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COMMENTARY : A True Winner Wouldn't Quit


So now we should all feel sorry for Don James?

James, erstwhile football coach at the University of Washington, is variously described as an outstanding football coach, an upright man, an emotional stoic, a class act. He may very well be all of those things. If he is, though, he has a strange way of showing it.

James quit Saturday night after learning that Washington would be penalized heavily by the Pacific 10 Conference for violations primarily related to his football team.

What is that bromide that so many coaches have posted prominently in their locker rooms? Something like, "When the going gets tough, the tough . . . " Well, never mind. It's merely another sports cliche.

But James, all through the investigations that led to the Pac-10 sanctions, has been in denial. Others at the school, careful not to say anything that might reflect poorly on good old Unca Donald, have acknowledged that mistakes were made, that maybe not enough attention was paid to booster activities, that, by golly, the Huskies are sorry as Huskies can be that this whole business happened.


He has barely acknowledged the problem. And when he did address it, it was only to point out that others--not his coaching staff, and certainly not he --were responsible for the violations. He never quite said it, but his implication was clear: Boosters are kind of a necessary evil if you're going to have a successful program, but the football staff really has nothing to do with them and certainly no control over them.

Yeah, right.

You have to admire the audacity of coaches who expect us to believe that they know nothing of booster activities, but you don't have to admire much else. It's the old "I don't want to know" dodge. And, of course, in James' case, he didn't mind that $100,000 of his yearly income was paid by Husky boosters.

It's not hard to understand James' disappointment. Who wouldn't be upset? But his pouting, his petulance are unbecoming a man of his repute. And he seems to have a problem--a real problem--with accountability.

Sure, the penalties were harsh, perhaps harsher than the violations warranted. The Pac-10 might have decided it was time for some message-sending. But there were violations and they did happen on his watch, whether he was directly involved or not. And when you are the boss, you are responsible--for everything.

Perhaps if James had acknowledged that somewhere along the line, had taken a little responsibility, the penalties would have been less drastic.

Instead, though, James fumed and denied. Critics were picking on the Huskies because they were good. And in the end, citing the unfairness of it all, he quit. He quit.

Nobody said he had to go. Not the Pac-10. Not Washington. Nobody even said he had to do things differently from now on. The school was perfectly willing to take all the heat off him.

But he looked at the mess, pointed out, again, that it was none of his doing and walked away from it. Somebody else can clean it up.

That's a great thought to leave his football team: When you get in a game you can't win, quit.

James could have made it through all this and added to his stature simply by being a responsible human being, instead of an I'm-the-coach-so-I-must-be-right whiner.

All he had to do was acknowledge that he should have been paying more attention off the field, pick up the pieces and start putting them back together. He might not have been the big winner on the field that he has become so accustomed to being, but he would have still been a winner.

And in two years, when the penalties have been served and Washington is ready to take its place again in the Pac-10 football scheme of things, he could have decided then whether the coaching business was still worthwhile. Had he decided it wasn't, he could have walked away with a clean slate. He would have taken care of the mess himself.

Instead, we got: "I have decided that I can no longer coach in a conference that treats its members, its coaches and their players so unfairly. . . . I don't have the energy to fight this."

It's a shame that Don James is not going to be around to coach Washington football this year, or any other year. It's too bad that Washington can't compete for the conference championship for the next couple of seasons, or play in any bowl games. James and his Huskies were almost always well worth watching.

But James and Washington--not some renegade boosters--are solely responsible for those developments. In the end, there is nobody else to blame. And to feel sorry for them . . . well, as the little girl in the comics used to say about the Katzenjammer Kids, they brought it on themselves.

And James, he of the impeccable reputation, is certainly not the first coach to stand piously on the moral high ground--seeing no evil, hearing no evil, speaking no evil--while the high ground settles and turns to quicksand. Unfortunately, he also won't be the last.

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