Former Kent State and Washington football coach Don James dies (gallery)

Staff and wire reports Published:

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.

"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 Sakrisian 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."

James played quarterback at the 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. It didn't take long for Washington to become a contender. The Huskies went 6-5 in his 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 James' six Rose Bowl trips, topped by the 34-14 win over Michigan in 1991. Only once -- his second season -- did the Huskies have a losing record, winning at least six games every other year. Washington won 10 games seven times and went to a bowl game in 14 seasons under James. Washington nearly won the national title in 1984 after beating Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, only to be edged out in the voting by BYU. The Huskies were also in line for the title in 1990 before losing at home to UCLA.

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 James' final game.

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 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.

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," James said in his letter of resignation.

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. James gave his annual preseason speech to the current Washington squad in August and attending the first game at the renovated Husky Stadium on Aug. 31 against Boise State. It was shortly after that his health took a significant turn.

James had two surgical procedures in September at Virginia Mason Medical Center for what was called a gastro-intestinal issue. James' family issued a statement after the surgeries announcing that he was resting comfortable following the hospital stay but would be beginning chemotherapy treatment for a malignant tumor on his pancreas and asked for privacy.

"Coach James set the standard for this program and for all of us. It's the reason you all are sitting here. It's the reason I'm here," Sarkisian said recently. "Husky football and what it all stands for is what he created and I was so happy he was able to come to the first game against Boise and the opening of Husky Stadium because if anybody deserved to be in that building that night it was him."

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