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New book chronicles Don James’ life lessons from Thursday speeches

Local author Peter Tormey, who played for Don James at UW, thumbs through his new book on the Huskies’ successful coach. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Local author Peter Tormey, who played for Don James at UW, thumbs through his new book on the Huskies’ successful coach. (Tyler Tjomsland)

A new book by a Spokane author highlights the teaching techniques of legendary Washington football coach Don James, who took over the struggling program in December 1974 and eventually won a share of the 1991 national championship.

Peter Tormey, 56, played linebacker for the Huskies and later used his interviews with James as the basis of his 2007 thesis. Tormey sat on the project for a number of years before the 2013 memorial service after James’ death convinced Tormey to publish the work in book form in “The Thursday Speeches: Lessons in Life, Leadership, and Football from Coach Don James.”

“He really believed in educating players,” said Tormey, the associate director of public and university relations at Gonzaga. “I asked him, ‘What was the one thing that helped you the most?’ He said, ‘Learning.’ He was very well-read and intelligent guy.”

Tormey, who played four years under James (1976-79), interviewed his former coach several times in the mid-1990s for his dissertation in Leadership Studies at Gonzaga. James gave Tormey copies of his Thursday speeches, which James had written out on yellow-legal pads on Wednesdays before every game.

“This is the exact language he used during his speeches,” said Tormey, a former part-time copy editor for The Spokesman-Review. “It’s a side of Don that no one other than the players has ever seen.”

James, who compiled a record of 153-57-2 at Washington, presented the speeches on Thursday “to get the guys visualizing … two days out to get their minds locked in.”

The book nearly coincides with the 40-year anniversary of James’ hire in Seattle. He took over the program two days before Christmas 1974. He died on Oct. 20, 2013, at the age of 80 from complications caused by pancreatic cancer.

After the memorial service – which included speeches from Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, Alabama coach Nick Saban and others – James’ wife, Carol, approached Tormey and asked him about the interviews.

“She asked me if I was ever going to finish the book,” Tormey said. “I knew it was great stuff and I wanted to get back to it.”

The book documents James’ playing days as a quarterback at the University of Miami and his coaching influences, including Paul “Bear” Bryant, Sid Gillman and Bill Peterson, who coached at Florida State.

“He felt he had to be a role model,” Tormey said of James. “If he lost his composure on the sideline, then he gives license to everybody else to do the same.”

But the book focuses on how James would use his Thursday speeches to teach his players to visualize success.

James, who was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997, would draw upon a wide range of topics to use as teaching tools, including the Cheshire Cat from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.”

In another speech before the game against UCLA in 1979, James told the team about a young wife in World War II who followed her husband, despite his objections, to an army base located in the California desert.

The living conditions were horrible and the wife wrote her mother about coming back home to the East Coast.

The mother replied to the young wife by writing two lines: “Two men looked out from prison bars. One saw mud, the other saw stars.”

Choosing to see stars, the young wife befriended nearby Native Americans and began to learn their culture and study the desert. She later became an expert and wrote a book about the area.

“Simply by changing her own attitude, she had transformed a miserable experience into a highly rewarding one,” James wrote.

Washington beat UCLA 34-14 two days after that speech.

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