"Well, for crying out loud," stated Niehaus in his rich baritone voice. "Over at the University of Washington, they have just announced that Husky coach Don James has resigned in protest of the sanctions levied by the Pacific-10 conference." Then he said slowly, almost painfully, "My.. Oh... My."
Earlier that day, Washington players were involved with fall camp and had congregated for a standard team meeting. When Don James entered into the room, several players picked up that something was wrong; James seemed uncharacteristically somber. He proceeded to tell them that the Pac-10 Conference had put Washington on a two-year probation. For the '93 and '94 seasons, there would be no hopes for a bowl game. The Pac-10 would also be confiscating $1.4 million of TV revenue for the first year, and the Huskies would be docked 20 scholarships. The Washington Football Program, in the throes of three consecutive Rose Bowl berths and deemed by all to be the colossus of the Pac-10 Conference, was having its legs cut out from under it.
Then James announced to his players that he was resigning in protest. The room fell deathly silent.
Recently one quiet morning I interviewed Don James at Husky Stadium. At one point our discussion revolved around the sanctions period, and I asked him what it was like to address the team on that August day in 1993.
"It was terrible," James said quietly. "I knew what I was going to do and they didn't. And the hardest part was to tell them that we got a 2-year hit. And I told them that I was going to resign and recommend Jim Lambright as head coach. It was tough. There were a lot of tears shed."
A subsequent news conference was held, featuring then-Athletic Director Barbara Hedges, newly appointed head coach Jim Lambright and four Husky captains. One Husky co-captain, center Jim Nevelle, summed up the youthful sentiments of the Washington squad: "It was probably the saddest thing I have gone through in a long time. Coach James has been like a father figure to all of us. I want everyone to know that whoever went out and took this man out of office, tomorrow morning I want them to wake up and look in the mirror and realize what they did."
For 18 years Don James had stood stoically along the Washington sideline. He was a symbol of integrity, discipline, principle-- and most importantly to fickle fans, an icon of tough defense and consistent victories. In the years following that traumatic time, due to his conservative and private nature, Don James has never publicly gone into detail of his perspective of what happened.
Prior to the Pac-10's announcement, Husky fans felt that some sort of minor penalty was inevitable. But when the media announced the severe nature of the sanctions, and the subsequent resignation of James, thousands of Husky fans were stunned and plunged into mourning. The sanctions were enough to arouse anger and disbelief, but losing Don James so abruptly was like suffering a death in the family. The end of his career came without ceremony or a sense of complete closure.
In the time leading up to his resignation, then athletic director Barbara Hedges received a list of the proposed sanction penalties from the Pac-10. The University of Washington would have ten days to appeal them. Don James goes on to describe his final days as Husky coach.
"I had the sanctions in my hand for a week," he recalled. "Barbara got them from the Pac-10, and we had a week to appeal these sanctions and they were not bad at all. We lost some recruiting visits, which was no big deal because we never needed all the recruiting visits. They were going to take scholarships away; well everyone across the country was losing 5 scholarships. The big one was that they weren't going to give us TV revenue (about $2.8 million.) They wanted our money. We'd made this league so damn much money. They didn't want to take us off TV. They wanted that money.
"I went before the players each day, I had the sanctions in my pocket, and I'd say to them: "They're going to take visits, does that bother you? They're going to take scholarships, does that bother you? They're going to take TV money, do YOU get any of that TV money? Does that bother you?"
At this point James' voice lowers further, to a near whisper: "I said to the players; now... they may not let us compete for a championship. I said, you know, we've been to three straight Rose Bowls. But in eleven games this thing is all over, life goes on. That would be the harshest thing they could do."
"So I sat in a meeting in Barbara Hedges' office with some upper campus people, and we talked about the appeal", said James. "My argument was, while we're appealing it, let's let these players compete for a championship. Because there are no coaches' sanctions."
Don James left that meeting with the understanding that the University of Washington would be appealing the ban on bowl games, and thus forgo the two years of TV money. It made sense too, even from a financial standpoint, since it was Washington's football program that had generated the athletic department's $20 million surplus. Keeping it healthy would keep the whole athletic department healthy over the long haul. But when Washington officials went down to San Francisco to meet with Pac-10 officials, something else occurred.
Don James was at his son's house Saturday evening of that week. The phone rang; Barbara Hedges was calling. It was when James picked up the receiver that he learned he had been betrayed. The agreement that he believed had been struck with the four-member committee from the University of Washington had been reneged upon; the UW reps had gone to San Francisco with a different agenda.
"Well they go down and appeal TV revenue," said James. "And I couldn't get this out of anybody on our campus, but I got this from other people who sat in those meetings. And the appeal from our university was, if you take our TV money, it's going to impact non-revenue sports or women's activities. If you're sitting in that meeting, with all these PhDs sitting there, it's wonderful, we'll just give you back half the TV money and instead give you two years probation (for the football team). And so when Barbara called me Saturday night at my son's house, I told her, Barbara, if they don't change that, I'm done. The NCAA had nothing to do with that penalty, it was all our university and the Pac-10."
Before the penalties could be finalized, they needed to be ratified by a vote of the University Presidents from around the league, including University of Washington President Bill Gerberding. But stated Don James, "I understand that Dr. Gerberding didn't even go to that meeting, he voted by phone or something.
"I have not gotten anyone from our university to admit what I just told you," said James.
"I said, If this university isn't going to support us any better than that, after all the money these players have made for them, then I'm not going to work here anymore."
Former Husky All-American lineman and 11-year NFL veteran Lincoln Kennedy spoke candidly to me in November 2003. "I was greatly disappointed by the University of Washington for the way they turned their back on the players and coach James. It was like they said, Here NCAA, you have someone (James) who can take the blame for what occurred, and they accepted his resignation.
"During the investigation, I came under scrutiny as being a person who took an active role in recruiting", said Kennedy. "The investigators claimed that I was buying things for recruits. But I was never doing anything improper. And I know that I turned in my receipts. But the (Pac-10) investigators claimed that I didn't. They fabricated charges, and it really bothered me. They needed to level the playing field. But there was never a time when the University of Washington stood by its athletes. These athletes are the people out there working hard and representing the university. There was no attempt to offer a protective shield to us."
Kennedy continued: "It left a bad taste, and I'm not close to the program because of it. I'm still bothered by it. Gilby (current Husky coach Keith Gilbertson) has told me to just let it go and come back into the fold, but I can't. That's why when there is a BYE week with the Raiders I don't go up there to games… I felt like the university turned its back on me, so I will turn my back on them."
Don James leaned forward and looked at me intently.
"I could have coached eleven more games and then resigned, and made $300,000 more money, with all my radio and TV contracts and endorsements. But if I did that, then I figured all my staff probably would have been let go, so I wanted to save the staff and give (newly-appointed successor) Jim Lambright a chance."
But it wasn't just Washington's roll over defense that Don James found most disappointing. The Pacific-10 Conference also discouraged him.
"The thing that frustrates me the most was that Carol and I's alma mater, the University of Miami, was going through similar problems. And the commissioner of their conference came out and said the University of Miami is like part of the family, they're one of us. We're going to work through this, we're going get this over. We're going to do everything we can to not hurt any of the programs.
"And I didn't hear that from the Pac-10", said James. "Why, since we had done so much for this league, why didn't they try to help? It seemed like they were out to get us because we were so good, rather than helping us get through this with the least amount of problems."
Former Washington Athletic Director Mike Lude was asked how he would have dealt with the sanctions had he still been at the helm: "I would have fought it very fiercely," he said. Instead, under the watch of Lude's successor Barbara Hedges, Washington made a series of conciliatory moves that compounded its downfall. On December 18, 1992, President Gerberding hired a Kansas City law firm to come in and investigate. Gerberding instructed them to not leave any stone unturned. Twelve days later, Washington agreed to join investigations with the Pac-10 and share all information.
Eight months later, during the news conference which was in the wake of Don James' resignation, Barbara Hedges sat before the cameras acting anxiously, and protested resolutely: "We believe the penalties are too harsh and unwarranted. We are shocked and stunned. We feel that this sets a precedent at a higher standard that is almost unheard of in the NCAA." Then answering a reporter's question about Don James, she said: "I don't think we realized how difficult this was for him. I believe the second year of the bowl ban did it."
The next day, University of Washington President William Gerberding issued the following statement:
"Neither the university's investigation nor that of the Pac-10 Conference found any instance of willful misconduct by any university employee. Whether one considers the penalties imposed by the conference to be appropriate or fair is a matter of individual judgment. I do not."
Hedges' and Gerberding's actions and comments are contradictory and hypocritical, when contrasted to what Don James describes of that fateful Saturday night phone call he received from Hedges—prior to the announcement to the media: "I mentioned to Barbara to tell Dr. Gerberding that if they go through with this, they're going to need a new coach here. But he wasn't even there at the meeting… And I never heard from Gerberding. I still haven't."
Our interview was drawing to a close, and I asked coach James whom he blamed for what happened.
"Well for starters, I think it's the Seattle Times," said James. "I live in this community and I watch them beat up everybody, not just the football program. I've watched them beat up on Boeing and Nordstrom and all the great industries and businesses in this community. They all get beat up by the local press. Maybe that happens everywhere. But I have lived in a lot of places and I haven't seen it elsewhere.
"But overall I was so disgusted with what had taken place. I really didn't know whom to blame, I still don't. I blame myself I guess, I don't know. You can call Barbara & Gerberding and get their side." Seated at his side, his wife Carol added: "They may not be absolutely honest with what happened." To that James quickly stated, "No, they don't want to take the blame for this."
In conclusion, I asked Don James if he was still bitter about what had occurred a decade ago.
"No, not at all," he said resolutely, and almost as if he was surprised by my question. "We profess to be Christians, and you can't go through life judging others. These are just the things as I perceive them to have happened, but it is over."
Then he paused, glancing out into an empty Husky Stadium, before looking back toward me and quietly adding: "Any time we go through trials in life, we come out as better people, better Christians."
Derek Johnson is a freelance writer and a columnist for Sports Washington magazine and Dawgman.com. He can be reached at email@example.com
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