SEATTLE — Just like the game plans that made him such a successful college football coach, Don James took the time to map out the details of his memorial service.
No one expected anything less from the former University of Washington coach who died Oct. 20 at age 80 from pancreatic cancer.
James was honored in a memorial service Sunday at Washington’s basketball arena. Former players, coaches and family remembered James as a caring family man, dear friend and successful coach who had every aspect of his life planned out.
Case in point, James knew exactly what songs he wanted performed. He asked that all speeches be kept to three minutes, even though many exceeded the requested time limit. One group that performed a song during the ceremony first had to perform for James the Wednesday prior to his death.
“We kind of had a private memorial and he was directing how it was all going to go. And that’s the truth,” close friend Sam Wick said.
Speakers included members of his family, close friends, and former players and coaches including Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who flew to Seattle after the Tigers’ loss on Saturday night to South Carolina. There was also a video tribute from Alabama coach Nick Saban, who played and worked for James at Kent State.
“I met him when I was 18 years old and his profound effect on my life,” Pinkel said. “He was a huge influence on my life professionally and personally. I wanted to coach because of Don James.”
James was 153-57-2 at Washington from 1975-92 and led the school to a six-pack of Rose Bowl appearances. His crowning moment came in 1991 when Washington had the most dominant defense in the country, and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl to finish 12-0. The Associated Press media poll gave Miami — James’ alma mater — the national championship, while the coaches’ voted in favor of Washington in their poll.
He came to Washington after getting his first chance at being a head coach at Kent State. He was hired at Kent State by Mike Lude, who later became the athletic director at Washington. Lude said he cherished a friendship that spanned more than 40 years saying he knew James better than anyone besides his wife Carol.
“Don needs no monument of stone because he lives on forever in our hearts and minds,” Jude said.
Along with Pinkel, other coaches in attendance included former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora, former Washington coaches Keith Gilbertson and Jim Lambright and former UTEP coach Bob Stull. Former players Mike Rohrbach, Michael Jackson and Chuck Nelson spoke. Nelson and Jackson mixed funny stories about their quirky coach with emotional moments where they fought tears remembering James.
“He taught us not only to be great athletes, but to be champions,” Jackson said. “Those of us who remember Don James, those of us who played for him, those of you who know him know that he stood up on a pedestal at practice. Well I’m here to tell you that pedestal just got a little bit taller and he’s still watching over you guys so be careful what you do.”
James is survived by his wife of 61 years, Carol, their three children and 10 grandchildren, all of whom were in attendance on Sunday.
“My dad worked incredibly long hours, but when he did have time off he came home and spent it with us,” daughter Jill Woodruff said. “We never doubted where we stood on the priority list of his life.”