SEATTLE -- Don James, the former Kent State University football coach who led the Golden Flashes to their only Mid-American Conference championship in program history in 1972, died Sunday at his home from the effects of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. He had been receiving treatment for the disease since late September.
"Coach James revitalized the program," said Kent State Director of Athletics Joel Nielsen. "Our thoughts are with his wife, Carol, and his family."
James took over a struggling Kent State football program in 1971, and went 3-8 overall and 0-5 in the MAC during his first season. But his second squad, which featured First Team All-MAC performers Jack Lambert at linebacker and Gary Pinkel at tight end, went 4-1 in the MAC and defeated Toledo 27-9 in the regular season finale to capture the 1972 conference title. The Golden Flashes earned a bid to the Tangerine Bowl, where they lost to Tampa 21-18 in Orlando.
Lambert went on to become an NFL Hall of Famer after a standout career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, while Pinkel has enjoyed a highly successful career as a head coach at Toledo and Missouri. His Tigers are currently unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country.
James returned to campus just last season to be honored along with the players and coaches from 1972, who celebrated the 40th anniversary of their MAC championship season. Over 50 players and their wives attended events over the weekend, including Lambert, who made a rare public appearance since retiring from the NFL.
Herb Page, the kicker on that '72 KSU squad who has headed the perennial national power Kent State men's golf team since 1978, said that while the players were thrilled to see each other they all attended the reunion for one main reason: James.
"Thank goodness we had the reunion and he got to come back (to Kent)," said Page. "I remember the luncheon where he took the microphone and he introduced every player in the room. He knew every player, told a story about each and every one of us, and handed us our championship watches 40 years after the (title season). That memory is very special."
James' third edition of Flashes was probably his best overall, as the squad finished 9-2 overall and 4-1 in the MAC but wound up second in the conference. One of his top players that season was Nick Saban, who now leads two-time defending national champion and current No. 1-ranked Alabama.
"(I) can't tell him how much we appreciate all that he's done for us and our career. So, thanks," Saban said in September after learning of James' illness.
Following a 7-4 season in 1974, James signed a five-year contract to coach the University of Washington. He wound up 25-19-1 in four seasons at Kent State.
Current Flashes head coach Paul Haynes, a star defensive back at KSU from 1987-91, never worked directly with with James but knew all about the man who put Kent State football on the map long ago.
"This is a very sad day in the Kent State football family. We lost a great coach and great person in Don James," said Haynes. "I know he was a very disciplined guy and a very focused guy who got the most out of his players because he demanded excellence."
James went on to become one of the legendary coaches in college football history, compiling a 176-78-3 record at Kent State and Washington. He went 153-58-2 with the Huskies from 1975-92 and led the school to a six-pack of 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 -- James' alma mater -- the national championship, while the coaches' voted in favor of Washington in their poll.