Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Remembering Don James: Looking back at Sunday's memorial service at the University of Washington

I first became aware of Don James when he went to Washington and had all of those great teams with the Huskies. And then I had an indirect association with coach James when I was at Illinois State. Our head football coach there was Jim Heacock, who had served on coach James’ staff at Washington as defensive line coach for several years.

I heard quite a bit about coach James from Jim, so I felt like I knew a lot about him just from listening to those stories.

Of course, growing up in Iowa, I remember when his 1982 Washington team played Iowa in the Rose Bowl and beat the Hawkeyes 28-0. So my awareness of coach James goes back quite a long way.

When I accepted the job here at Kent State, I called coach James fairly early on just to introduce myself. A few months later when we were searching for a new head football coach, I actively involved coach James, along with coach Saban, coach Pinkel and coach Holtz.

From talking with coach James then, I remember the same things that everyone said about him on Wednesday during his memorial service in Seattle. He was honest, genuine and direct. And yet he was direct in a style that didn’t feel like he was as direct as he probably was. He was very willing to help. He was very people oriented. And it was clear he cared a great deal about Kent State.

I spent some time on Wednesday with Carol James, and she told me about how much Kent State meant to her husband and how much he wanted to see us succeed after he left Kent. They really enjoyed their time here. They enjoyed that time here as a family. I talked to their daughter, Jill, who is a Kent Roosevelt High School grad, a Kent State grad, and a former field hockey player at Kent State. She told me about how much she loved Kent, Ohio and her time here.

Kent and Kent State is an important part of their history, and you could tell that in Don’s voice when he assisted us with the coaching search.

A lot of coach James’ love for this area had to do with his upbringing in Massillon and his association with so many coaches from the area prior to his taking over at Kent State in 1971. There was a hometown, northeast Ohio feeling that I got every time I talked with coach James.

The memorial service at the University of Washington on Sunday was impressive. The school did a great job. It was a first-class tribute to a great man.

The love in that room and the outpouring of love for the James family was palpable. You could feel it. 

I’ll never forget some of the presentations by the speakers at the service. There were two former players, a couple of friends, some former assistant coaches, including Gary Pinkel. Jill and one of coach James’ grandsons spoke. It was one of the most memorable events that I have ever attended.

There memorial was attended by roughly 5,000 people. The current Washington football team was there and coach Steve Sarkisian spoke.

It was just very well done, and when you listen to Carol and a few of the speakers, it was clear the reason why it was so well done is because coach James scripted the service before he passed away. They had been working on it during the last few weeks.

Carol said that he approached scripting out the service like a game plan. He picked out who would speak. All of the music that played over the videos was picked by him. You could tell it had his fingerprints on it. 

All of the speakers were to hold their presentations to three minutes. Not 3:01. Not 3:05. He said I do not want any of you to speak for over three minutes.

It was all part of that coach James philosophy and discipline of … here is the game plan and everyone sticks to it. 

The whole day was a celebration of coach James’ life. There were some unbelievably genuine, heartfelt comments that had everyone choked up. I was sitting four seats down from coach Jim Mora. I didn’t realize they coached together in 1968 at Colorado. He shared some great stories.

Kent State had three or four former players represented, including coach Pinkel, who flew out after a late game on Saturday. They all did a great job.

After the ceremony, which was held at the basketball arena, there was a special get-together for all of coach James’ former players and coaches in the appropriately-named Don James Room at Husky Stadium. There were probably 200 or 300 people with an open mike and probably 25 speakers.

Jeff Woodruff, from Ravenna, was the MC of the open mic. He married Jill James and he is also a Kent State alum who coached with coach James. Jim Mora and Skip Hall both spoke, along with a ton of his former players like Hugh Millen and Greg Lewis. It was a who’s of Washington football. 

Handy Lampley spoke for the former players at Kent State. He did a great job talking about what coach James meant to us in Kent. The Washington people really accepted that. At the end, Handy said Golden Flashes’ fans are Husky fans today because we all feel the same pain. It was really true because all of us from Kent State didn’t feel like outsiders at the memorial for coach James. They welcomed us like they welcomed their own.

Don James will always be remembered for being an iconic figure at Washington and in the city of Seattle, we felt like we were a part of that. When you talk to coach James’ long-time assistant coaches at Washington, most of them coached with him here in Kent. When you talk to his family, most of them talked about Kent State and what it meant. That made us feel like we were at home even though we were 2,500 miles away.

While I was out there, I was with our Kent State people a majority of the time. We talked quite a bit about what we should consider doing to honor coach James and his family at Kent State and specifically at Dix Stadium.

One of the things I have noticed is you could walk around Dix Stadium for hours and never realize that Don James was our head coach for four years and that he led us to our only Mid-American Conference championship in our history. I told the guys on the trip that we need to do something about that. And not just for coach James.

A lot of great coaches and great alums have come through this place and we don’t make that history as visual as we should. Miami is famous for its cradle of coaches, but if you look at our coaching tree, it is pretty impressive. 


  1. Thank you Joel for writing this tribute. So true, so well done.

  2. Thank you for representing Kent State, Joel. Don James was a special man.
    Great idea to remind people of the football greats who have been through Kent State.