Peter Tormey, author of “The Thursday Speeches: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Football from Coach Don James.”
Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel and Alabama Coach Nick Saban, both proteges of Don James, will square off Saturday for the Southeast Conference Football Championship. As described in the best-selling new book, The Thursday Speeches: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Football from Coach Don James, James had enormous impact on both coaches.
James led the Golden Flashes to the 1972 Mid-American Conference Championship and a berth in the Tangerine Bowl against the Tampa Spartans. The Spartans won 21-18 and were coached by Earle Bruce, like James, an eventual College Hall of Fame member. Among the Kent State players in that game were Saban, Pinkel and Jack Lambert, who went on to become a Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tampa players in the game included John Matuszak, selected by the Houston Oilers in 1973 as the NFL’s No. 1 draft pick. In four years at Kent State, from 1971-1974, James compiled a 25-19-1 record and built a reputation as one of the most promising young head coaches in the land.
Pinkel coached for James as a graduate assistant at Kent State and as an assistant coach at Washington. At James’ memorial service at the University of Washington on Oct. 27, 2013, Pinkel said words fail to adequately describe the impact James had on his life.
“I met him when I was 18 years old. He had a profound impact on my life. Coach James was a huge influence in my life, personally and professionally; I wanted to coach because of Don James. He was my idol. He was my mentor,” Pinkel said. “The values he taught included hard work, ethics, determination, perseverance, integrity, teamwork, and he was one of the most successful men with the most humility that I’ve ever met in my life. There were invaluable lessons that applied to my life when coaching kids for the last 36 years.”
Pinkel, who was head coach at the University of Toledo before moving on to Missouri, said the program he and others built at Toledo and at Missouri is the Don James program.
“I have responsibility to pass on his coaching legacy. The foundation of Don James’ program is meticulous organization, discipline, you play like you practice, and attention to detail,” Pinkel said. “Coach was big on the (final) 48 hours of preparation. When that Thursday practice was over, we didn’t practice on Friday, we played Saturday and we had 48 hours locked in.”
Saban, a graduate assistant coach for James at Kent State, also spoke at James’ memorial service via a taped presentation.
“Coach James was my coach, my mentor, and my friend and there probably isn’t anyone who influenced my life more than he did because of his leadership and the example that he set but also professionally as a coach. Our program today still reflects many of the things that we did and that I learned from Coach James when I first got into this profession, which he inspired me to get into this profession by asking me to be his graduate assistant at Kent State,” he said.
Saban said he didn’t know what James saw in him, but said he can never have enough appreciation for James helping him get into a profession that he loves and in which he has become so successful.
“There is really only one word that I can come up with to describe Coach James and that’s ‘class.’ There is nobody that I look up to more because of how he cared about people. He was concerned that you were successful personally and that you would be more successful in life because you were involved in the program, and individual character development, academic success, how you competed as a football player—all of those things would contribute to that,” Saban said.
Saban added that Coach James’ spirit lives through the many people whose lives he touched and changed.
“The lessons that we learned, the leadership that he provided, and the influence that he had impacted all of our lives tremendously,” Saban said. “It was certainly a privilege to know this great man.”
Buy the book!
Learn more about what made Don James — and his proteges — so successful in the new book, THE THURSDAY SPEECHES: Lessons in Life, Leadership and Football from Coach Don James, which is available as a 6-by-9-inch paperback and ebook. The book includes the best of Coach James’ pre-game motivational speeches to his teams over the course of his legendary 18-year-career at UW along with new insights into his coaching.