Washington's Don James a quiet force behind No. 1 college team

Those who know him say Coach Don James of the University of Washington, the No. 1 ranked college football team in the country by both wire services, has all the values you'd expect in a man who works a 25-hour day.

James is so modest that if he had a horn, he wouldn't blow it; owned a banner with a personal message, he wouldn't wave it; had an ego, would go out of his way to hide it. Don's philosophy runs more along the lines of: Flattery is alright as long as you don't inhale!

But make no mistake about it, this is a coach who knows how to put together a winning football program. His Huskies have gone to three Rose Bowls since 1978, held the nation's No. 1 ranking for a good part of the 1982 season, and are 9-0 so far this year.

If James had forged these statistics at some other big-time football school, the alumni would probably be out buying him automobiles, offering him television sets, or giving him tickets to Broadway shows. But priorities are different in the Pacific Northwest, where grabbing a diploma is still considered more important than grabbing a headline.

On Saturday, Don brings his Huskies, who have 45 takeaways this season on 24 fumble recoveries and 21 interceptions, into the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to play Southern California (6-0 in the conference) for the right to represent the Pacific-10 Conference in the 1985 Rose Bowl Game. Washington is ranked No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to only 9.2 points a game. In fact, no opponent has scored more than 15 points.

But if the Huskies should happen to come up short against the improved Trojans, James won't skip the post-game press conference, offer a set of tired cliches, or blame the officials.

The question, ''What kind of a coach is James?'' might be better answered if it were rephrased to read, ''What kind of a person is James?''

I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that Howard Cosell would buy a used car from this man without bothering to kick the tires. In fact, most bus drivers in Seattle would probably allow him to ride public transportation even if he didn't have the right change.

The one thing you won't get from a Don James-coached team is a lot of chrome trim, air horn, and rear fenders that resemble fishtails. What you will get is a combination of fundamentals, Marine-like physical conditioning, and a game plan each week that the opposition worries will exploit all of its known weaknesses plus some it hasn't discovered yet.

Of course to construct an ongoing winning football program in a conference the size of the Pacific-10, the coach must also be a super recruiter. It says here that over the years, James has gotten more than his share of blue-chip West Coast athletes who were also aggressively approached by USC, UCLA, and others. That Don is the dean of Pac-10 coaches with a decade on the job obviously has given the program an attractive stability.

Although Washington this year has beaten Northwestern, Michigan, Houston, Miami of Ohio, Oregon State, Stanford, Oregon, Arizona, and California, until last week the experts seemed reluctant to give James's offense more than a passing grade. Maybe that's because they were looking at the Husky schedule, which is loaded with unranked teams. Then, too, this sometimes happens when a school doesn't have a quarterback or a runner with Heisman Trophy credentials.

What some observers may have overlooked, however, is that Washington has outscored the opposition 279-83. And in Jacque Robinson, the Huskies have a tailback who was the Rose Bowl MVP as a freshman, led the Pac-10 in rushing as a sophomore, and has gained more than 2,000 yards in his four-year career. Robinson began this season on the bench, but is now a major contributor again, and had 152 yards and three touchdowns in last Saturday's lopsided victory over California.

The shakiest offensive area has been quarterback, where James benched Hugh Millen last Saturday against California and gave Paul Sicuro his first start of the season. Sicuro, a junior, threw for three touchdowns as the Huskies rolled up 44 points while gaining 475 total yards. Half that figure probably would be good enough to beat Southern California, assuming that Washington's defense continues to play with its usual intensity.

I once wrote that the way James coaches, no one is ever going to see a Husky back who carries the ball 30 times a game; a quarterback who lives strictly by his throwing arm; or a pass receiver who figures in every other play. Don has always maintained a closet full of baskets, thus avoiding any possibility of getting eggs on his face.

At the same time, James recognizes the importance of sometimes doing the unexpected, especially if the opposition has its defense in tight or is overcompensating to the strong side of the field. Don has been known to go against the book by occasionally running in an apparent passing situation, and vice versa. But he doesn't flaunt it when it works, and he picks his spots for this kind of thing very carefully.

Asked what it takes to win at a school that is off the beaten path as far as a lot of kids with stars in their eyes are concerned, James replied:

''It takes exactly the same things it takes anywhere - talent, organization, preparation, and especially defense. I'm always surprised when a team that hasn't done well, and decides it has to have a new coach, goes out and hires an offensive specialist. Sure, offense is important, but defense is where you win.''

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