He had been away from the game for seven years and had plenty on his plate already as the school’s athletics director. He was 59 years old.
It just didn’t make sense. Or did it?
“‘Why not?’” Karen James said she told her husband when he first mentioned something to her about it. “If I had said it wasn’t a good idea, he probably wouldn’t have done it. Which would have been too bad.”
Wives are always right. After a family meeting and a meeting with some of Washington’s assistant coaches, James decided to make a comeback.
Call it a successful one. Washington won six straight games to finish the regular season, claimed the Mississippi Valley Conference’s Valley Division championship and made a Class 4A state playoff appearance.
He provided stability, brought back together a community that appeared to have been fractured by the resignation of Tony Lombardi. The controversial coach stepped down amid a state investigation into allegations of player and student mistreatment.
Lombardi had plenty of detractors but just as many, if not more, supporters. It was a rough situation James stepped into, one he handled with aplomb.
Because of that, he was named Coach of the Year in the Metro and MVC Valley Division. The Gazette and KCRG has selected him COY of its all-area football team.
“Yeah, I think there probably was some (healing necessary),” James said. “Everyone seemed to have an opinion, one way or the other. So I think maybe my familiarity with the school, with football at Washington (helped). This being my 38th year here, for a certain segment, I don’t think I had to prove myself to them. I didn’t necessary feel that I did.
“With the coaches that we had and everything, knowing that we had good kids, I felt that eventually we were going to be pretty good. But I think that maybe it happened a little bit sooner. You didn’t really know what to expect.”
The first go-around, James had a 58-48 record in 11 seasons at Washington, including a Class 4A state runner-up finish in 2003. He was a longtime assistant at the school, replacing the legendary Wally Sheets when he retired in 1995.
The Cedar Falls native took over the school’s AD job in 2006, stepping aside from coaching for good. That’s what he thought anyway.
“I never really thought of returning as a possibility, didn’t think it was ever in the cards,” James said. “So I thought that ‘OK, maybe when the time comes to retire, I’ll help somewhere doing something.’ But this came along and the possibility arose that maybe I could coach again. It all kind of worked out.”
Thanks to his staff and “really good kids,” James made what seemed an easy transition back to the game. He left the defense up to assistant Mo Blue, tweaking his offensive playbook but using much of the same terminology he always had.
Washington’s players adapted pretty easily. That included to having James and Blue coach from the press box during games.
“There was a certain thought that maybe I needed to be on the sideline,” he said. “I did it that first game. But for 19 years as a defensive coordinator, I had been in the press box, and for the last (few) years as head coach, I was in the press box … I just feel so much more comfortable with what I can see from the press box. When you have confidence in your staff, it works.”
The future of Washington football appears bright. Several key players will return next season, while the Warriors’ sophomore and freshmen teams both went 9-0, with the sophomore record coming despite wide receiver-defensive back Isaiah Nimmers and running back-linebacker Johnny Dobbs as varsity starters.
James will lead the way.
“When I accepted the job, I didn’t want it to be for one year, or as an interim or anything,” he said. “I said that if I was going to do this, I was going to come back and do it for awhile. I don’t know how long that will be. One of my mentors, Pat Mitchell, is still coaching (at Cedar Falls). Jiminy Christmas. I don’t think I’ll go that long.”CEDAR RAPIDS – When the subject of returning to coach football at Cedar Rapids Washington was first broached with Paul James last spring, he more or less brushed it off.