KENT: As word trickled out across the country Sunday afternoon that former Kent State football coach Don James had succumbed to pancreatic cancer at the age of 80 that morning at his home in Kirkland, Wash., his death was felt throughout the college coaching fraternity.
That included in Kent, where James was the beloved coach of the Golden Flashes from 1971 to 1974. Although just a short period during a coaching career in which he went 178-76-3, James’ 1972 KSU team won the program’s only outright Mid-American Conference title and played in the school’s first bowl game.
“It’s sad news,” said Herb Page, former Flashes kicker under James and current longtime KSU golf coach. “Other than losing my father, that’s how much coach James meant to me. Really, he meant so much to all of us. He took a group of ragamuffin guys and made us into champions. We overachieved, and I learned how to help my teams do that now with plain old hard work and organization.”
James left KSU for the University of Washington, where he coached for 18 more seasons from 1975 to 1992. His 1991 Huskies went 12-0 and won a share of the national championship after defeating Michigan in the Rose Bowl. Five years later, James was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Page said he was able to reconnect with his mentor on a more personal level six years ago, and enjoyed seeing him from time to time. A few years ago, James even traveled to Palm Springs to spend time with Page and watch the Flashes compete in a golf tournament.
“I always say I had the luckiest seat in the house back then,” Page said. “As a kicker, I just sat in the back of the room and listened as he mesmerized me. I’d sit in the offensive meetings and then in the defensive meetings and that’s when I became a coach. Don James taught me more about coaching than all of my coaches combined. What I learned back then, I still use today.
“His organizational skills were unmatched and we were always prepared. He said we’d never be beaten by not being prepared, and we weren’t. And he was a great motivator. He always said, ‘We’re the underdogs, but we’re going to gain [the opponent’s] respect.’ Every week on Monday we’d go in and he’d have a theme for the whole week. By Friday, we could hardly wait for the game the next day.”
Stories of James’ attention to detail, extreme organization and strict disciplinarian style even trickled down to former KSU coach Darrell Hazell and current coach Paul Haynes, despite neither having met him at the time.
“[Former Ohio State defensive coordinator] Jim Heacock was on James’ staff at Washington and I remember Jim’s brother Jeff Heacock, telling me how businesslike and professional the whole Huskies’ organization was because of Coach James,” Hazell said.
Haynes also recalled hearing plenty of tales about James while he and Hazell were assistant coaches at Ohio State. Heacock regaled the pair with tales of his brother’s time with James.
“He’d tell us about the coaches all living together and having to take a boat across the water to where the stadium was each day,” Haynes said. “They’d carpool on the boat over together on their way to work. There would be two or three [assistants] and Coach James. But they weren’t allowed to talk. No one talked in the car. Everybody was afraid to talk. So they just went together, no one said a word, then they’d get in the office and everyone would start talking.”
Hazell eventually met James last year. While in Kent for the 1972 football team’s 40th reunion, James made a surprise stop and spoke to the Flashes on the eve of their wildly successful 11-3 season that ironically culminated in the Flashes’ first bowl game since the Tangerine Bowl coached by James.
“Coach James was a disciplinarian,” Haynes said. “He was a very old-school football coach. Everything had to be done a certain way, everybody always had to be on time.”
Haynes also recalled a Heacock story about a time when James stumbled upon a group of Ohio State players goofing around the day before a game.
“That’s back when Mike Vrabel and Luke Fickell were there [as players] at Ohio State,” Haynes said. “It’s Friday, the day before a game and the [players] are in the indoor facility and they’re playing baseball. I guess James was sitting there going crazy with the idea of them playing baseball before a big football game. He had such a big influence on so many coaches — the Heacocks, Gary Pinkel, Nick Saban. Coach James had an impact on those guys for the rest of their lives.”
Stephanie Storm can be reached at email@example.com. Read the Kent State blog at http://www.ohio.com/flashes. Follow her on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/SStormABJ and on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/sports.abj.