Don James; coach resigned after helping Wash. football to share of national title

Mr. James remained on the scene in Seattle long after he resigned over penalties imposed on the Huskies’ program.
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press/file 2011
Mr. James remained on the scene in Seattle long after he resigned over penalties imposed on the Huskies’ program.

SEATTLE — Don James, the longtime University of Washington football coach who led the Huskies to a share of the national championship in 1991, died Sunday. He was 80.

The university said Mr. James died at his home of the effects of pancreatic cancer. He had been receiving treatment for the disease since late September.

Mr. James was 176-78-3 as a head coach at Kent State and Washington. He went 153-58-2 with the Huskies from 1975-92 and led the school to six 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 — Mr. James’s alma mater — the national championship, while the coaches voted in favor of Washington in their poll.


‘‘His accomplishments as a football coach stand alone, but what made him truly special is the quality of man he was away from the game,’’ current Washington coach Steve Sarkisian said. ‘‘The guidance and leadership he instilled into this program and community are still felt today, and will continue to be felt here for a long, long time.’’

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Mr. James played quarterback at Miami, graduating in 1954 with a degree in education. He was an unknown when he arrived in Seattle in 1975, taking over for Jim Owens. He came from Kent State, where he led the Golden Flashes to the Mid-American Conference title in 1972. While at Kent State, Mr. James coached future Hall of Famer Jack Lambert and future college coaches Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel.

It didn’t take long for Washington to become a contender. The Huskies went 6-5 in Mr. James’s first year after winning six games combined in the final two years Owens was coach. By 1977, led by quarterback Warren Moon, they beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. It was the first of Mr. James’s Rose Bowl trips, topped by the 34-14 win over Michigan in 1991. Washington nearly won the national title in 1984 after beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, only to be edged out in the voting by Brigham Young University.

Between the end of the 1990 season and November 1992, the Huskies won 22 straight games before losing 16-3 at Arizona on Nov. 7. The Huskies lost two weeks later to Washington State in a snowy Apple Cup in Pullman, but still served as the Pac-10 representative in the Rose Bowl. That New Year’s Day, Michigan got payback for the loss a year earlier with a 38-31 win in what turned out to be Mr. James’s final game.

Mr. James knew penalties were coming from the conference after an investigation of reports during the 1992 season that quarterback Billy Joe Hobert received $50,000 in loans from an Idaho businessman. Among the violations found by the Pac-10 were improper loans to athletes, free meals provided to recruits, and improper employment of athletes by boosters. The conference also cited a lack of institutional control over funds provided to students hosting recruits.


But Mr. James protested when the conference added an additional year to the Huskies bowl ban, making it a two-year penalty. The Pac-10 also limited Washington’s football scholarships and recruiting visits and prohibited the university from sharing in television rights fees for one year.

Mr. James was 60 years old when he resigned less than two weeks before the 1993 season began. He was replaced by longtime assistant Jim Lambright. ‘‘I have decided I can no longer coach in a conference that treats its players and coaches so unfairly,’’ Mr. James said in his letter of resignation.

Mr. James remained connected to the Huskies’ program. He was a regular visitor at practices after his resignation and served on the committee that helped in the redesign of Husky Stadium that was unveiled earlier this season.