Husky Nation is in mourning today with the sad news that legendary coach Don James has passed away after a battle with pancreatic cancer. James is survived by Carol, his wife of 61 years, son Jeff, daughters Jill and Jeni and ten grandchildren.
We will have a series of posts today and in the coming week looking back at Coach James and the enormous legacy he leaves behind. First, we'll take a look at his childhood, his playing career and his early years as an assistant coach.
Don James was born on New Year's Eve of 1932 in the depths of the Great Depression. He was the fourth of five children - all boys - born to Thomas and Florence James. His father was a tireless worker, working two 8-hour jobs a day to make ends meet. Unable to complete his own education, he and Florence imparted a strong emphasis on academics on their children.
Growing up in the football hotbed of Massillon, OH, all four of the boys (the 2nd oldest died tragically before Don was born) played football with some level of success. Oldest brother Tommy played for legendary coach Paul Brown as Massillon High, then Ohio State, and eventually again in the NFL with the Cleveland Browns. Older brother Art and younger brother John played small college football at Heidelberg College in Ohio.
James was a good athlete, participating in baseball and track in addition to football. Despite his modest stature - he was 5'9" - he earned the starting QB job as a Senior at Massillon and led the team to the state championship.
Don met Carol when both were just 14. After Carol had been accepted to the University of Miami (FL), it appeared they might be separated, but he was then offered a 1-year scholarship to Miami by Bob Brietenstein, an assistant for Head Coach Art Gustafson and a former H.S. coach with Shaker Heights, OH. They were married August 19th, 1952 following their sophomore year.
James played well enough at Miami to extend that one-year scholarship through four years, and by his Junior year he had won the starting QB job. It was a different era then where the running game was king, and so while his numbers might look quaint in today's game, he set a number of school records that weren't broken until Jim Kelly, Bernie Kosar, Vinnie Testeverde and Steve Walsh came along.
Upon graduation, and with no serious NFL prospects in the offering, James fulfilled his two year military obligation. After being discharged, he was offered a position at Kansas as a graduate assistant coach under Chuck Mather.
Early Coaching Career
James completed his graduate studies in just one year at Kansas. While there, he was officially in charge of the Freshman team offensive backs, but often ran the whole team while the assistant in charge of the team was off working on scouting for the varsity.
With his Master's degree in education in hand, James applied for a job with New Mexico but was not selected, and ended up back in Miami as an assistant coach at Southwest High School for two seasons. Then, via his connections with his former coach Brietenstein, he got an interview with Perry Moss at Florida State and was hired to his staff. Moss left after one year, and Bill Peterson came over from LSU. Under Peterson, James was moved to the defensive staff where he worked under Defensive Coordinator Ken Meyer (later a QB coach with the Seahawks).
James developed much of his coaching philosophy at this time. Paul 'Bear' Bryant was already a giant in the game and his coaching approach permeated the South. James cited the Bear's philosophy of hard-nosed, aggressive play combined with great speed and quickness, and of course his off-season training regimen was renowned. James also absorbed the approaches of "General" Bob Neyland and Bobby Dodd who emphasized great defense and a sound kicking game. And via Peterson, he was introduced to the program development philosophies of Paul Dietzel. Highly detailed and organized, it featured a year-round plan for every player, every coach and every element of the football program. This was to stick with James for the rest of his career and was a defining element of his approach as a head coach. It's also worth noting that fellow Hall-of-Fame coach Bobby Bowden served on Peterson's staff during this time as a WR coach.
James was in charge of defensive backs under Peterson, and after two years also assumed the Defensive Coordinator duties. His squads were notoriously tough, and in his four years as DC at Florida State they posted 13 shutouts, three others with just a field goal allowed and 14 more with just one touchdown allowed. His success with the Seminoles got him noticed around the country, and eventually an offer in 1966 from Michigan and coach Bump Elliott to become their new Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Backs coach.
However the situation at Michigan under Elliott was somewhat tenuous - with Athletic Director Fritz Crisler set to retire, Elliott's status was uncertain, and after two seasons at Michigan, James was eying a change due to that uncertainty. He interviewed with Woody Hayes at Ohio State, but decided that it was not a good fit in terms of personality. Hayes put in a good word for James with Eddie Crowder at Colorado, and James accepted the Defensive Coordinator and Defensive Backs coach position there in 1968. It was a good run for James there as Colorado played in two bowl games and were building up to a #3 finish in the country (behind Big Eight rivals Nebraska and Oklahoma), and it's where he made his connection with Jim E. Mora. And ultimately, it was his last step before getting his first chance as a head coach.
We'll pick it up from here in Part Two.