Washington's James caught between lines of principle and hypocrisy

August 24, 1993|By George Vecsey | George Vecsey,New York Times

Quitters never win. Winners never quit.

You see that sign, or variation thereof, in every football locker room in this pigskin-kicking land of ours. That sign is there to remind every fifth-string cannon-fodder lineman that the team, that Coach Himself, that the future of the free world depends on him. And if he quits the football team out of frustration, "Well, son, that means someday you'll just plain quit on life, too."

Maybe that sign was even in the locker room of the University of Washington, where Don James resigned Sunday. That's right. Don James told the university to take his job and shove it. Coach quit.

Don James quit after 18 seasons because the university was given a costly two-year probation. He was mightily ticked off at the 27-0 probation vote by other delegates to the Pacific-10 Conference, but he took out his anger on his own school just 13 days before the opening game. What James should have done was live up to the bromides in capital letters on every locker room. He should have toughed it out. So what if Washington cannot appear in bowl games for the next two years? So what if Washington cannot rake in television revenue this season?

Washington can still play, but the Pac-10 will take Washington's share of the swag, thank you very much. Lest you think the Pac-10 is being cruel, the parent National Collegiate Athletic Association pulled the same two-and-one penalty on Auburn last week. And Texas A&M may actually lose players for its alleged abuses.

Most coaches of schools on probation stick it out from sheer cussedness. The best revenge for Don James would have been to emerge from the Northwest mists, clanking his chains, howling in the wind, like some vengeful ghost right out of Shakespeare or Stephen King.

After all, the Pacific-10 Conference did not take away all his recruits with the ridges on their size-20 necks. The conference did not ban all those running backs with thighs the size of sequoia trees. James could have led them on some hellacious mission through the next two seasons of probation. What better way to start than against Bill Walsh? Earlier this summer, the Stanford coach got up at a public gathering and blasted Washington as an outlaw school. When his remarks got in the papers, Walsh apologized to James, fully aware that he opened at Seattle on Sept. 4. Washington's interim coach, chap named Jim Lambright, can still rally the Huskies' anger against Stanford, but it would have been more fitting if James had stuck around.

James has not been known to duck a challenge, having climbed the snowy side of Mount Rainier when he was 50. But he is described as looking gaunt, starting to show his 60 years, after the stress of the past year.

All through this, James has insisted that it wasn't his fault, and he is partly right. How could he keep tabs on a squad so large that two players sometimes have to share the same number? College football is a basically hypocritical system that insists the players are adequate students and declines to pay them a living wage.

James said he never noticed the misuse of university money for recruits. He said he didn't know about boosters overpaying players on summer jobs. And he said he never noticed one of his two top quarterbacks, Billy Joe Hobert, spending money like a tourist just let loose in Bangkok with a year's wages.

This 21-year-old of modest means was suddenly paying off debts on a Camaro, a Chevy Blazer and a Hyundai, plus car insurance, a pistol and hunting rifle, $2,500 to a girlfriend, and serial parties. The tab came to $50,000, a loan arranged for him by one Rudy Finne, a Seattle man who liked to bet on football games. But the money actually came from Charles Rice, a scientist who lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and is not any kind of Washington booster. Rice was lending Hobert the money at 10 percent, payable when Hobert signed a pro contract.

Nobody is saying gambling was involved, but having a quarterback in hock could lead to abuses. Should Washington and Don James have been held responsible? Yes, under the existing rules, Washington was out of control. The Pacific-10 Conference had no known vendetta against the school, but it is the only conference that has the power to punish member schools. This is not a bad idea, particularly when college presidents are trying to grasp control from the athletic departments.

The injustice is that Don James' career is over while an irresponsible goofball like Hobert is trying to make the Los Angeles Raiders. He has turned professional. So should college football. The sooner the better.

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