SEATTLE — Frosty Westering once wrote a book entitled, “Make the Big Time Where You Are,” and then embodied that philosophy for 32 years in the obscurity of Pacific Lutheran University.
Don James lifted the University of Washington to the biggest time through the pure strength of his coaching acumen, winning a national title and transforming the Huskies into a college football powerhouse.
Two distinct leaders with two wildly different styles. Westering was an exuberant man of the people, a happy warrior who believed wholeheartedly that positivity brought out the best in his players. James was reserved and stern, building his authority by commanding respect, mixed in with just enough fear to coax maximum effort.
Yet here’s the similarity, apart from their runaway success on the field: Both coaches were revered by their players, remaining beloved figures long after the pads had been replaced by business suits.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those two, and the transformative power of a football coach. On Friday and Saturday, I spent quality time around the PLU program, where the Frosty spirit lives on under the coaching of his son and successor, Scott Westering.
And, of course, the death of James on Sunday prompted an outpouring of tributes from his former players about how the coach influenced them for a lifetime.
A college football coach—any coach, really — is in a unique position to put their stamp on young people still formulating their world view.
The ones who succeed the most, and this is independent of their win-loss record, help build a foundation for future success. Westering and James both left their greatest legacy in the lives they touched.
“When ex-players come back and compliment their coach 20, 30, 40 years later, and the impact they had on their life, that’s the ultimate compliment for us,” Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said Monday. “I know Coach James heard it before he passed. I know Carol (James’ wife) is hearing it after he’s passed from numerous, numerous ex-players, and that’s the ultimate compliment for us.”
That’s not to say that history or English professors can’t, and don’t, wield profound impact. But with the pervasive nature of sports at the college level, coaches tend to be immersed in their players’ lives on an athletic, scholastic and personal level. It’s a sacred trust, and the great ones, like James and Westering, were deeply aware of the responsibility bestowed upon them.
Scott Westering is fiercely proud of the legacy of his father, and rightly so. When Frosty died in April, a website created by a former player to honor him received 18,000 hits in three days. Within three weeks, there were 24,000 requests for his first book, which was out of print but fetched as much as $900 on eBay.
More than 1,500 people from every walk of life showed up at Frosty’s memorial service.
“A lot of people are rocks thrown in the pond of life,” Scott Westering told me. “Dad was a boulder. The ripple effect that went out, he touched so many people … I truly believe, in the game of football and life, my dad’s made as much of an impact as a Rockne, a Lombardi, these kind of men. But he was never on a national scale.”
Oh, Westering had multiple chances to coach at bigger colleges and in the NFL, his son said. But he always concluded that the big time was PLU, where he had the 10th most wins in college football history. And taught thousands of young men that you could use love as a motivator in a game predicated on violence.
James, of course, operated from a different point of view, at least outwardly. Hugh Millen, who quarterbacked the Huskies under James from 1983-85, said the coach didn’t try to build or maintain close personal relationships with his players.
“We always had the sense he wanted to keep his objectivity about who should be playing,” Millen said. “He didn’t want to develop favorites. So even in that, there was a fairness to him.”
James exuded toughness and an expectation of excellence.
“He was always in command of every player, every coach, every situation with an official, media,” Millen said. “No one was ever in an alpha position over Don James.”
The coach sat in his famous tower during practice, seemingly omnipresent, if not omnipotent.
“Of course, it’s impossible, but everyone always had the feeling that Coach James must be watching them,” Millen said. “So when I later played for some pretty big profiles in the game — Don Shula, Bill Parcells, Jimmy Johnson — they didn’t seem intimidating to me whatsoever, because I felt I had already been with the ultimate intimidator.”
Innumerable players will tell you that the method behind James’ ways crystallized over time. And so did the fact that they had embodied lessons they didn’t even realize he was imparting. Westering’s players, I’ve been told, had the same epiphany.
That’s what great coaches do.
That’s when the profession reaches the big time.