By Allen Moff | Staff Writer
Herb Page had some trouble at first putting into words what Don James meant to him.
Page was on his way home from Atlanta, where his Kent State men's golf team had just completed play at the U.S. Collegiate Championship on Sunday afternoon, when he caught word that James had passed away earlier in the day due to the effects of pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.
Page, one of the most successful coaches in the history of collegiate men's golf, learned his most valuable lessons in coaching while serving as the kicker for the Kent State football teams James coached in 1972 and '73. That 1972 squad captured what remains the only Mid-American Conference championship in the history of the Kent State football program.
"It's obvious he was a great coach. The legacy he leaves as a coach is phenomenal. But personally he was a wonderful man at a great time in my life," said Page, a native of Ontario, Canada, who was a star golfer at KSU before joining the football team.
"He taught a lot of young men like me how to win, what it takes to win. He was a great influence on me."
James had a positive influence on every young man who was able to meet his demands as a strict disciplinarian back in the early 1970s. Not every player stuck it out after James took over in 1971, but those that did were rewarded -- both then, and in the future.
Page has led his golf program to three top-10 national finishes and is a member of numerous hall of fames, including the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Golf Coaches Association of America Hall of Fame. And he's actually been upstaged by several former teammates.
Nick Saban, who played defensive back for James at KSU from 1971-72, has won the past two national championships as head football coach at Alabama and has the Crimson Tide in position to collect their third in a row this season.
"He was a special man and meant the world to me," Saban said Sunday night. "There aren't enough words to describe not only the great coach he was, but how much he cared for people and the positive impact he made in the lives of everyone he came in contact with. Coach James was my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession."
Gary Pinkel, a star tight end on the Flashes' squads from 1971-73, has won 170 games as head football coach at Toledo and Missouri. He currently has his Tigers unbeaten and ranked No. 5 in the country.
"It's hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James," Pinkel said. "He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally."
Jack Lambert, an All-American linebacker for the Flashes who played for James from 1971-73, is in the NFL Hall of Fame after a stellar career with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
"He made us champions," Page added. "He touched a lot of people, but he made us champions."
A coach with such incredible influence on his players is never merely a coach. James was a father-figure to his players, teaching them how to succeed in sports and in life.
"Little did I know back then that for over two years I got to sit in the room and learn from one of the greatest football coaches of all time not just how to coach football, but how to coach and how to teach," said Page. "I learned a lot in that room that I use today."
No doubt that 1972 All-MAC performers Larry Poole, Greg Kokal, Eddie Woodard, Alonzo Curry, Mike Perlin, Gary Turner, Walt Vrabel, Daryl Hall, Gerald Tinker, Don Robinson, Bernard Harmon, Jeff Murrey, Dan Rector, Page, Pinkel, Lambert and their teammates all used the lessons in life taught by James to help them both on and off the field.
Many of those players and their wives attended a reunion at Kent State before the 2012 season-opener honoring the 40-year anniversary of that 1972 championship squad.
"He came out and watched our golf team play in Palm Springs two years ago," Page recalled. "He came out, got a cart and watched me coach the golf team. We talked about the reunion then, and you know what he asked me to do? To make sure we reached out to the wives of the coaches that have passed on. That was the most important thing to him, and I'll never forget that. He was just a class act. Everything he did it was never about him, it was about making people around him feel good and get better."
James addressed the 2012 Flashes before their season opener, and they went on to earn a school-record 11 wins and end a 40-year bowl drought -- dating back to the '72 squad's Tangerine Bowl appearance -- by securing a bid to the GoDaddy.com Bowl.
"He talked about how the '72 team started out as a bunch of misfits and all came together," said current KSU defensive coordinator Brian George. "And he told our guys how they were capable of doing the same."
Page's voice trailed off as he remembered James, the most influential mentor in his life.
"I'm a little choked up thinking about him and what he meant to so many of us," said Page. "He was a great leader. He was a special man."