By the time second-year Bellingham Bells coach Jeff James arrived at the University of Washington to play ball more than a decade ago, his coaching evolution already had long been intiated.
One could argue James was born to lead ball clubs.
As the grandson of UW football coaching legend Don James, who led the Huskies from 1975-1992, won a national title in 1991 and was affectionately known as the Dawgfather, Jeff was engulfed in sports and subsequently the coaching world at a young age.
“Our lives kind of revolved around him in terms of going to Husky football games to watch him,” Jeff said, “and going every winter to a different bowl game and being around that and being at practices.”
Jeff, who played both football and baseball, knew he wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
“I don’t know what age, but I knew I wanted to be in it,” Jeff said. “I knew I wanted to play as long as I could so I could learn to become a coach.”
Since Jeff arrived in Bellingham last summer, the 31-year-old has enjoyed nothing but success. He was tasked with taking over for Whatcom County baseball coaching legend Gary Hatch, and all Jeff did was lead Bellingham to a West Coast League title and a 37-17 regular season record.
Combining last year’s playoff run and this summer, Jeff owns an impressive 70-34 mark and has the Bells (30-16) atop the WCL’s West Division and on track for another postseason berth.
So what’s enabled Jeff to make such an impact on a club featuring massive yearly turnover?
“I think first and foremost it’s the preparation,” Bells assistant coach Dane Siegfried said. “He’s extremely calculated in everything he does. He thinks ahead more than most coaches I know. That is the one thing to me that sticks out.”
What’s obvious when looking at Jeff’s resume is his passion for the game and drive to constantly improve his craft.
His career began some 10 years ago when he was asked to be a graduate assistant on UW’s baseball team following the conclusion of his own career. Soon he moved to Everett Community College where he coached for four seasons, and he’ll be entering his fifth as assistant coach at Division I Seattle University this upcoming spring.
But once the college baseball season ends, Jeff jumps right back into summer coaching.
“(Bells pitching) coach (Jim) Clem called me, because I had played with his two sons at Washington,” Jeff explained of how he landed with the Bells. “(Owner) Eddie (Poplawski) and (General Manager) Nick (Caples) met with me, and I’m really lucky they gave me this opportunity to be here.”
Jeff credited the Bells organization top down for his team’s success, but two hallmarks of his coaching style are consistency and preparation — important traits he adopted from his grandfather.
“Just consistency, a lot of what he did was he taught by his actions,” said Jeff of his late grandfather Don. “I learned a lot from him. I’m a quieter guy, so I try to follow what he did. I have a similar personality, and I just try to be as consistent as I can.”
Jeff’s tranquil demeanor shouldn’t be confused with an anything-goes environment. Less is more when it comes to Jeff’s approach, and so when he addresses the team, the club listens.
“He isn’t going to yell at guys,” Siegfried said. “He’ll have your back no matter what. If we play poorly, he’ll say something, and I almost feel like it means more when he does say something. He is a really stable, consistent, transparent coach, and I think that is one of the reason we succeed in the summer.”
Jeff’s presence is certainly felt every day.
During a road trip to Medford, Ore. last week, Jeff was battling an illness and was unable to attend two games. Siegfried said the absence affected the club.
Siegfried also shared an interesting fact about the Bells’ coach. A natural right-hander, Jeff threw his arm out years ago. Obviously, given the ability to throw batting practice is a major prerequisite to coaching baseball, Jeff taught himself to throw left-handed effectively.
“I’d like to stay in Division I baseball coaching,” Jeff said of his future goals. “I am lucky to be there right now, and I’m just looking for a way to move up and eventually be a head coach at one of those programs. That is the goal, but as I am going through it’s just taking everything in and learning, and hopefully I can get a break along the way.”