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COLLEGE FOOTBALL ’94 / Season Previews : Years to Cheers to Tears : A Husky Through and Through, Washington’s Lambright Finally Has Reached the Top

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Finally, it all caught up to him.

Here was a 52-year-old man standing before his football team . . . and crying, unashamedly. When Jim Lambright became Washington’s football coach a year ago, replacing Don James, who abruptly resigned after 17 years, Lambright was suddenly a head coach, after 29 years in coaching.

He went numb, and stayed numb for about two weeks.

There wasn’t much time to think about it. The opener against Stanford was only 12 days away when he became Washington’s 22nd coach.

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Moments after his team had beaten Stanford, 31-14, Lambright was about to talk to his team when his players suddenly burst into a wall-knocking chant:

“Lambo! Lambo! Lambo! Lambo!”

That’s when he lost it. In an instant, there was no more adrenaline. The nights of three hours’ sleep caught up to him and he fully realized he was now a head coach. The decades of waiting were over.

“All of a sudden, I couldn’t catch my breath,” he said the other day.

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“We’d been through so much turmoil with the sanctions (Washington is in the second year of two-year, conference-imposed sanctions, which include a bowl ban), Don leaving, my getting the job . . . I’d gotten exhausted, I think, and didn’t realize it. So I got emotional.”

The chant was a tribute, from a team’s heart, said team captain Andy Mason.

“It was our way of saying, ‘This is your team now. This is your first victory,’ ” he said. “We wanted him to know we appreciated all the time he’d put in, all the sleepless nights. We knew he’d been sleeping in his office.”

Jim Lambright is a Husky.

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He was born and raised in Washington, played for Washington and was an assistant coach there for 24 years, until Aug. 22, 1993, when he became the head man.

Lambright’s first team went 7-4 last year. His second is USC’s first opponent, Saturday at 12:30 p.m., at the Coliseum.

Slowly, Washington football is becoming Lambright football.

The most visible reminder last season of the program that was James’ for 17 years was his practice-field tower. It’s gone, dispatched to a university equipment yard. James, the taciturn, aloof type, was a tower guy, like Bear Bryant.

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“Don would stay up in the tower all season,” Lambright said.

“He’d come down maybe two, three times a season. But when he came down, there was hell to pay. Every assistant coach would know when his foot hit that first ladder rung, and we’d wonder, ‘Is he coming in my direction?’ When he came down, it meant a big problem was about to be corrected.

“One time we had an awful practice. There were six or eight fights. Don hated practice fights. He came down, and he was volcanic. He physically challenged every player on the field.

“There was a great view of (Lake Washington) from up there, but I’m just not a tower guy. If I’m not emotionally involved, or having direct contact with everything that’s going on, I don’t feel like I’m coaching. Don was introverted. He had a hard time getting to know people. I’m the opposite of that.

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“Recruiting was hard for Don. When he made a home visit, he had a set speech that went 45 minutes, and he was out the door. With me, the parents wind up having to throw me out. I love to talk.

“Don’s strength as a head coach was his sense of efficiency, how he organized everything.

“I’ve never met anyone with a memory like Don James’. He can tell you exactly how many miles he put on his car in 1993, versus 1992. Or exactly how many practice golf balls he hit in 1992, compared to 1993. He has a fantastic memory for detail.”

At the outset, Lambright showed no hesitation in making decisions.

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In 1993, in the season’s first month:

--He ordered All-American tailback and current Heisman Trophy hopeful Napoleon Kaufman to stop end zone theatrics after touchdowns.

--He suspended the team’s best receiver, Jason Shelley, for breaking a team rule.

And he immediately showed he liked go-for-broke offensive football.

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In a 21-6 victory over Oregon, Lambright three times ordered his offense to go for it on fourth and short. The Huskies converted all three.

“He’s made some gutsy calls that we haven’t seen around here for a long time,” said tackle D’Marco Farr.

Of course, go-for-it calls on fourth and short come a little easier when you’re on probation and not playing for the Rose Bowl.

Although he was Washington’s defensive coordinator for 16 seasons, Lambright isn’t thought of as a conservative offensive thinker.

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“When Keith Gilbertson (now Cal’s head coach) was our offensive coordinator in 1991 (a Washington national championship season), I developed a keen appreciation of what an offense can do, when it’s given some latitude,” Lambright told Theresa Smith of the Tacoma Morning News Tribune.

“If you can do something that’s relatively smart, maybe a little risky but exciting for the players and fans, it’s worth doing. If nothing else, it’s good to have trick plays on film--it gives other teams one other thing to worry about.”

For 24 years, Lambright quietly endured the heartbreak of not becoming a head coach. He was interviewed for several jobs but never got them.

“Getting the job after Don left wasn’t a shock to anyone, I don’t think,” he said. “Don had given me every indication a couple of years ago that he intended to stay only two or three more years, that I was the logical successor.

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“But I had it a lot easier than a lot of guys who never seem to get that head job. I never had to sell my house and move to another city. And I’ve always loved Seattle. I’ve always loved coaching here.

“I never lost hope. The success we’ve had here, that’s kept me happy.”

Former Washington coach Jim Owens, now 67 and living in Bigfork, Mont., still remembers Lambright the player as a feisty, undersized guy who never quit.

“We recruited Jim because we saw him as a guy who would give you everything he had,” Owens said.

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“He didn’t do much his first three years, but he kept plugging away and he made a huge improvement between his junior and senior years. He got our most-inspirational-player award his senior year.

“I was absolutely delighted when he got the job, because he’d been so loyal to the program for so many years, waiting for his chance.”

Does Lambright fear Husky followers turning more quickly on a 50ish coach than on a 30ish head man? Would a couple of disappointing seasons fuel whispers of: “The guy was never a head coach--and we’re starting to see why.”

“No, I’m not worried about that,” he said. “I’ve been here a long time, I know the caliber of our fans up here--they’re very loyal people.”

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As head coach, he said, he splits his time equally between offense and defense.

Another inevitable sign that Lambright has taken over: New faces.

Lambright brought in 19 recruits last spring and three new coaches: an offensive coordinator, Bill Diedrick; wide-receiver coach Scott Linehan, and promoted a graduate assistant, Rick Mallory, to tight-end coach.

And a year later, there are fewer phone calls between James and Lambright.

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“For the first 10 days or so, we talked every day,” Lambright said.

“But it was mostly about where stuff was. Now, I couldn’t find him anyway, even if I needed him. He’s on the golf course nearly every day.”

He now thinks, he says, like a head coach when hiring assistants.

“The downfall of so many head coaches is that they tend to hire from within, or too many friends from the old days,” he said.

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“The trap you fall into there is that your program becomes in-bred--too many guys who think like you do.

“Sometimes, you need to hire guys who think differently than you do, or who will disagree with you on some things.

“And I let my assistants coach. Or I try to. I’ll take a step toward, say, the defense in practice, the assistant will glare at me, and I’ll pull up, thinking, ‘OK, OK.’ ”

Two more signs that a new guy is in charge:

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--The new hideaway couch-bed in the head coach’s office.

--The new wardrobe.

Lambright and his wife, Lynne, live on five acres--with horses and chickens--in Stanwood, Wash., an hour’s drive north of Seattle. Lambright spent his first dozen or so nights as head coach on his office floor, in a sleeping bag--or until Lynne had the hide-a-bed delivered.

They met in the late 1970s, when Lambright was recruiting her son, Brent Mackie. At the time, Lynne was a cake decorator in a supermarket.

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After the couch, the new suits arrived. Before, Lambright dressed like . . . well, an assistant football coach.

“I admit it, I looked like a guy who’d just walked in off Route 40,” he said.

Now, the suits are new, the shoes shined and he even goes to the barber regularly. The price for all this has been some unmerciful ribbing by players and assistants.

“Early last season, coach came walking into the offices in one of those suits and I had to look twice, because I didn’t recognize him,” Kaufman said. “I’d never seen him when he wasn’t in a jogging suit, or shorts and a T-shirt.”

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Until a year ago, Lambright had never been a head coach at any level.

After graduating from Washington, he was an assistant high school coach in Seattle and then became an assistant at Shoreline Community College in Seattle, when he got the call to return to UW.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “I was teaching an ice skating class at Highland Ice Arena when the guy on the PA said: ‘Jim Lambright, we have a call from Jim Owens for you.’ ”

That was 1969. He’s been on Washington’s football staff ever since.

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For Lambright, the Owens era (1957-74) was the best of times.

“The best part of those years were the parties at Owens’ house on the lake, after winning big home games,” he said.

“I can still remember being in Owens’ pool at 3 a.m. and seeing Jim’s wife, Martha, serving everyone tequila sunrises, and telling everyone what she was going to serve for breakfast. Owens ran up great expense reports.”

Coaches aren’t normally party animals, of course. If you hate long hours, it’s a lousy profession. But Lambright’s entire life has been long hours. In fact, he at times literally worked around the clock before getting into coaching.

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“My dad was a commercial fisherman,” he said.

“He had a 55-foot boat, a purse seiner, moored in Everett. In the salmon seasons of June and July when I was a kid, dad and I and four crewmen would fish all over Southeast Alaska, out of Ketchikan and Juneau.

“On a good summer, we’d go back to Everett with several thousand pounds of salmon. I did this in the summers when I played for Owens, and it really built up my hands and forearms, wrestling with all that equipment.

“I never considered it work. Neither did my dad. We loved it. Whenever I had a chance, I’d drop a line overboard just to fish for fun.”

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