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Mr. Flexibility
Douglas S. Looney
December 30, 1991
Because coach Don James was willing to make changes, Washington is on the brink of a national title
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December 30, 1991

Mr. Flexibility

Because coach Don James was willing to make changes, Washington is on the brink of a national title

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That spring James fired an assistant for the first time in his then 18 years as a head coach. The victim was Dan Dorazio, who had been on the staff for five years and is now the offensive coordinator at Holy Cross. Says Dorazio, "He told me he was disappointed in the offensive line play and that it was my responsibility."

So is Dorazio bitter? Hardly.

" Coach James is an outstanding football coach and a great human being. He's consistent, fair, honest. He's as good as there is." Dorazio's dismissal was a staff wake-up call. Nobody slept through it.

That same year James brought in Gilbertson, who had been the coach at Idaho, to install the one-back offense. Gilbertson understood the nuances of the system. James did not. Says Gilbertson, " Coach James likes to change, grow, experiment, ask questions. He always wants to do what is best for his football team."

James was so disgusted with 1988 that he refused a raise and let his normal five-year rollover contract, which is automatically extended at the end of every season, be reduced to four. "I wanted to send a subtle message," says James, "that I understood we were expected to produce."

James lifted his sights. The Huskies had always pointed toward winning the conference and going to the Rose Bowl. In '89 he bought a new attach� case and set the three-digit lock combination to 120. Translation: 12-0. Maybe the Huskies had not been dreaming big enough. The combination on the attach� is still 120. And this year the Husky goal was not the Pac-10 title but a national championship.

On Nov. 4, 1989, the Huskies were beaten by Arizona State 34-32. The next day James told his staff that there would have to be sweeping changes in the defense. In the old scheme opposing quarterbacks were able to easily read blitzes and take advantage with a three-step drop. It was decided to go to the attack defense. "This was a very big change for Don," says defensive coordinator Jim Lambright.

James also started listening to his players. Last season they wanted to wear purple pants on the road. He said O.K. This year they wanted black shoes. He said O.K. Having made all these changes, James awoke one morning in the fall of 1990 to a Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard poll that said he was "the most overrated coach in the Pac-10." He put it in his desk drawer and referred to it for inspiration.

Last season only an upset loss to UCLA kept the Huskies from a possible national championship, which illustrates the efficacy of James's changes. And this year there is no team in the land with better depth. Heading into preseason drills Washington was a clear national championship contender, largely because of Mark Brunell, the 1991 Rose Bowl MVP (in a 46-34 win over Iowa) and the best running quarterback to come out of Seattle since Warren Moon in 1977. In summer practice, however, Brunell tore up his right knee and was clearly going to miss much of the season. That left Hobert, a sophomore, who in 1990 threw just six passes and who had been so unhappy after his freshman year that he tried to transfer to Miami. Everyone was devastated, and James admits, "We had such great hope. With our first two games against Stanford and Nebraska, we knew it was going to be very difficult even with Mark, and suddenly we had to face doing it without him."

Then James reevaluated his talent and the schedule and reckoned what the season record would likely be, even without Brunell: "Ten and one, at the worst," he said. Nebraska was the possible blip. On Sept. 21 the Huskies beat the Huskers 36-21. Washington was never seriously in trouble all year. All Hobert did was pass for a school-record 22 touchdowns.

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