‘We’re trying to live up to a standard he set’

Don James Sark

Don James Sark -

Don James led the Huskies to a national championship in 1991 and a perfect 12-0 season. He was widely respected for what current football head coach Steve Sarkisian called “a quiet confidence.”

Photo by File Photo

Steve Sarkisian is quick to talk about his favorite memory of Don James. It was in 2010 on the sideline at the Holiday Bowl. The UW’s kickoff time had been delayed due to an overtime game, and everyone on the sideline was antsy to get the game underway. That is, everyone except James.

“He had a unique, quiet confidence about him that I’m sure his players felt,” Sarkisian said of the brief talk he had with James on the sideline before kickoff. “He had an aura of, ‘We’re going to go win, and we’re going to go play really well,’ and I felt it then from him … It’s not always about the words you say, but it’s truly who you are and what you represent and how you represent yourself that can have as much of an impact as the words you say.”

James, the legendary coach that orchestrated the UW’s perfect 12-0 season in 1991 and won the national championship, died Sunday due to effects of pancreatic cancer. A candid photo of the handshake he shared with Sarkisian before the Holiday Bowl hangs in Sarkisian’s office today. The current head coach looks at it every day, he said Monday, as he thinks about how high James set the bar for the present and future of UW football.

“We’re trying to live up to a standard that he set, but that’s the reason why I chose this job,” Sarkisian said. “I came here to win championships, and Coach James set that standard. And that’s the beauty of coming to a place like the University of Washington.”

In 18 years with the Huskies, James led the Huskies to 15 bowl games, including six Rose Bowls, and one national championship. His legacy as one of the most influential coaches in college football stretches far past the Pacific Northwest to Alabama, with Crimson Tide head coach Nick Saban. Saban, who was coached by James at Kent State, told USA Today his former coach was “my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession.” An inductee of the College Football Hall of Fame and the Husky Hall of Fame, James is the UW’s winningest head coach in football history.

While James’ football accomplishments are vast and his wins plentiful, what Sarkisian respects the most about James is how he conducted himself off the field.

From a personal view, the thing that stands out to me [is] the way he treated people,” Sarkisian said. “Regardless of title, regardless of what your name was, he treated you with respect. Quite honestly, that’s something that from that day I met Coach James, and talking to people, it’s something that I’ve tried to emulate that he’s passed on to me.”

The Huskies will honor James the rest of the season by wearing helmet decals in every game. Coaches and staff will wear similar patches on the sideline. For the UW’s game against California on Saturday, which kicks off at 8 p.m., the Huskies will have members of the James family serve as honorary captains for the pre-game coin toss and have a special halftime tribute featuring the UW marching band.

A public memorial service is planned for Sunday at 3 p.m. in Hec Edmundson Pavilion.

Reach Sports Editor Thuc Nhi Nguyen at sports@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @thucnhi21

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