Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My tribute to the #Dawgfather

First of all, before you read on it's important for you to know a few things.  I am a Cougar through and through.  I met my wife in Pullman.  I went to WSU because they have arguably the best communications school in the west.  Some of my Cougar friends probably will have a problem with some of the things I will say here but I don't care.  A tribute is a tribute, especially when it's well deserved.


I grew up small, with red hair,  and I loved all sports.  I especially loved football, and when I was real young I was a pretty decent player, but I was a lot smaller than the rest of the guys.   I always wanted to be a Husky, but knew deep down it would never happen.   I used to sit and wait for the paper to come so I could read about the Huskies and their next opponent.   Growing up east of Lake Washington the Huskies were the biggest show in town, and I knew all the stats, all the players numbers, and where they were from.  This was long before the Seahawks and Mariners, and of the course we already had the Sonics, who I miss dearly.  I was lucky enough to go to all the Husky games by boat from Meydenbauer Bay in Bellevue.  When the boat arrived at Husky Stadium we walked across the hundreds of boats tied together pre-functioning before the game, we listened to the alumni band, and we watched the crew raise money for the storied program by hauling some people to land on a zodiac.  We sat in the horseshoe end of the stadium.  It wasn't uncommon to sit through the entire game in the rain.  It also wasn't uncommon for the Huskies to lose too, frequently.

Until Don James arrived at Montlake.

Don who?  That was a lot of people's responses when he was hired out of Kent State to become the Huskies' coach on December 23, 1974.  I remember vividly because it was my Mom's birthday.   This kid was lucky enough to go to all the games with my Dad and Grandparents from 1968-1981. I didn't miss a home game. I saw it all, and I saw them all, many already inducted into the Hall of Fame;   OJ Simpson, Anthony Davis, Billy Joe Dupree, Otis Armstrong, James Loften (the best receiver I ever saw by the way), Lynn Swann, Jim Plunket, Randy Vataha, Tony Dungy,  Dan Marino, and a little guy named Sonny Sixkiller, to name a few.  I even knew the 'Ballad of Sonny Sixkiller' and I still do.   "Three yards and a cloud of dust" was the slogan during the Jim Owens' era.   The season ticket holders behind us were awful.   There wasn't one positive thing that came out of their mouths, ever.  They hated Jim Owens.

Their dream came true when Don James showed up on the shores of Lake Washington.  So did Rob Weller and the "wave".

The Huskies went 6-5 his first year.  More fans were showing up.  They booed Harold Warren Moon when he played quarterback but for some reason Don James stuck with him.  A former quarterback himself, I guess he knew something.

He certainly did.

When players walked into a team meeting with Coach James you could hear a pin drop.  I know that because many of my friends played for him.  He had an open door policy but very seldom did anyone go in to his office because they were so intimidated by him.  He was the Dawgfather.

When the Huskies were behind you just knew they would come back and win, somehow, some way.  Only able to muster up 3 first downs against Oregon in 1979, they came back and won on a Mark Lee punt return with 2 minutes left in the game.

It was a typical Don James win.  Ball control, defense, and the kicking game coming up with a big play at the end of the game. Oh, the James Gang kicking game was second to none.

In 1981 I went back to school at Washington State University to pursue my dream of being a sportscaster and I became a big time Coug fan.  I remember vividly an Apple Cup game in Martin Stadium while I was there. It was 1982 I believe.   Don James always walked the entire field before games, sideline to sideline.  His attention to detail was amazing.  Some stupid student threw an apple at him.  He reached down, picked it up and took a bite out of it.  That's what rivalries are all about.  Coach James was sending a message to that student, and his friends if he had any.  I remember James saying he was a 200 point underdog to his good friend Jim Walden.  His sense of humor was priceless.  He once said every Cougar he ever met had a lot of character, "because they learned not to expect much".

We really don't.


Early in my professional career as Sports Director at KNDU TV I covered the 1988 Apple Cup game in Pullman.  Typical of small market television, my good friend Dave Meany and myself were fighting battery problems the entire game and stressing that we wouldn't have enough life for the post game interview that both of us were so excited for.  We were complete wrecks, welcome to broadcasting.   It was our chance to interview the legend.  The Cougs won 32-31 under the gutty leadership of WSU Quarterback Timm Rosenbach.   We were in a hallway waiting for James to come in for post game interviews.  Legendary broadcaster Bruce King of KOMO TV was there and it was a given that he would get the first question.  When the door opened and James entered the hallway there was dead silence in the room.  You could see the devastation on his face, he was drained as well.  You knew how important it was for him to win that game.   I finally got my chance and I asked him about the play of Rosenbach, who was obviously banged up pretty good during the game but was able to finish.  "Coach James, I'm curious on your thoughts of the play of Timm Rosenbach who was obviously hurt during the game, that was a pretty gutty performance, don't you think?"  I knew I wouldn't have many chances with this guy so I wasn't going to hold back.

 "Maybe you should ask him", James replied.

Maybe I shouldn't have worn the Cougar hat.  End of interview.  This was the guy I looked up to for so many years.  I walked away humbled but realized, what a stupid question.

I interviewed him many times, most of them during my tenure at Northwest Public Radio, and KNDU TV.  He was always so cordial, and always picked up his phone when I called him.  He never once denied an interview.  He was only interested in the details of college football, and he didn't like to talk about players.  It was always about the team.  He became uncomfortable when you would single out any one player.  He once said he liked to put in the third string because "the players realize why they are third string".

I will always have the deepest respect and admiration for Coach James and what he accomplished at the University of Washington.  In college one of my most difficult tasks and biggest challenges was a persuasive speech I had to give in one of my classes.  I had to convince my fellow WSU classmates that Don James was the best football coach in America.

As time went on, I didn't have to convince anyone.

My tribute to the Dawgfather.