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Times reporter Bob Condotta keeps the news coming about the Montlake Dawgs.

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May 22, 2007 3:27 PM

Book celebrates Don James years

Posted by Bob Condotta

Derek Johnson, who is known for his historical pieces on Husky football on Dawgman.com, has published his first book, titled "Husky Football in the Don James Era.''

I read a review copy and I can't imagine that any Husky fan wouldn't like the book (you can get more information on the book and how to purchase it here). As the title indicates, this is a look at Husky football from 1975-1993, including interviews with former players and breakout chapters on some of the more memorable contests of that time, such as the Mark Lee punt return game against Oregon in 1979, the victory at Michigan in 1984, and the wins over Nebraska in 1991 and 1992.

Johnson also goes into detail on the end of that era, including a lengthy interview with James, who writes the introduction to the book (Dave Hoffman and Lincoln Kennedy penned the forewords).

The book is also fully illustrated and some of the pictures from the '70s and '80s are particularly interesting (such as a photo of Alabama's 1978 visit to Husky Stadium with Bear Bryant visible in the background).

Johnson is life-long Husky fan and writes the book from that perspective, admitting that authoring the book "was kind of cathartic for me'' in terms of dealing with the turmoil that ended the James era. "I don't hold any grudges to anybody from that period anymore,'' he said.

For now, the book is for sale only through his website. But it should be available in book stores beginning in July.

And rather than simply review the book, I though I'd get a hold of Derek --- who I've gotten to know a little bit through the years while each of us was waiting for interviews, etc. --- and ask him why he decided to write such a book, what his background is, etc.

So here goes.

Question: So what made you want to write and self-publish a book on the Don James years?
Johnson: I think there was a certain inevitability to this book considering I was born during the Sonny Sixkiller era. The funny story behind that is that I was born on a Saturday in Seattle and 90 minutes after I was born, my dad kissed my mom on the forehead and went off to Husky Stadium to see the Huskies beat Navy 56-7 (Oct. 3, 1970). So needless to say, he was, and is, a big-time Husky and he started taking me to games when I was five, which also happened to be the second year of Don James' career at Washington. Many years later, I started writing for Sports Washington and Dawgman.com. Next thing I knew, I was putting a book together.

Question: How did the process of actually writing the book begin?
Answer: I'd written articles for the Great Moments from the Husky Time Capsule on Dawgman.com, so that kind of started it without me even realizing it. What happened then was I was interviewing Don McKeta (an all-conference halfback on the 1960 Rose Bowl team) and he started bitterly complaining about Don James and blaming him for the current Husky downfall. I was interviewing him during the 1-10 season (in 2004) and I felt kind of crestfallen that Don James' legacy was tarnished in that manner and I didn't realize that there was that degree of blame being cast upon him by a lot of people. Before I even realized what I was doing, I was looking into that. I interviewed coach James in 2004 and he went public for the first time about some details about what occurred during the time that he resigned and that opened things up and created the conclusion of the book.

Question: What is your background as a writer?
Answer: I took a strange, circuitous route to being a writer. (After graduating high school) I spent a couple of years at Bellevue Community College and after that made the announcement to my family that I was going to be a writer, which horrified just about everybody. I spent a few years trying to find my way. Meanwhile I was studying my favorite writers like Gay Talese, Richard Ben Cramer, Frederick Forsyth, even later Art Thiel. And then I started doing freelance and what not and got hired by the Pigskin Post and then started writing for Dawgman.com.

Question: How long did you work on the book and what were some of the more challenging aspects of it?
Answer: There were a lot of starts and stops and trying to figure out how to find my way. Probably took about two-and-a-half years and really got serious in the last year and a half. I even took some time off from Dawgman.com to really focus my thoughts on that and then it all started coming together. I called Steve Emtman maybe 15-20 times and tried all kinds of angles to get to him and I finally did and that turned into a nice chapter. If there were any disappointments, I was not able to get Billy Joe Hobert or Mario Bailey to respond to me. I would have loved to have them in the book. But I got just about everybody else I wanted.

Question: What did you learn from writing the book?
Answer: The various interviews I had with Don and Carol James, learning the intimate details of what happened in the final hours and days as coach, that was fascinating. I suppose I developed some friendships with some players that I would not have gotten to know otherwise. Beyond that, some of the most precious moments of my childhood and early adulthood, especially in those glory years, were the great times I had at Husky Stadium, and learning the intimate details of what happened in some of those games that I didn't know at the time was an enjoyable part of writing the book.

Question: You mention the end to the Don James era, which you write about extensively in the book. You quote James as saying The Seattle Times deserves a lot of the blame for what happened, and you also have a somewhat critical take of some of the things the Times did. Can you elaborate on your feelings about that?
Answer: Though it is not limited to the Times, the Times was certainly the main culprit there. The two writers that broke the story with Billy Joe Hobert, on the one hand they were doing their job and they broke a big story and they were able to sell a lot of papers, so in a sense if you look at it that way, they succeeded greatly. But it was in the Sam Farmer book "Bitter Roses'' where Ed Cunningham wrote in alluding to those reporters that this wasn't the Exxon Valdez or Watergate or something like that, but just a young kid who made a stupid mistake. ...
A lot of anguish and misery was caused by what occurred there and it ended up casting a pall on the Washington program nationwide to the point where there were a lot of people nationwide who thought that the Huskies cheated to become national champions. In my investigation, I found a handful of things where some Husky boosters had done some wrong things. But everything is relative and if you compare it to the cheating that's been going on at some of the SEC schools it doesn't compare. I'm one who believes in truth and if the Huskies have been cheating left and in order to achieve great success on the field, I would want that uncovered as a lover of the truth. But the punishment far, far exceeded the crime, and that whole series of events was instigated by the Times investigation.

Question: In one of your final chapters, you wrap up what's happened to UW football since James left and you give what seems to be a harsh assessment of the Rick Neuheisel era, writing at one point that, "by 2002, Husky football was floundering.'' Can you elaborate on that, as well?
Answer: I was trying to sum up the period of time from 1993 and the 2004 season where we went 1-10. And in summing up Neuheisel, to me the real defining moment for me that is detailed in the book was being in the Fifth Quarter after the loss to UCLA when the team fell to 4-5 and just seeing Neuheisel up on the stage. The glibness and the confidence was gone and it was really a pathetic sight in the sense that he was pleading with the audience not to give up on him. Everybody wants to be respected in whatever they do, but there is something about being a leader that, by the very definition of who they are, does not depend on how they are viewed by the public. And what I saw on the stage there that night was a man who was very dependent on what people thought of him, overly dependent on what people thought of him. And his loosey-goosey way of running the Washington problem had inadvertently changed the culture at Washington from something that was beloved to me when I was growing up to something that wasn't like that anymore.
I recall being in the locker room after the only win we had in 2004 and talking to some of the San Jose State players and they were laughing and referring to the Huskies as (pansies). San Jose State was saying this. Granted, Keith Gilbertson was the coach at the time, but those were Neuheisel's players who were on the field that day, and I just felt that that was such a bad thing. I've gotten a lot of feedback from people who think I have something personal against Neuheisel (from things written for Dawgman.com). I do not. I was just summing up his time here with what was the defining moment to me of his entire four years at Washington.

Question: What kind of reception have you gotten for the book?
Answer: I guess ultimately we'll find out by the book sales. But that was a real, real special time here and it was a real tragedy the way it ended, and it's really seared into people's memory and I think that means something to them. If it does, I would hope this book would be something they would treasure.

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