Don James never quit

Last weekend I read an excellent article by Blaine Newnham in the Sunday Times. It read, "JAMES SAYS QUITTING PROBABLY SAVED HIS LIFE". It was a wonderful piece about why and when Don James decided to step down as the football coach of the Washington Huskies.

Mitch Levy and Hugh Millen on KJR really did a great job putting a bow on the whole 'story behind the story', but I still shiver whenever I hear the word 'quit'. Don James never quit at anything. Maybe it's just semantics, but James not quitting was an important part of Husky football.

He made the decision to step down as head coach because he refused to accept the punishment and sanctions leveled upon his program, which indirectly at least, implicated him. He was sold out by his own school's administration, the departmental administration, and his own conference.

For the record, I can tell you that Don James never cheated nor had any knowledge of cheating under his watch. Things happened that were outside of our control and embarrassing and certainly negative for the program, but the truth is, not a single charge or violation had anything to do with Don or his coaches. Sure, there were some accounting errors and the giving of fruit baskets by yours truly, but honestly, there was nothing to the scale of what recently has happened at the Ohio State University or what is currently being investigated at USC.

The major difference is Ohio State and USC are both choosing to defend their coaches and programs and both coaches have been rewarded with multi-million-dollar contracts for having won national championships. Coach James knew we were under attack from the outside but it was the sabotage from within that drove him to resignation.

I very distinctly remember Coach James stating in more than one meeting that he would fire any of his coaches who cheated in recruiting. We prided ourselves in doing it by the book and had been under the watchful eye of an ex-marine, Mike Lude, who further reiterated the necessity of being honest and forthright in everything we did. We had more and better rules communications with our alumni than anyone in the country. We had worked within the conference and at the national level to help implement a rules education program. We logged all our visits, phone calls, and contacts with every single kid we came in contact with. We sent the rules to every employer, every professor, and every person even indirectly involved with our recruiting system.

When our own school finally admitted to "lack of institutional control," it was a general admission of guilt and the reason why we were so harshly penalized. I had given all of our correspondence to them, a clear sign that there was plenty of "institutional control" taking place.

Coach James knew that none of us ever arranged cars, housing, loans, jobs or anything that was against the rules. There was no hidden cash, no organized effort to get money to kids, and no academic fraud. I personally held multiple rules meetings with all of our key alumni in every area of the west coast, our primary recruiting area. This included at least three meetings during the 80's at the office of Jim Kenyon, the Husky alumnus at the heart of the LA Times investigation. I was even told by my boss to disassociate myself with Kenyon because of the investigation. I refused to let anyone tell me who my friends were and to this day remain close friends with Kenyon.

During the middle of the firestorm created, in part by our own over-zealous local media, our players began pouring into my office with all sorts of tales of recruiting violations by every single school in our own conference. I started making a log of all the accusations but then we decided to take the high road and that it was more important to concentrate on our current team and let the games speak for the program. What good would it have done to drag every one else through the same mess we were in? Besides, we had been placed under a gag order by our own administration and told not to defend ourselves in public.

To this day I sincerely believe the gag order helped to bury us. No one ever heard our side and when the administration admitted their guilt they likewise admitted ours. We never got to defend ourselves and it was obvious the administration had no interest in defending us either.

On top of the gag order also came the realization that our own upper campus had hired a legal firm to not defend us, but to further implicate us. It was the same law firm that later got Florida State completely off the hook when their players received thousands of dollars in apparel and related benefits. Only with us they were trying to "uncover" all the crimes committed by the football program so that the UW administration could come clean. Our own people were trying to convict us. There was little or no effort to limit the investigation to the Billy Joe Hobert loan. It became, with the administration's support, an open and total investigation of anything and everything, and only after they couldn't pin anything on any of us did they decide to cop a plea.

During the whole affair I was at the center of the investigation. I had my hand in just about every aspect of the program from recruiting to jobs, academics, housing, gambling, drugs, alumni relations, and rules education and distribution. I never gave a kid a penny. I know I was an honest man but no one would believe me. I know in my own heart that I knew the rules better than anyone in the program, in the administration, in the whole athletic department, in the conference, and was active at the national level as well. I know we were not cheating and the primary reason was that Don James simply wouldn't allow it. We took the rules seriously and it was my job to stay on top of all the changes and to regularly interpret them for our coaches. I sat in on every daily meeting and rules were always included in each of my presentations. We had control over those in and close to the program. It was true that our own administration didn't know the rules themselves, but we did and we tried hard to obey them.

I will never blame Barbara Hedges for turning her back on us. She was a puppet of the upper campus. She was loyal to her bosses. She was more concerned about image and appearance rather than substance and integrity. She did what they told her to do. She capitulated right along with them when it came time to pleading guilty. They agreed and accepted the wide scope of the investigation and simply drove Coach James to resign rather than accept their confession of guilt. It was one of the worst days of my life, but I distinctly remember my private meeting with Coach and through the tears he explained to me that he could not accept the injustices of the sanctions.

He did not quit. He resigned under protest.

I have always believed that politics played a significant role in the problems we encountered in defending ourselves. Coach James was a conservative and the University was (and is) a bastion of liberalism. Coach had been reprimanded for publicly supporting Ronald Reagan. What happened to freedom of speech? He was simply too powerful, too well thought of, and too well-respected, besides being too conservative. When everything hit the fan at once, nobody wanted to believe we were innocent. Guilt was, and still is, assumed. The fact that Don James was not found guilty of anything never seemed to matter to anyone in the administration. The innocent players and coaches who had to live with the sanctions were at the heart of his resignation. It was out of his loyalty to them that he walked away.

He claims that it saved his life and I can fully understand his thinking. I too, believe I have lengthened my life by getting out of football. Nobody likes getting fired but it certainly comes with the profession of coaching. It has taken me half a decade to finally realize it was one of the nicest things that Barbara Hedges ever did for me. She probably saved my life. I no longer suffer from hypertension and high blood pressure. My lifestyle has changed dramatically. I have developed a better spiritual and physical balance to my life. I think I'm evolving into a much better person and it is primarily due to the reduction of stress in my life. I too, think getting out of football has probably saved my life.

I cannot go back and change history but I can say that Don James is one of the most honorable and ethically-conscious men I have ever known in my life. He fostered a work environment reflective of his own values. It was based on honor and integrity. It was old-school football taught the right way. The lessons were obvious to me. His system and organization were both reflective of the same values. He preached loyalty and commitment to each other. It was this loyalty that led to his resignation. The man never quit on the team, he resigned from an institution that refused to defend the team. I commend Blaine for giving a different slant on what was the beginning of the end of the dominance of Washington Football.

In the decade following his resignation, the Washington administration has thrown two more of it's own under the bus and fired yet another for their own incorrect rules interpretation.

All of us who have been there know that Tyrone Willingham is exactly the same kind of man that Coach James was - a man that believes in hard work, ethical conduct and trust in systems. He is doing things the right way. He is honest and he is committed to his student-athletes. I just hope he has enough success and then gets out of the profession when he chooses to. He represents all of what is good in the coaching, exactly like Don James did.

The big difference is that he has an administration that appears to have his back. He's the only Husky football coach who has had such backing since they got rid of Mike Lude. Certainly, if Mike had still been in charge when the scandals of the early nineties took place, Coach James would never have resigned.

Just like he would never have quit, because quit wasn't in him.


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