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Originally published Tuesday, August 25, 2009 at 9:46 PM

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Huskies get a visit from Don James, the Dawgfather

Legendary Huskies coach Don James says Steve Sarkisian's task is more difficult than his when he replaced Jim Owens back in 1975. "I'm really impressed with the things they're doing," James said of the current staff.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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One by one, they walked over to shake Don James' hand.

Coach Steve Sarkisian was first, then several Huskies players, including Jake Locker, Mason Foster, Paul Homer and Jermaine Kearse.

They all wanted to spend a few moments with the 76-year-old iconic coach who garnered the nickname the Dawgfather while building Washington into a perennial college football powerhouse.

Patrolling the Husky Stadium sideline like he did decades ago when Washington was winning Rose Bowls and a co-national championship in 1991, James looked as if he never left.

"I feel like this is my school," said the coach who led UW to a 153-57-2 record during his 18-year tenure that ended in 1993 when he abruptly retired to protest Pac-10 sanctions against Washington.

At Sarkisian's request, James visited Tuesday night's practice. He spoke to the team after the workout for about four minutes as players knelt around him. James said he was unsure what he'd say to the players if anything at all.

During practice, James chatted with a few old friends. He talked about the good old days that included a perfect 12-0 season in '91 and last season's 0-12 campaign under former coach Tyrone Willingham.

"I was just surprised," James said. "I never thought it would happen. I think we lost three games in a row one season, and you're not sure if you're going to live through it. I was thinking, when are we going to win again? It's brutal. I can't imagine it."

Admittedly James, who splits time between homes in Kirkland and Palm Desert, Calif., hasn't had much interaction with Sarkisian, but the former coach said the Huskies hired the right guy. The two men spent several minutes talking Tuesday night after practice.

James said Sarkisian's task is more difficult than his when he replaced Jim Owens in 1975 and inherited a team that went 5-6 the previous season before his arrival.

"I'm really impressed with the things they're doing," James said. "They're making good decisions. I was impressed with his enthusiasm. I've been impressed with the things he's saying.

"He's smart enough to know not to tell the alums we're going to go out and win every game this year. But they're going to get better."

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Since taking over last December, Sarkisian has tried to attract alumni to return to the school and interact with players.

"There's a lot of great memories out here, and we're trying to embody some of the same characteristics that [James] had and his teams had," Sarkisian said. "There's no better way to doing that than getting him out here in person.

"It's huge. We need to get in touch with our guys. Some of the greatest years ever were under Coach James' watch. If we can resemble those times, then we'll be OK."

Athletic director Scott Woodward said the program "always made an effort to try to get folks involved, but people didn't feel it like they do now. They're really feeling it."

Still it's difficult to the gauge the tangible benefit of having the school's legendary figures loom around the team.

"I don't know," Woodward said. "It's such a subjective call. You just don't know. You just know that successful programs have tradition and they have winners around them every place I've been. And no one has won more games here than Don James."

Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or pallen@seattletimes.com

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