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Don James' impact still felt throughout college football

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Don James, who passed away Sunday, was a mentor to a handful of current head coaches. (Photo courtesy of the UW)

By Brent Stecker

Don James was the "Dawgfather", a multiple-time coach-of-the-year award winner and the leader of the 1991 co-national champions. But above all, the longtime former Washington Huskies football coach, who died Sunday at 80, was a mentor whose influence is still felt throughout the college game today.

Current Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian knows he'll always be following a trail that James blazed in his 18 years at Washington, and he said that was a big reason he decided to come to Seattle five years ago.

"I think Coach James set a standard of excellence that is felt here every day," Sarkisian said Monday. "It goes without saying that we lost a legend, and not just here at the University of Washington, but in football. ... We're trying to live up to a standard that he set, but that's the reason I chose this job. I came here to win championships, and Coach James set that standard."

James did that by winning six conference titles and the 1991 co-national championship with the Huskies, and it was a cool confidence that helped him reach those levels of success. Sarkisian spoke of seeing that demeanor up close before the Huskies' Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska in 2010.

"We went to the Holiday Bowl in a nationally-televised game and we were behind another game that was in overtime, so the kickoff time got pushed back and pushed back, and everybody was antsy on the field to get the game started and to get going. I walked over to Coach James and we shook hands and we talked for a minute and he just had a unique, quiet confidence about him that I'm sure his players and coaches felt from him," Sarkisian said.

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A conversation he had with Don James before the Huskies' Holiday Bowl win over Nebraska in 2010 still sticks with Washington coach Steve Sarkisian. (AP)
"He had an aura of, 'We're gonna go win, and we're gonna go play really well,' and I felt it then from him. This was in a ballgame where we had just lost to this team (Nebraska) two months earlier by 35 points, and it really resonated with me that the impact that you can have, it's not always about the words that you say, but it's truly who you are and what you represent and how you represent yourself that can have as much of an impact as the words that you say, and I've tried to really carry that with me."

Sarkisian is just the tip of the iceberg of coaches that have been influenced by James. UCLA's Jim Mora, Alabama's Nick Saban and Missouri's Gary Pinkel, who all lead teams ranked in the top 15 in the nation, played for and served as coaches under James.

"If you look at the impact he's left on this game, it's quite staggering. It's well beyond his years at Washington, as it should be because he's a great man," Ed Cunningham, a former Huskies center and ESPN college football analyst, told 710 ESPN Seattle's "Brock and Danny" Monday.

Mora, who played for James at Washington from 1980 to 1983 and was a graduated assistant in 1984, told "Brock and Danny" that he still feels his former coach's influence daily.

"I don't think that there is anyone that ever played for Coach James or coached for Coach James that wasn't tremendously influenced by him," Mora said. "I still find myself almost every day in my coaching career drawing from a lesson I learned from Coach James sitting in his meetings or playing for him on the practice field or during the game. ... Not a day I don't think about something Don James said or did that impacted me."

Pinkel went from playing for James at Kent State to coaching under him numerous times, including as Washington's offensive coordinator from 1984 to 1990.

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Alabama's Nick Saban, the winner of four national titles, considers Don James the biggest influence in his coaching career. "Our program today is run much like he ran his program," Saban said. (AP)
"It's hard to put into words how much it hurts to lose a man like Don James," Pinkel said in a statement Sunday. "He was my coach, my mentor, my friend, and he had such an amazing influence on my life, both personally and professionally. The program we built at Toledo and here at Missouri is Don James' program, it's a tribute to how he developed men and built football teams. This is a tough, tough day, and I'm so sorry for his wife, Carol, and the James family, as well as the entire Washington Huskies family.

"Coach James was a legend, and if I'm remembered for anything, I hope that it might be that I helped carry his legacy forward."

Saban – the winner of four national championships, including two in a row at Alabama – played for James with Pinkel at Kent State in 1970 and 1971, and has long said James is his biggest coaching influence.

"He was a special man and meant the world to me. There aren't enough words to describe not only the great coach he was, but how much he cared for people and the positive impact he made in the lives of everyone he came in contact with," Saban said in a statement released by the University of Alabama.

"Coach James was my mentor and probably did more than anybody to influence me in this profession. ... From an organizational standpoint, our program today is run much like he ran his program. He was very organized, efficient, and did an outstanding job of defining expectations for players, coaches and everyone in the organization.

"He was always personal and inspirational to players and people around him. He wanted you to reach your full potential as a football player, but more importantly, he wanted you to do well in school and become the best person you could be so you would be successful in life. He was the same way when it came to assistant coaches or anyone who worked for him, you were a better person because of the time you spent with Coach James."

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