When it comes to Husky Football, my timeline basically dovetails with the late Don James. My dad started taking me to Husky games in 1976, when I was five years old. James was in his second year. I remember my first game, when the Huskies beat Virginia 38-17, and my fascination with the media guide which caused my dad to warn me several times that I was going to miss a big play.
Quickly though, I became addicted to Husky Football and college football in general. A year later, dad and I were going crazy at Husky Stadium as quarterback Warren Moon led Washington to a win over USC and ultimately to a Rose Bowl championship over Michigan.
In a book I would write years later, called Husky Football in the Don James Era, I illustrated what Don James meant to my dad.
"... precious memories from my childhood, such as Dad and I tailgating in Husky Stadium's north parking lot, eating turkey sandwiches and potato chips, sipping hot chocolate from plastic cups, and listening to Larry Nelson's old Tailgate Show on KOMO radio, often while rain pattered upon the windshield. Dad always refused to leave the car until Don James' pre-game interview was finished."
When dad and I got to the stadium, there was no better place to be on earth. I'm 43 years old, and I feel bad for people under 30 who have no idea what the game day experience used to be like. We had seats up in the south side upper deck, right near the drip line from the overhanging roof. I'd look across the field and see the highly charged student section screaming and gyrating while the mischievous Husky Marching Band played hits like "Angel in a Centerfold" and "Fat Bottomed Girls".
The mischief also extended to the PA announcer Wendell Broyles, who often teased the crowd. He'd read off a license plate number and car model, and announce to the crowd, "Would the owner of the blue Impala please return to your car... Your engine is running." Other times, when he knew that Husky fans wanted USC to lose, he would announce: "Final score from the Los Angeles Coliseum... USC 28....................(long pause) ...... Notre Dame 35...."
As for the product on the field, it was all about special teams and defense with Don James. There was a bloodthirsty feeling pulsating through Husky Stadium when the enemy had the ball on third and long. Cheering and stomping of feet came from all over, and the roar would reach crescendo as the opposing quarterback dropped back under heavy pressure before being engulfed by the avalanche of the Husky pass rush.
Husky fans under 30 really have no idea what they missed.
Dad and I saw epic games, like the win over USC in 1981 when Freddie Small recovered the kickoff in the end zone for the game's only touchdown. Or the epic 25-24 win over Michigan, when quarterback Steve Pelluer completed 15 passes in a row in the fourth quarter for the huge comeback win. Or the famous "All I saw was Purple" game, when the Huskies crushed USC 31-0. It was the only time in my life that the fans, while exiting the stadium via the spiral ramps, burst into spontaneous eruptions of cheering and whooping.
And when the Don James Era came to a painful close, as the result of the University of Washington upper campus and Pac-10 stabbing Don James and Husky Football in the back, the trauma was intense. James resigned in protest, and sanctions subsequently crippled the program. As I got to know coach James years later, I asked him a couple times about the pain of wondering how many more Rose Bowls Washington could have won. He'd never dwell on that. "Well Derek, what's done is done," he said. "I'm at peace with it."
Three years ago, we were beginning a conversation, when he asked me about a book I had just written called Bow Down to Willingham: How White Guilt Enabled a Secretly Malicious Coach to Destroy the Once-Mighty Washington Huskies. "I really enjoyed it," he said. "I learned several things I didn't know. How has the reception to it been?"
I told coach James how my former colleagues at Dawgman.com had gone on KJR and called it a "money grab". I told him how Dawgman.com had reached out to members of the Seattle media to emphasize that they were distancing themselves from me. I told him how Bob Condotta from the Seattle Times (whom I respect) told me he wanted nothing to do with that book and would not acknowledge it publicly. I told coach James how the Seattle Times would only advertise the book if the words "White Guilt" were removed from the ad.
I also told coach James how some people were strangely calling me racist in emails and on message boards, with much vitriol.
Replied coach James: "How can you be racist if you're defending dozens of black players?"
Others may have run away from me and into the hills, but not coach James. Soon after that conversation, he provided me with an authorized quote to use for promoting the book.
Another interesting Don James story came from a few years back. A close friend of mine is deeply involved with Oregon football. He alerted me several times that a blowhard Oregon booster in his private email group was always bragging about being good friends with Don James. Occasionally he forwarded to me big time name dropping stories.
But one day came a real whopper. My Oregon friend emailed me the blowhard's most recent post. The guy was saying he had spoken to coach James and that coach James totally ripped on a certain Pac-10 coach. They were such nasty comments that I knew there was no way James would ever say those things, especially so if there was any risk of it going public.
I alerted coach James, quoting him what the Oregon blowhard said.
"I've never even heard of the guy," James said. "Can you get me his phone number?"
I tracked down the number and passed it along to coach James. A day later, I emailed to find out what happened. Carol James emailed me back, saying coach James had called the guy and told him that the rumor mongering needed to stop. It turns out they had met once at a country club. But that phone call reportedly stomped out the grandiose yarns.
I saw the first true signs of old age upon coach James a couple years ago. The Dawg Den had contacted me, asking if coach James and I would like to come out on a Saturday morning and sign books and posters. I emailed coach and asked him, and he responded that that would be fine. But he wanted me to call him to discuss some further details.
As we talked, he told me that he had been experiencing tremors in his hands, which made signing difficult. I said, "No problem coach. If you prefer, I can call a former player and go that route. That's totally okay."
He responded that would be a better solution, and I did the signing with some of his former players.
The last time I spoke to coach James was last month. I said hello and asked how he was doing. "Oh, I'm still alive, still above ground," he said. He never talked like that normally. I knew he was sick, but I asked if he was doing okay overall. "Oh, I'm fine," he said. And then we talked football for 20 minutes and you would have never known he was ill from that conversation.
A month later, on Sunday morning October 20th, Don James passed away at the age of 80, from cancer.
He was always really gracious with me and I will always appreciate and love both him and his wife Carol.