Former players, coaches share memories of beloved Don James

By Allen Moff | Staff Writer Published:

You could say that no one outside Don James' family knew the legendary football coach who led Kent State to its only Mid-American Conference title in 1972 any better than Skip Hall.

Truth be told, James probably spent more time with Hall than he did with Carol, his wife of 61 years, or their three children while James and Hall coached together for 18 consecutive seasons from 1969-1986.

James brought Hall from the University of Colorado, where James served as defensive coordinator before landing his first job as a head coach at Kent State in 1971. Hall then went with James to the University of Washington starting with the 1975 season, and remained on his staff through 1986 before Hall was named head coach at Boise State.

Hall won 42 games in six seasons with the Broncos from 1987-92 and still lives in Boise, a fact I learned when I received what I believe to be my first-ever call from the "Gem State" last Tuesday morning.

The day after James died, I contacted Kent State Director of Athletic Alumni Relations Kara Warnke Mayle seeking help reaching members of the "James Gang," the Flashes' 1972 MAC title squad. I wanted to give them an opportunity to be a part of a special feature in our newspaper honoring James, who died on Oct. 20 in Washington because of effects from pancreatic cancer at the age of 80.

She kindly delivered by forwarding an email message to members of that title team, and I was thrilled with the responses I quickly received from many of James' former KSU players, coaches and support staff.

Hall received my message through a friend who passed it on to him, and fortunately, I included my phone number because what Hall had to say about his esteemed mentor simply couldn't be emailed.

I spent 15 minutes on the phone with Hall, who vividly recalled his times with James at Kent State and Washington. Through his words and stories, Hall proceeded to describe -- as well as anyone -- what made Don James a legend as a football coach, a mentor and a friend.

Here's what Skip Hall had to say about Don James:

Initial thoughts on their relationship: I could probably talk about three weeks without taking a breath. I was with him for 18 years. We were together at three different schools -- Colorado, Kent State, then Washington -- before I became head coach at Boise State, so I was probably with him longer than any other assistant and actually became his first assistant head coach. So I got to know coach James quite well, shall we say. He was definitely my mentor.

What made James a successful coach: He was a builder of football cultures. He built a culture at Kent State, built a culture at Washington. Not only building great football teams and championship teams, he was a builder of men. He helped prepare them for life, and I think that's probably the biggest tribute that I can say. He was a tremendous influence. He was in pursuit of excellence in all areas with his players. He wanted them to maximize their potential. He treated them well. He was tough, yes, but he treated them well and fair. He was a good-old-fashioned gritty coach with an unwavering focus on things.

He was known for his discipline and organization, which were really unmatched. He always hired good people too, I think that's another strong, strong attribute. He surrounded himself with good coaches, good people and he coached the coaches. He would critique everything and watch everything, then he would coach the coaches in meetings, after practice or the next morning. Then the coaches would go and coach the players.

The philosophy that lasted through all of the years that I was with him is very simple, it's three things. It's sound fundamental planning and coaching, attention to detail and hard work. He built that into his staff and into his players, and they bought in.

I'm writing a book, and the title is Coaching the Doctrine of Excellence. It will be dedicated to Don James. Most of it will be about the principles and coaching points that he instilled. That's what he did, he coached the doctrine of excellence, and not just in a football sense but for academics as well, then of course in their lives afterwards.

Memorable Moment: Somebody asked me once what was it like to coach with Don James for all those years. They were kind of intimidated by him you know, he was kind of larger than life. I mentioned some of the same qualities that I just mentioned, then I said he was a God-fearing man. And this guy looks at me and says, 'Well that's good to know, that he was afraid of somebody.'

James and Bear: I coached against (legendary Alabama head coach) Bear Bryant three times, and he and Don are the only two guys I know where 50 percent of his players were kind of afraid of him, and the other 50 percent didn't want to let him down. He really commanded the players and got the most out of them. That's the best thing that a coach can do, get the best out of his people.

Memories from Kent State: The first thing was, we went in there right after those four students were killed on campus (May 4, 1970) and recruiting was a little, shall we say, challenging. I can remember going into the homes of some of the players we were recruiting and they would look at me like I had a gun under my coat or something. I remember one young man really wanted to come with us, but his mom would not sign the letter of intent -- just fearful about what was going to happen down there, which obviously nothing else ever did. It was tough. That first year we had to really, really dig deep to recruit as good a class as we did, which included guys like (running back) Larry Poole, (quarterback) Greg Kokal, some really outstanding young players that made a huge difference for us. That was the start of it.

I remember that first year, too, we came in with a more aggressive, disciplined approach, and guys were quitting left and right. Some guys just couldn't handle it, couldn't pay the price, but those who did went on to be champions.

I remember the first year we won three games and our team banquet was in the locker room. We were last in the league, and the next year we won the (MAC) championship because of the organization and discipline that Don brought in. He brought life back to football in Seattle and Kent State. Mike Lude was the athletic director at Kent State and he hired Don. I remember our last game at Kent State (in 1972) playing Toledo for the championship and the stadium was pretty well filled. Mike Lude said at one point a police officer called him and asked for the students to be seated, and Mike Lude told him to go to hell, this is what we're trying to build."

(Lude went on to become the athletic director at Washington from 1976-91.)

The turning point at Washington: In my mind, it was the third season. We had gone 6-5 and 5-6, and we started off the third season 1-3. We lost a close game to (Minnesota), and we got back after midnight and coach James had all of the players and coaches go into the team room and he just simply stated that we're not playing up to our abilities. He said he wanted every man, every player, every coach to write down what they're going to do individually to help us get better as a team. And each player, each coach wrote it all out, signed it and turned it in. The next week was like World War III in practice, people were really, really on top of it, and we went down that week and beat Oregon 54-0. Then we went on to win the Pac 10 championship and beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Those were the same people that started 1-3 that did that. The difference -- what I call the program-changer for Washington -- was when coach James showed his leadership of knowing what to do and when to do it, and had everybody basically re-commit themselves to the program. That was a program-changer. We went to 16 bowls I think in the next 18 years. I think that was Don's best moment as a leader. He knew what to do and when to do it, and everybody bought into it.

On Don James the man: He'd be the first to tell you that (his success is) all about the staff and the players. He was a very humble man, a lot of class. He was a legend no doubt, but you'd never know that by being in a room with him. He just had that quiet confidence. And how he treated people I think was probably greater than anything he did. He really treated people well. One player mentioned to me he's kind of like his dad looking over his shoulder. He was larger than life. There are two qualities that I've seen in leaders like Don and Bear Bryant, strength and warmth. Don had a very strong side to him, but he was also a very warm individual. A lot of people I don't think realize that. He really cared about his people.

A TRIBUTE TO DON JAMES, FROM THOSE AT KENT STATE WHO NEW HIM BEST

Gary Pinkel

Letterman 1971-73

All-American TE 1973

First Team All-MAC 1972, '73

Current head coach at Missouri

It's hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James. He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally. The program we built at Toledo and here at Missouri is Don James' program, it's a tribute to how he developed men and built football teams.

This is a tough, tough day, and I'm so sorry for his wife, Carol, and the James family, as well as the entire Washington Huskies family. Coach James was a legend, and if I'm remembered for anything, I hope that it might be that I helped carry his legacy forward.

Larry Hayes

Letterman 1970-72

Co-Captain, '72 MAC championship team

Our sincerest sympathies are with the James family during this time of loss. 

The passing of Coach Don James is indeed the loss of a legend for me. It is hard to believe that he is gone. Coach was indeed a special man that touched not just my life, but the lives of many young men during his career. He was not only a great coach, but an inspiration to me both on and off the field. He was always strict, but fair. He instilled the drive to be the best at whatever position you may have had on the team. That influence has stayed with me all my life and I'm sure in others as well. 

After the first meeting we had as a team with him, we knew we would never be the same and that success was right around the corner. We did not know what success really was until the "James Gang" came along. His zeal and desire to win kept each player improving with each practice and game until that championship year finally came. That desire was demonstrated with the community as well. The rally behind the 'James Gang" was infectious and continued throughout my career at Kent. Those memories will stay with me forever. It has been an honor to have been a part of it all. 

He loved the game, the players and winning. He will always be in the hearts of the players from that championship team and the Kent community. We owe that success to him and loved him for it.

Fred Gissendaner

Letter: 1963-65

Assistant coach, 1971-76

In 1971, newly hired Kent State Head Football Coach Don James asked me to join his staff as the receivers coach. It was a great opportunity to return to Kent State and coach football again. Don James was more than a legendary coach at Kent State, he was my mentor and my friend. He helped me get through the most difficult tragedy of my life. This occurred when I lost my wife, Donna, after she gave birth to my son, Fred II, who is now a pro scout with the Green Bay Packers. I appreciate everything Don did for me and my family. Don was a great human being, not only for people at Kent State and the University of Washington, but to people throughout the United States. I am honored to be a member of the "James Gang." I was happy to see Don and Carol, Mike Lude, former assistant coaches, their wives and former players at the 40th Reunion of our 1972 (MAC) championship football team in August 2012. It was a wonderful experience and brought back great memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. Don will be missed by all, especially his loving family. God Bless you, Don, for a job well done!

With Gratitude and Respect

Coach Fred Gissendaner

Herb Page

Letter: 1972-73

Current head coach of perennial national power Kent State men's golf team

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. He taught a lot of young men like me how to win, what it takes to win. He was a great influence on me. 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. I learned a lot in that room that I use today. He came out and watched our golf team play in Palm Springs two years ago. He came out, got a cart and watched me coach the golf team. We talked about the (40-year) 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. He was a great leader. He was a special man. He made us champions."

Kenneth Dooner

Letter: 1972-74

In Washington they call him the 'Dawgfather.' We just referred to him as 'God.' When he walked into the locker room no matter what we were doing you could hear a pin drop. My class was his first recruiting class and he left after our senior year. He will be missed!

Don Lowe

Trainer for the "James Gang"

I was the athletic trainer for the football team when Don James was the KSU head football coach. It was great working with the 'James Gang.' We won, had some fine football players and enjoyed life. Don put together a really fine staff, a group I loved working with. 

I am saddened to learn of the passing of a man who was a good husband, a good father, a good friend, a great human being and a marvelous coach.

During my career I worked with many head football coaches at KSU, Syracuse University and Georgia Tech. Don James was by far the best coach I ever worked with. I always told people that DJ could win any place he coached, any level.

My prayers go out to Carol and the family. Rest in peace DJ. 

Walt Vrabel

Letter: 1972-75

All-MAC DL '72

Coach James had a great influence to me as a coach, spiritual leader and a friend. He would do anything to help you. Coach James taught me about what integrity meant with the life that he led, the way he loved his family and his players. I know we all hold a place in our hearts for Coach James. He will always be remembered as a man that believed in people, and brought out the best in them.

Nick Saban

Letter: 1970-72

GA 1972-74

Assistant coach 1975-76

Current head coach at two-time defending national champion Alabama

Our thoughts and prayers go out to Coach James' family. He was a special man and meant the world to me. 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. Like I've said before, I didn't plan on going into coaching. He saw something in me and asked me to stay on at Kent State as a graduate assistant after my playing career was over. I really enjoyed it, got hired full time and went on from there.

From an organizational standpoint, our program today is run much like he ran his program. He was very organized, efficient, and did an outstanding job of defining expectations for players, coaches and everyone in the organization.

He was always personal and inspirational to players and people around him. He wanted you to reach your full potential as a football player, but more importantly, he wanted you to do well in school and become the best person you could be so you would be successful in life. He was the same way when it came to assistant coaches or anyone who worked for him, you were a better person because of the time you spent with Coach James.

Jack Crews

Coach James impacted the lives of so many football players, especially my teammates from the 1972 team. Sometimes the tendency is to forget the players that were on the 1971, '73, '74 and '75 teams as well. The bond between us is life-long. At our 40 year reunion last season, coach had a story to tell about each player as he handed us our 40-year '72 team watches. He taught us to win and play with intensity and respect your opponent after the game. He never talked down to a player, he always talked up to you!

He will be missed and remembered for the change in the fortunes for Kent State football. He will be missed and remembered for the life-long affect he had on our lives! Our deepest sorrow goes out to Mrs. James and family!

Bob Miller

Letter: 1972-74

All-MAC LB 1973

I was a transfer from the University of Buffalo to Kent in '71. Due to the MAC ruling, the transfers from UB had to sit out a year and could not play until the '72 season. In '72, my friend Bob Bender, who had convinced me to transfer, quit in the fall camp. I was also ready to quit and I went in to talk to Coach James to tell him. Well, to make a long story short, Coach James said 'that he really did not want me to leave,' and 'since you could not play last year, do this and play Saturday against Akron. If you want to quit after the game let me know.' Well needless to say, when you play in front of 25,000 people and have a good game, my feelings changed. After the game Coach James walked up to me on the field and said, 'do you want to quit?' and I said, 'no way!!!' If coach had not talked to me in his office, I would have walked away from Kent and would not have been part of this championship team and all the great memories of the players and coaches. Thank you Coach James and all my best to the James family.

Jim MacAllister

Letter: 1971-72

I am sure you have many who echo his great coaching skills, and his work ethic.

I want to say he made those he coached better. Not just as players, but as individuals. He taught life skills.

His exemplary life reflected all those things that people should aspire.

Art Gissendaner

Letter: 1972-74

Captain 1974

All-MAC 1973, '74

Some years ago I was at a holiday social gathering in Scottsdale, Ariz. Somehow the subject of college football came up, and I began talking about a college coach who presided over practices from a tower with the sun at his back so no one could really tell who he was watching. I think I mentioned Coach's name, because a guy came up behind me and asked who was talking about his coach. I confessed it was me, but said I was talking about Don James, my coach at Kent State. He said his coach's name at the University of Washington was also Don James. We knew immediately we were talking about the same man. Eyebrows were raised all around us at the possibility of such a coincidence. We were the center of attention. I said I played linebacker on Kent State's conference championship team under Coach James. He countered by saying he played linebacker on the UW's national championship team under Coach James. We shook hands for a long time. We had just met but we immediately had a common bond. Here were two men from different ethnicities, eras, backgrounds and universities, but we were both champions because of the same man. During the 25th reunion of the '72 team, Jack Lambert said that a championship is something no one can ever take from you. He should know. Coach James touched a lot of lives, and my life was made all the better for knowing him. He was the consummate professional and a great human being, just ask my brother Fred. God bless you, Coach. And thanks for making me a champion.

Email: amoff@recordpub.com

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