Don James – Wall of Champions

Massillon native Don James grew up in a family of football players, with four of the five brothers pursuing the sport at least at the high school level.  One sibling, Tom, went on to play for Ohio State and the Cleveland Browns, while Don opted for the coaching ranks, spending more years than any of them in the football arena, as a player at Miami of Florida, then and as a head coach at  both Kent State University and the University of Washington.

Standing: Don, Tommy and Art; Seated: Bob

Donald Earl James was born in Massillon on December 31, 1932, and it was a natural that he play football for the Tigers.  “Massillon’s got that wonderful tradition, so from the day you’re born that’s all you hear about,” said James.  “The great teams, the great players, the successes.  You know the people in this town just really respect the young people – and they want to help them to do well.  They’ve got something a lot of people are never going to be able to capture.” – Massillon Memories, Scott H. Shook, 1998.

James played varsity football in 1948 and 1949 as a quarterback under Head Coach Chuck Mather.  In his junior year he was the backup, throwing one touchdown pass, a 25-yarder to Irvine “Ace” Crable.  The team finished 9-1 that year and was named state champion.

In his senior year, James was promoted to the starting quarterback position and he led his team to another 9-1 record and state championship.  The Tigers that year outscored their opponents, 395-91, with James throwing five TD passes, the shortest being 26 yards.  Only once-beaten Mansfield and unbeaten Canton McKinley mounted any serious challenge.  Massillon lost to the No. 2 Tygers 16-12, but defeated the Bulldogs, 6-0.

The McKinley game was special to James.  “You know, the week of the game there’s not a helluva lot on anybody’s mind but the [Massillon-McKinley] game,” he said.  “So much is brought up about the tradition and history and former games and former players – and there’s a little hatred mixed in there – competitive hatred.  You don’t want to lose to these guys if you lose to anybody.  I would compare McKinley Week to, as a coach out at Washington, getting ready to play USC or the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl – not just any Bowl – one of the big ones, here there’s so much on the line and so much visibility involved.” – Massillon Memories, Scott H. Shook, 1998.

Following the season James was awarded a scholarship to play for the University of Miami in Florida, under Head Coach Andy Gustafson, where he was a starter at quarterback during his junior and senior years.  In 1952 the Hurricanes finished 4-7 and then went 4-5 the following year, with James completing 39 of 75 passes for 450 yards and three touchdowns.  Along the way he set three Miami single-season records, including completions (121), yards (1,363) and completion percentage.  Later, in 1992, he was inducted into the University of Miami Sports Hall of Fame.

Having completed his degree in education, James was commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army, where he served from 1954-56.  Following discharge, he began to pursue his coaching interests.

The first stop was at the University of Kansas as a graduate assistant under Mather.  “Chuck Mather was extremely organized,” said James, recalling his time at Massillon.  “Playing quarterback you got to spend a little more time with him.  I just idolized those coaches.  In fact, that’s when I decided to coach.” – Massillon Memories, Scott H. Shook, 1998.  His tenure at Kansas also allowed him to complete a Master’s degree in education.  Following a year as an assistant at Southwest Miami High School, he put in twelve seasons as a college assistant at Florida State, Michigan and Colorado, until then being offered a head coaching position at Kent State.

James served four years (1971-74) guiding the Golden Flashes, while compiling a 25-19-1 record.  His best season was in 1972 when his team finished 9-2 as Mid-American Champion and was invited to the Tangerine Bowl.  Unfortunately, they lost that game 21-18 to Tampa.  But along the way he had the opportunity to coach Jack Lambert (Pittsburgh Steelers player), Nick Saban (current Alabama coach) and Gary Pinkel (Missouri coach).

The University of Washington hired James away from Kent in 1975 and he stayed with the Huskies through the 1992 season, enjoying great success along the way.  The highlight was winning the 1991 National Championship.  By the end of his eighteen years there he had compiled an overall record of 150-60-2 and a PAC-8/PAC-10 mark of 97-38-2.  Six times his team captured the PAC championship and played in the Rose Bowl against the winner of the Big-10.  Here are his years:

  • 1975: 6-5 record
  • 1976: 5-6 record
  • 1977: 8-4 record, 1st in the PAC, defeated Michigan 27-20 in the Rose Bowl
  • 1978: 7-4 record
  • 1979: 9-3 record, 2nd in the PAC, defeated Texas 14-7 in the Sun Bowl
  • 1980: 9-3 record, 1st in the PAC, lost to Michigan 23-6 in the Rose Bowl
  • 1981:10-2 record, 1st in the PAC, defeated Iowa 28-0 in the Rose Bowl
  • 1982: 10-2 record, 2nd in the PAC, lost to Maryland 21-20 in the Aloha Bowl
  • 1983: 8-4 record, 2nd in the PAC, lost to Penn State 13-10 in the Aloha Bowl
  • 1984: 11-1 record, 2nd in the PAC, 2nd in Coaches Poll, 2nd in the AP, defeated Oklahoma 28-17 in the Orange Bowl
  • 1985: 7-5 record, lost to Colorado in the Freedom Bowl
  • 1986: 8-3-1 record, lost to Alabama 28-6 in the Sun Bowl
  • 1987: 7-4-1 record, defeated Tulane 24-12 in the Independence Bowl
  • 1988: 6-5 record
  • 1989: 8-4 record, defeated Florida 34-7 in the Freedom Bowl
  • 1990: 10-2 record, 1st in the PAC, defeated Iowa 46-34 in the Rose Bowl
  • 1991: 12-0 record, 1st in the PAC, 1st in Coaches Poll, 2nd in the AP, defeated Michigan 34-14 in the Rose Bowl
  • 1992: 9-3 record, tied for 1st in the PAC, lost to Michigan 38-31 in the Rose Bowl

Washington’s 1991 national championship was awarded by the Coaches Poll, but Miami was named No. 1 by the Associated Press.  It came down to a matter of bowl game matchups.  The A.P. rankings entering the post-season were:

  1. Miami
  2. Washington
  3. Florida
  4. Michigan
  5. Florida State

In today’s world Miami would have played Washington for the title.  But back then the winner of the PAC was committed by contract to play the top team in the Big Ten, that year being No. 4 Michigan, which the Huskies defeated soundly, 34-14.  Whereas, Miami was matched against Nebraska, which was tied for first in the Big-8 and ranked No. 11.  The Hurricanes defeated the Sooners 22-0 in the Orange Bowl and hung onto their No. 1 ranking in the A.P.  But the Coaches Poll saw it differently and elevated Washington to the Number One spot.

James’ final season was 1992, after which he resigned in protest following allegations that several players on that team had received improper benefits, which resulted in an investigation by the NCAA.  Although the coaches were cleared of any wrong-doings regarding the players, Washington was cited for exhibiting “lack of institutional control” of recruiting funds and thereby received a 1-year bowl ban.  So that was the end of James’ long coaching career.  Nevertheless, Washington has never forgotten this very successful coach and honored him with a bronze statue that sits in the Husky Stadium plaza.

Don James remained close to his roots and in 1952 married Carol Hoobler of Massillon.  Together they had three children: Jeff, Jill and Jeni.  He died in Kirkland, Washington, on October 20, 2013, of pancreatic cancer.

James received many deserving awards throughout his career, including: