Mr. Flexibility

Because coach Don James was willing to make changes, Washington is on the brink of a national title
December 30, 1991

It's a frosty morning in Seattle, and the University of Washington's Don James, in his 17th year as the Husky coach, is up in his purple coaching tower—alone, imperial, impassive—peering down on his subjects at practice. Up in a tower is just where James should be. After all, his players consider him unapproachable. Says quarterback Billy Joe Hobert, "He's like the god of football. We're all afraid of him." Curt Marsh, a former Husky offensive lineman and the No. 1 pick of the Los Angeles Raiders in the 1981 NFL draft, agrees: "He says he has an open-door policy, but you don't feel much like you should walk through it."

James is serious, stern, authoritarian. Adhere exactly to the schedule, write everything down, evaluate, calculate, make no exceptions, do it my way or the highway. He is depressingly well organized and has said a few thousand times, "A tidy ship is a happy ship."

You do not go up to James, slap him on the back, say, "Hi, pal," and engage in chitchat about fishing in Puget Sound. At 59, he looks like a benign grandfather but acts around his football team like a dictator. Says offensive coordinator Keith Gilbertson, "Everybody definitely knows who's in charge."

And the reason James is so successful is that no other coach has demonstrated the willingness to change every one of his theories, plans and schemes as James has. And that flies in the face of everything James seems to be. When unmasked, one of football's most intransigent coaches is actually the ultimate flexible man.

For example, only three years ago, he scrapped his two-back, hand-off-until-you're-blue-in-the-face system to make room for the open-field excitement—and uncertainty—of a flashy one-back alignment with its many receivers. Furthermore, about two years ago, he threw out his safe and conventional bend-but-don't-break defense for the high risk—and uncertainty—of an attacking style that sometimes places as many as 10 players at or very near the line of scrimmage.

Husky center Ed Cunningham says, "We thought he was a never-change, conservative coach. We were wrong."

If the players had not been so wrong and James had not been so right, there would be little chance that the Huskies would be 11-0 and playing in the Rose Bowl on New Years Day against Michigan, with a good chance of winning their first national championship. The metamorphosis of James should be required study for four groups of people: young coaches, midcareer coaches, old coaches and guys who want to coach. Oh, and for every other person who is stubbornly resistant to change.

What makes the changes even more stunning is that James began making them in the late 1980s, while Washington was in the midst of winning more games in the decade (84) than any other team in the Pac-10; he started making them when he had already taken the Huskies to three Rose Bowls (two more soon followed); he started making them soon after his teams had twice made it to No. 1 during the season ('82 and '84) and twice more ('83 and '85) had been almost everyone's preseason pick to win the national champions. That's a lot of fixing for something that wasn't real broke. James shrugs. "I did it because I could see what we were doing just wasn't going to work anymore," he says.

Here is how James, often cited by his peers as the best coach in the land ("I'm kind of embarrassed by that," he says), reinvented himself and his team. In 1988 the Huskies were a horrible—by Husky standards—6-5, which ended their consecutive bowl-appearance streak at nine. Many coaches would have explained the season away by pointing out that five of the losses were by a total of 15 points, and two were by a single point. James did not. Instead he told his assistants, "We were last in the league in defense against the run. We are not nearly as fast as we should be, and we can't beat big teams the way we are." So, as his coaches hit the recruiting trail, James was shouting after them: "Don't bring in a guy who can't run. And if you can't verify his speed, go to the next high school." Too many Husky players who were 4.5 in high school somehow became 4.8 when they got to Seattle. Big and slow was suddenly out; fast and strong was in.

After the '88 season James gathered his team, admitted to mistakes he thought he had made, then asked the players to write down ways in which they could improve. Each player was challenged to establish new personal records in speed and strength. Two 30-minute speed drills a week were added to the off-season regimen. In a short period of time, 80% of the team had become faster and stronger.

That spring James fired an assistant for the first time in his then 18 years as a head coach. The victim was Dan Dorazio, who had been on the staff for five years and is now the offensive coordinator at Holy Cross. Says Dorazio, "He told me he was disappointed in the offensive line play and that it was my responsibility."

So is Dorazio bitter? Hardly.

"Coach James is an outstanding football coach and a great human being. He's consistent, fair, honest. He's as good as there is." Dorazio's dismissal was a staff wake-up call. Nobody slept through it.

That same year James brought in Gilbertson, who had been the coach at Idaho, to install the one-back offense. Gilbertson understood the nuances of the system. James did not. Says Gilbertson, "Coach James likes to change, grow, experiment, ask questions. He always wants to do what is best for his football team."

James was so disgusted with 1988 that he refused a raise and let his normal five-year rollover contract, which is automatically extended at the end of every season, be reduced to four. "I wanted to send a subtle message," says James, "that I understood we were expected to produce."

James lifted his sights. The Huskies had always pointed toward winning the conference and going to the Rose Bowl. In '89 he bought a new attachè case and set the three-digit lock combination to 120. Translation: 12-0. Maybe the Huskies had not been dreaming big enough. The combination on the attachè is still 120. And this year the Husky goal was not the Pac-10 title but a national championship.

On Nov. 4, 1989, the Huskies were beaten by Arizona State 34-32. The next day James told his staff that there would have to be sweeping changes in the defense. In the old scheme opposing quarterbacks were able to easily read blitzes and take advantage with a three-step drop. It was decided to go to the attack defense. "This was a very big change for Don," says defensive coordinator Jim Lambright.

James also started listening to his players. Last season they wanted to wear purple pants on the road. He said O.K. This year they wanted black shoes. He said O.K. Having made all these changes, James awoke one morning in the fall of 1990 to a Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard poll that said he was "the most overrated coach in the Pac-10." He put it in his desk drawer and referred to it for inspiration.

Last season only an upset loss to UCLA kept the Huskies from a possible national championship, which illustrates the efficacy of James's changes. And this year there is no team in the land with better depth. Heading into preseason drills Washington was a clear national championship contender, largely because of Mark Brunell, the 1991 Rose Bowl MVP (in a 46-34 win over Iowa) and the best running quarterback to come out of Seattle since Warren Moon in 1977. In summer practice, however, Brunell tore up his right knee and was clearly going to miss much of the season. That left Hobert, a sophomore, who in 1990 threw just six passes and who had been so unhappy after his freshman year that he tried to transfer to Miami. Everyone was devastated, and James admits, "We had such great hope. With our first two games against Stanford and Nebraska, we knew it was going to be very difficult even with Mark, and suddenly we had to face doing it without him."

Then James reevaluated his talent and the schedule and reckoned what the season record would likely be, even without Brunell: "Ten and one, at the worst," he said. Nebraska was the possible blip. On Sept. 21 the Huskies beat the Huskers 36-21. Washington was never seriously in trouble all year. All Hobert did was pass for a school-record 22 touchdowns.

Who is to know what might have happened if James had gone on with his same old ways? But he didn't. And next year's Huskies look to be even stronger than this best-ever team, with depth charts laden with stellar underclassmen.

That James has become an institution at Washington was a lucky hit for the school. There was no question about his rock-solid background: He grew up in Massillon, Ohio, and played quarterback and defensive back on two state high school championship teams. Then he went to Miami, where he quarterbacked the Hurricanes for two years and married a cheerleader named Carol. He coached in high school and moved on to assistant jobs at Florida State, Michigan and Colorado. But who knew much about him?

Certainly not Washington, which first offered the job to Dan Devine, who decided to go to Notre Dame. Then it went after Mike White, who was at California, but he also declined. So the school approached James, who for four years had been the coach at Kent State. James started off the '75 season 2-4 with the Huskies, including a 52-0 thrashing by Alabama. "Suffering develops endurance," says James. That was when he started sleeping in his office. Two-and-a-half years into a four-year contract, James was 14-14 and still wobbling, and Carol James heard one disgruntled fan grouse in the stands, "This guy won't last." It was then that the Huskies won five of their next six games and landed their first Rose Bowl bid since 1964. A legend was born.

James has always been knee-deep in charitable good works around town, which makes him a popular albeit somewhat distant figure. For diversion he has climbed Mount Rainier and run in the Seattle Marathon. "My image is pretty good," he said recently, just before taping a TV sports talk show. "I stay out of jail." In the TV studio he appears to be his usual stiff and rigid self. But unseen is the nervy heart of Mr. Flexibility, a man ready to change instantly in order to make his excellent team more excellent.

PHOTOCHRIS COVATTABelying his rigid image, James stands at the forefront of innovation at Washington. PHOTOPETER READ MILLERJames decided to transform his lumbering defense into a mobile swarm of attackers. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSECarol got exercised when she heard Washington fans say of Don, "This guy won't last."