By Brady Henderson
One story sticks out among the many that Ed Cunningham has from the five years he played for Don James at Washington.
It was back in 1991, the year the Huskies went undefeated and won the national championship. Cunningham, an All-American center and a captain on that team, remembers the time his coach became uncharacteristically demonstrative.
“He was a pretty quiet guy,” Cunningham said of James – who died Sunday at the age of 80 from the effects of pancreatic cancer – when he joined “Brock and Danny” on Monday. “He spoke a lot but he didn’t yell a lot. It was always conversational.”
Not on this day.
It was a few hours before kickoff of a game against Oregon State in Corvallis. Four weeks earlier, Cunningham had been called for a phantom holding penalty that negated a touchdown in the fourth quarter of a seven-point win over Cal. Cunningham had yelled at the umpire earlier on the drive for missing a call, which he believes was the reason the umpire flagged him.
The holding call was so egregious that the umpire was reprimanded by the Pac-10. James, though, still wanted to give him a piece of his mind. A month later, as officials were going through their normal pregame meetings with each coaching staff, he got a chance to.
“Guess who the umpire for this game against Oregon State is?” Cunningham said. “We had not really heard Coach James chew someone out for a while, so we were all … kind of ready for this. He just froze and he pointed at the guy and they walked outside. He didn’t say a word. This is a great part about Don James – he had a problem with this guy but he wasn’t going to embarrass him in front of the team. He was just a really respectful man.
“But what he laid into this guy outside that door … it was like we had ears up against the window, ‘Oh god, what’s Coach going to say to him?’ and he just ripped this guy up one side, down the other … ‘Your lenses were foggy because you were mad at one of our players! You almost cost us the national championship!’
“I remember in that moment thinking, ‘You know, this guy really has had our back. He really does care deeply about what we do.’ That would have been easy to blame the player, but I didn’t hold the guy. It was really clear I didn’t hold him on film. That was just one of my moments in my senior year where things slowed down and you are able to see things, you are starting to become a man, you are starting to see what all of this discipline, all of this structure, all of the things that you were required to do when you played at Washington, you start to see more clearly what they mean. And in that moment, I just thought, ‘This guy really does have it, he really does understand what matters to us, he understands what matters for his team.’ I was so proud. I was just so proud.”
Turns out that earful James gave the umpire helped the Huskies against Oregon State.
“I got to block the middle linebacker the entire game in front of this umpire,” Cunningham said, “and I think I tackled him about five times and the guy never threw a flag.”
More than 20 years later, that day still sticks with Cunningham.
“I was just so proud to play for a guy that had my back that much and cared that much about what we did and how we did it,” he said. “It was really a special moment for me.”