Athlon sat down with one of college football's greats to talk Washington football and more.
-by Braden Gall (@AthlonBraden on twitter)
Athlon Sports' Braden Gall had a chance to sit down with legendary Washington Huskies football coach Don James. The 1991 National Champion coach touched on the evolution of college football, the current NCAA landscape, his favorite memories and the future of Washington Husky football.
Braden Gall: You started your career at Kent State. What was it like coaching Nick Saban, Gary Pinkel and Jack Lambert all at the same time?
Don James: When I got there, the coach said you’ve got half a dozen guys that you are going to be delighted with because of their attitude and effort. And then you got about a half dozen guys you absolutely have to get rid of because they are going to do everything they can to destroy the locker room. It was safe to say that those three guys were on the good list.
BG: Talk about the job Steve Sarkisian has done so far at Washington.
DJ: I think he has done a great job. He started from an 0-12 season and last year they were 3-6 before winning the last three games to get bowl eligible. And I think two of those wins came with the ball in the air for a field goal when the clock was running out. Then I went down [to San Diego] to see the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska and that was by far their best game of the season. So they have clearly made progress. And [Keith Price] has a much better supporting cast than Jake Locker had. Poor Jake stayed there and helped us without a lot of support. Quarterbacks can play better with good defenses because they get better field position and they get the other team off the field. So, I think we have made good progress.
BG: You were there when the Pac-8 grew to the Pac-10. The conference just went through a major transition with the growth to 12 teams. What are your thoughts on the growth of the conference and the job Larry Scott has done?
DJ: I think he has done a great job, obviously with the [TV] contracts. I was always opposed to expansion because I have mentioned many times if you have a paint store on one block you don’t want two more paint stores coming in on the same block. So I was always a fan of the Pac-8. Of course, then we grew to the Pac-10 and I have learned to live with that and I understand the need for it.
But now I think TV and money dictates everything. You want to get to 12 teams so you can have a championship game and generate more income. Now I see where they are considering ways to pay the athletes, but how are the MAC and other mid-majors schools that don’t get giant crowds going to do that? I don’t understand it. They get academic counseling, they get room, board, books, tuition and fees. Now the NCAA allows summer school as well, so they are very well paid.
BG: What is the biggest difference in college football between the beginning of your tenure versus the end of your career – and now 20 years later?
DJ: When I first got started, I coached at Florida State then went to Michigan and then Colorado. So I got different, great areas of football experience.
Everything changes. Before it used to be players were being paid in some conferences like the old Southwest Conference. Then alums were taken out of the equation. And now it looks like the alums are back in. NFL football grew and then we had agent problems. You know we will probably always have agent problems. Now they are sneaking around trying to get a hold of your young players and get them committed. The situation at Miami, where I played, is unbelievable.
The NCAA rules have taken football coaches away from their players. When I was at Florida State we bed-checked those kids every night of the year and we could work out winter programs to the day. And now it’s a 20-hour work week. So they have taken the coaches away from the players but the coaches are more responsible for the players. So you tell me how that is going to work?
BG: What would you say the toughest part of being a current college football coach is?
DJ: You always have the high pressure of the media because now you have the internet and everybody knows who the top high school players are. So you are being second-guessed on evaluation all the time. I never relied on media for my evaluation. We are going to do that as a staff.
It changes, like I said. We have taken alums out of recruiting and now it seems they are back in it according to the Miami situation. How do you control a guy you don’t even know or see?
The biggest change has been, of course, offering scholarships to juniors. I never had to do that. I saw some guys that were obviously great prospects but I never wanted to offer one a scholarship until they were done with their senior year.
BG: Talk about the 1991 team that won the national championship. What does that group mean to you and what did it mean to share that title with your alma mater?
DJ: First of all, it was sort of a mythical situation where you had two championships. And back in 1984, we won the 1985 Orange Bowl and we lost out in the vote to BYU. I wanted to win one, but you never knew until the votes come in. I think [in 1991] that we were the greatest football team maybe ever up to that date. We had speed, youth, experience, top draft choices, and I think we could have beaten Miami even though they are my alma mater. Obviously they thought they could beat us, but I guess we will never know.
BG: Talk about the favorite places you like to go play?
DJ: There was never any places I liked to go play. If you played at Texas A&M you weren’t going to hear a snap count. There was no way those students were going to let you hear the snap count. So you had to adjust. Arizona State kind of turned into that when John Cooper was there. He was waving a towel and getting the crowd noise up. So I went back to our fans at Washington and I said when teams come into Husky Stadium, they don’t deserve to hear a snap count. So we got our fans revved up. The referee used to step in at the goal-line and try to get the fans to settle down. Fortunately, the refs finally gave up and let the fans make as much noise as they want. You can adjust your offense to go on silent counts or at the snap of the ball.
Stadiums that were tough? It wasn’t tough going to Oregon, Oregon State or Washington State for a while, but then they got good. And those stadiums got much tougher because they are a little smaller, there is no track and the fans are almost right on the field.
BG: Who were some of the most memorable players you coached or coached against?
DJ: The ones you read about everyday. Lambert was a great player for the Steelers and in the NFL Hall of Fame. I like the guys that are coaching now. Dave Christenson at Wyoming played for me and he coached for Gary Pinkel. Of course, Gary played for me and coached with me, working his way up through the ranks. I could see his development.
I kind of got Nick Saban started in coaching. I think his wife needed another year to get her degree so we encouraged him to come out and coach with us. He does a great job. I think those type of guys and I watch their scores and progress.
Then there is a lot of guys who were great kids and great players. Napoleon Kaufman played with the Raiders and now he has a church in Oakland. He has done some great things, so you follow those guys. But there are a lot of guys who have done really well and are successful. I remember mostly the ones who came back to help the University, contribute and go to games.
BG: Any particular players you remember preparing for and thinking how are we going to stop this guy?
DJ: You know there was a quarterback who played at Stanford and played for the Denver Broncos that was probably the hardest guy to prepare for because he was so big and strong. The Elway family was originally from Washington, you know, and we knew about him and tried to recruit him. We probably came close but didn’t get him.
You wanted to try to keep him in the pocket to throw, because if he got outside he could beat you throwing and running. He was probably the hardest player to defend against.
BG: Talk about the Xs and Os. What are the biggest differences in scheme between when you were coaching and today’s game?
DJ: It always changes. When I was at Florida State we threw the ball a ton and looked like an NFL team with Steve Tensi and Fred Biletnikoff. We had great defenses and that is kind of what I built my reputation on. And back in those days we would go to the San Diego Chargers camp and learn everything we could about the NFL, throwing the ball, routes and coverages.
Then I got to the wishbone and we got in real tight like Bud Wilkinson at Oklahoma: Run six plays and run them well. Of course, then I was with Eddie Crowder at Colorado. So I got a little bit of that background. Then Woody Hayes – we’re not going to throw the ball. Of course, I grew up in the SEC coaching and that was with Bobby Dodd and General Neyland and those guys. You know, they would punt on third down when they were backed up. The kicking game was just so important back then. Kicking game, defense and run the ball.
Then I worked with Keith Gilbertson my last couple of years here and we had the one-back sets. But when you saw us go to one back, all you worried about was the draw. (Plus all the throwing.) So I brought in Keith and I wanted to do some of the things the Washington Redskins were doing with the counter trey out of the one-back set pulling two linemen and so forth. So I wanted to be a running team also out of the one-back.
So we adjusted and then they adjusted to us. Then we became a blitz team and played man-to-man and blitzed almost every down and had some great defensive years.
The defenses always catch up. It’s going to be interesting to me to see what the defenses do to stop the Oregon offense, for example. They don’t ever want you to huddle up. Pinkel did that with Christenson at Missouri and now Dave’s doing it at Wyoming. It changes and it’s constantly on the change. The offenses do something good and eventually the defenses catch up.
BG: What is your favorite college town in America?
DJ: I grew up in Massillon, Ohio, and as far as high school football goes, you can't hardly beat that. I think the Big Ten schools were special – Michigan and Ohio State. When I was out at Colorado, you couldn’t beat Nebraska. In fact, you couldn’t beat them at home either. They would bring more people into our stadium than we had.
You can go all over the country and find great places. The Coliseum is big, and playing UCLA was always special once UCLA started playing in the Rose Bowl. It was always a thrill just to go to the Rose Bowl. We went to six of them. There are so many great stadiums out there.
BG: In light of what is happening with Miami, is there anything that can be done with all the boosters, go-betweens and agents causing problems?
DJ: You have to fix it with your own players. And I am sure coaches now are doing the same things I did with my players. You have got to tell them the rules. They need to pass an NCAA rules test. And then continue to hammer them with rules. We would hammer our kids about agents and alums all the time. They can't take you to dinner, they can't call you.
And you just have to recruit good kids too. Poor kids are the problem. You bring in kid you doesn’t have a dime and someone like that guy down at Miami is offering them this stuff. And obviously he is down there in prison, so he is obviously not a high character guy. He couldn’t care less about the NCAA rules. He wanted to get close to the athletes. And there are lots of alums like that, they want to get to know the kids and do things for them. You have to keep in front of your own guys. Recruit high quality kids and keep them abreast of the rules and just keep hammering.
Special thanks to Athlon Sports partner The Legends Poll
Other Legend's Interviews: