Anyone with Seattle roots remembers the glory days of the UW Husky football team – the winning seasons of the late 1970s and 1980s that led to the 1991 national championship. That era was synonymous with the name “Don James.”
Since James left the Huskies following the 1992 season, the team really hasn’t been the same. While James coached for 18 years, the Huskies have cycled through six coaches since he left. This year the Huskies are headed to the Cactus Bowl on Jan. 2, after finishing 8-5 – their second-best finish over the past 14 years.
As we head toward college football bowl season I can think of no better time to introduce you to a new book about James by three-year UW letterman linebacker Peter Tormey, who played for James from 1976 to 1979. He earned a Ph.D. in Leadership Studies from Gonzaga University in 2007. For his doctoral dissertation, Tormey examined how James used language – particularly in his weekly pregame “Thursday Speeches” – to transform the UW football program from mediocrity to national champion.
As a football player, Peter experienced many of James’ compelling pregame speeches firsthand. James trusted Peter with his treasure trove of speeches, granting him nearly exclusive access to the documents. Soon after James died of pancreatic cancer on Oct. 20, 2013, Peter made it his mission to share James’ wisdom with others by creating the book, “The Thursday Speeches: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Football from Coach Don James.”
Peter published it Nov. 25 and it is rapidly receiving critical acclaim. It’s ranked atop the list of hot new football coaching books on Amazon.com. In a five-star review (on Amazon.com), legendary Seattle sportswriter Steve Rudman called “The Thursday Speeches” a “must read for anyone interested in the art of leadership, character building and the nature of success. Don James was a genius. Thanks to Mr. Tormey, here’s a chance to learn from a master.”
Peter described “The Thursday Speeches” as follows:
“This book puts readers in the room with the legendary 18-year Husky coach, revealing the exact words James used to inspire the Huskies to slay the football giants of his day. Packed with inspiring stories and invaluable life lessons, the book also contains new insights into James’ leadership.
“James wrote the speeches before practice each Wednesday, by longhand, on 11-by-14-inch yellow legal pads. After making final edits on Thursday, James recited them – typically with fierce intensity – to his teams before a light practice,” Tormey said.
James, who compiled a record of 153-57-2 at Washington, is the most successful football coach in the history of the University of Washington and the Pacific-12 Conference.
“As but one measure of his coaching excellence, Sports Illustrated once named the three best college football coaches in the country: No. 1, Don James; No. 2, Don James; No. 3, Don James,” Tormey said.
“This book is an appreciative tribute to a great man,” said Tormey, a member of James’ second UW recruiting class. “Coach James inspired so many of us with his toughness, his commitment to competitive greatness, his unmatched capacity for work, and his abiding belief in the importance of a positive attitude. I hope this book will allow many more people to benefit from his inspirational words and wisdom.”
The book is organized into four sections:
Part I: Getting to the Rose Bowl – chronicles, through interviews and his Thursday speeches, James’ early struggles to change attitudes. This section reveals the details behind James’ decision to move into his office in his first UW season (for the remainder of the season) after a crushing loss to Alabama. This section also describes how James’ commitment helped the Huskies come within a hairsbreadth of going to the Rose Bowl in his first season, and set the stage for their Rose Bowl championship in his third season and Washington’s eventual national championship. This section also describes how James developed his “Pyramid of Objectives” goal construct after listening to a lecturer at a University of Washington engineering conference. A graphic depicting James’ “Pyramid of Objectives” was listed in the Huskies’ playbook and is included in this book as well.
Part II: Themes of “The Thursday Speeches” – excerpts, listed chronologically, from James’ Thursday speeches about the subjects he addressed most frequently in these talks to his teams.
- Life Lessons
- Competitive Greatness
- Visualizing Victory
Part III: Glimmers – Short essays on a variety of topics derived from interviews with Coach James. These essays include “Learning from Legends,” the legendary coaches who influenced James the most; “The Leader as Role Model,” how James approached leadership differently when he became a head coach; “Coaches Are Teachers” in which James – who earned a master’s degree in education – understood the principles of effective teaching and worked to ensure his assistants were effective teachers; and “Leading from the Tower” in which James explains that he viewed Husky practices from atop a tower not because he was aloof but for purely practical reasons. Among other topics, this section also explores how James attributes his focus on the kicking game to success in his first seven years at Washington.
Part IV: A Lasting Legacy – Comments about Coach James’ influence from Coach Gary Pinkel, University of Missouri; Coach Nick Saban, University of Alabama; Sam Wick, friend; Jeffrey James, grandson; James’ pastor, Rev. Jerry Mitchell; and Jill Woodruff, one of James’ three children.
James led his teams to 15 bowl games (10-5) including nine straight from 1979-87. He guided the Huskies to six Rose Bowls and is one of only four coaches to win four Rose Bowl games. His 1991 team finished the season 12-0, beat Michigan in the Rose Bowl, and was named National Champion by USA Today/CNN, UPI, the Football Writers, Sports Illustrated, and several computer rankings.
Exhibiting a voracious appetite for reading and an expansive intellect, James uses a wide range of stories to engage the Huskies, including topics such as his views on the disparate approaches to goal-setting by Freud and Frankl; how the Cheshire Cat in “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” related to the Huskies’ goals; the benefits of suffering; the importance of attitude; the keys to problem-solving; the true meaning of fun, and many others. He fashions speeches around figures including George Washington Carver, Benjamin Franklin, Julius Caesar, Vince Lombardi, Helen Keller, Romano Banuelos, among others.
Communication scholar Klaus Krippendorff (1995) examined the ways that great leaders employ language to construct a new version of reality for their followers. The late French philosopher and scholar Michel Foucault (1979) suggested power is “exercised rather than possessed.” Krippendorff took this a step further to point out the indisputable relationship of language to power: “Power is exercised rather than possessed, by someone and in words.”
“James’ transformation of the UW program proves what Krippendorff theorized: Leaders who are skilled using language have the power to literally speak things into being,” said Tormey. “This book shows this is precisely what Coach James did.”
If you love the Huskies, are a coach, or are looking for inspiration, consider getting this book for yourself or as a gift for someone else. Peter is donating a portion of the proceeds to the UW’s Don James Football Endowment Fund to provide scholarship assistance to student-athletes who participate in the Husky football program.