we can extrapolate beyond Petersen's success and compare him to the all-time great Don James, is the extreme similarities in how they operate as head coaches.
The only tangible thing that Petersen has done so far is recruit, and obviously it will be years before we can really evaluate the success of this first recruiting class. On paper though it is exactly what Don James would have done. Budda Baker and Kaleb McGary (and others) are exactly the players Don James would have recruited.
"So effective recruiting was a No. 1 priority when we first arrived in Seattle. I wanted us to get the top recruits from the state of Washington and then go out from there. I felt we had to recruit instate to have a chance. If you can't recruit instate, you can't recruit any state."
-James The Pac-10 and Washington's Winningest by Don James and Virgil Parker
"When it came to recruiting, James told his newly-assembled staff of assistant coaches that they needed to "Build a fence around the state of Washington"."
-Husky Football in the Don James Era by Derek Johnson
"The plan was this: James and his assistants would work hard at recruiting the best players in the Pacific Northwest and then try to supplement their squads with the best players they could lure out of California."
-100 Years of Husky Football by Peggy Kearney
During Steve Sarkisian's tenure many notable players from the state of Washington, including legacies of all-time Husky greats, spurned UW to play college football. Thus far Chris Petersen has emulated Don James and had success with instate recruiting and while it is only one data point it is our ONLY data point. The 2014 Washington blue chip recruits stayed at home. By contrast Steve Sarkisian's first recruiting class was thrown together at the last second after waiting to coach USC in the Rose Bowl and the effort put forth was manifest in the results. The focus on recruiting local players I think is important because it is a testament to prioritization and pragmatism. The philosophy shows a coach understands efficiency.
A second recruiting tenet of Don James was
“James insisted his incoming recruits possess five key components: (1) They must give 100%; (2) Have courage on and off the field; (3) Have the ability to master their position, and not hurt the team with mistakes; (4) Care about their teammates; and (5) Have great loyalty, which is invariably tested with adversity.”
-Husky Football in the Don James Era by Derek Johnson.
Now tell me if I am crazy, but that sounds just like the OKG (our kinda guy) philosophy espoused by Chris Petersen… There are intangibles that are more important to building a team sometimes than just finding the biggest and fastest players. Both James and Petersen recognize that “star ratings” are not all that matter.
Another key similarity between James and Petersen is their attention to detail and their role as CEO of the program. Don James was famous for observing practice from his tower and having notes on everything that occurred below him.
"'Every single minute of every single practice was accounted for,' recalled former Assistant Coach Skip Hall years later to writer Steve Rudman. 'The one thing Don would do before each practice was listen to each assistant. He'd go right down the line and fill in a chart showing who would be doing what during each segment. Every minute was utilized to the fullest. I think Don's organizational ability was one of his real strengths.'"
-Husky Football in the Don James Era by Derek Johnson.
Don James was truly the head coach and had his assistants coach the players. His job was to coach his coaches and oversee the program from above, literally.
"Yes, Coach Pete is a perfectionist.
'More than anyone I've ever met', [UW offensive line coach Chris Strausser] said."
"Petersen isn't micromanaging the situation, or his staff. He plays the role of a CEO and lets his assistants coach players in practice, while Petersen can go for long stretches on the field without being noticed to the casual observer."
Those quotes about Coach Petersen could have just as well been ascribed to Coach James and it is a testament to their mutual determinations to get every aspect of every corner of the program just right.
In the end each game played will be much more meaningful in evaluating Chris Petersen as Husky head coach than all of his recruiting classes (past, present, and future) combined though because wins and losses is the result that matters. Recruiting, strength training and conditioning, practices, game planning and management are all just means to an end. They can be dissected to find weaknesses and room for improvement, but winning is what matters. That being said, some methods of preparation for winning games are better than others and so far Chris Petersen seems to share a lot of meaningful similarities with Don James in how he runs a program. If that style of management was a recipe for success for Don James it gives me hope that Chris Petersen can be the Dawgfather Part 2. Petersen's 92 wins and his BCS bowl victories make me think he will be.
Husky fans - it is time to get our hopes up and to actually "expect to win". The good times are gonna roll.
*Note that Sarkisian is capable of winning eight games in a season when the schedule includes Idaho State and/or a local high school squad.