When Don James arrived, players knew it was a new era

Husky coaching legend Don James died on Oct. 20 at age 80. Paul Strohmeier, ’77, a defensive lineman when James was hired and a graduate- assistant coach under James in 1976, offers a perspective on the beginning of the “Dawgfather” era.

Shortly before Christmas 1974, Washington Athletic Director Joe Kearney announced an unknown coach from a small school as our new coach. Kearney had already received regrets from Dan Devine, who chose Notre Dame, and Mike White, the California coach. We were surprised to find out that the person willing to take the UW job was a guy from Kent State named Don James.

I remember the first time Coach James walked into the team meeting room in January 1975. He entered the room precisely on time. (I am positive that it was exactly on time because Coach James knew no other time.) He then, with no pleasantries and little enthusiasm, announced that we were going to win the league championship and go to the Rose Bowl.

We almost fell out of our chairs. He was addressing a football team that had won seven of its past 22 games. Just two years before, we had set records for defensive futility and were generally regarded as one of the weaker UW football squads in the modern era. We were facing a loaded preseason schedule that included Arizona State, Texas and Alabama, coached respectively by Hall of Fame coaches Frank Kush, Darrell Royal and Paul “Bear” Bryant. Our fear was justified. These three teams would finish the season ranked Nos. 2, 3 and 6 in the Associated Press poll. Also in the Pac-8 Conference that year were USC, reigning United Press International Coaches Poll national champion; UCLA, which would finish No. 5; and California, No. 14.

Our new coach’s goal was unimaginable. Yet somehow his pronouncement began the process of getting the UW back to respectability. We began to believe.

The early days were tough. Coach James had instituted a conditioning regimen that he felt would give us a competitive edge. He had calculated that a player expends six seconds of intense energy on each down, so “mat drills” lasted exactly six seconds, with very short rests in-between. These were repeated over and over, day in and day out throughout the winter.

Practice began with what was called the “Gold Line.” This was exactly when practices would start but set at odd times such as 8:56 a.m. or 9:02 a.m. to promote attention to detail. After stretching, a horn would sound and we would break into position drills. These went off at odd intervals, and as the horn sounded, we would immediately move to the next drill. Every second of practice was used.

Coach James finished 6-5, but few now realize how successful his first season really was.

Coach James would circulate for a short while and would then climb into his tower at midfield. He would pull out his pen and notepad, begin to scan the proceedings and carefully make notations. Players never knew what he wrote, but I always felt he was looking at me, so I always applied extra effort to ensure I was executing my assignments as perfectly as possible.

Preparation was unbelievably comprehensive and detailed. Each drill had a purpose. Each player had a role. Each play in practice—on both offense and defense—was scripted and based on detailed scouting reports. Special teams were regarded as important as offense and defense. We felt we were ready for anyone. Then the season started.

Arizona State, Texas and Alabama proved to be in a higher echelon, but our confidence increased after a narrow loss to Stanford. We would win four of our next five games. At No. 13 UCLA, we saw for the first time the difference our coach could make as the ultimate game-planner, stunning a Bruins squad that went on to beat No. 1 Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and finish No. 5 nationally. Coach James was also the person responsible for putting us in a position to pull out an improbable 28-27 comeback victory in his first Apple Cup.

Coach James finished 6-5, but few now realize how successful his first season really was. Though he inherited a senior-laden team, we didn’t know how to win. In the end, the Huskies beat both schools from L.A. and every other Northwest school. A three-point loss to Cal was all that prevented us from playing in the Rose Bowl.

We now believed.