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HOW WASHINGTON DROPPED THE (FOOT) BALL
Lynn Borland, 15 November 2011

During the era of Coach Gilmour Dobie, Washington was poised to be forever included in the annals of college football as one of top five teams in the history of the game. Why this never happened reads like a fable where truth is stranger than fiction.

Long before any of us were born the University of Washington was the undisputed king of football in the far west. Through a set of circumstances with all the melodrama of a Greek Tragedy, UW handed the mantle of power to California and opened the door for the likes of USC. If it weren’t for Pancho Villa’s raids across the United States’ southern border, President Suzzallo breaking a promise, a star football player suffering a lapse of good judgment and a football coach who placed team loyalty above all else – Washington would forever be considered one of the top five teams in the history of college football.

In 1908 a young football coach at North Dakota State named Gilmour Dobie caught Washington’s eye because he had coached high school for two years, added two more at ND State and had yet to lose a game. His later success is all the more remarkable because he began life as a mistreated orphan and yet graduated with a law degree from the University of Minnesota. This background prepared him well for the extraordinary coaching career to follow. As an orphan in the 1880s, four times being indentured to farm families as a laborer, he learned that one must fight hard for what you get out of life. In the tough football world he had chosen there was no other way to survive. As a law student he honed an attention to detail that he displayed throughout his career. Perfectionist would forever describe his game preparation and coaching techniques because this was the standard he set for himself and demanded of his players. Despite his tough demeanor and insistence on nothing short of excellence, his players worshipped him. This held true during his life and long after he died.

Birth Of Washington Football Heritage

Dobie’s arrival at Washington would change the course of football history for the school. His unprecedented success reverberates to this day.

The greatest traditions held dear by Husky loyalists were established during Dobie’s era. The Guy Flaherty Inspirational Award (the first of its kind in the country), the famous siren symbolizing football supremacy, Bow Down To Washington written then honored the revered coach with the original chorus line: Dobie, Dobie Pride of Washington, “The Hook” became the dominating icon of Washington’s power and later developed into a national intercollegiate association of service clubs known as the “Knights of the Hook,” Friday night football rallies and parades began in his era, the first homecoming event was held at a Dobie coached game, the first football banquet was held to honor the team’s achievements, women were first allowed to attend away games in 1913, player’s numbers were first used at the Oregon/Washington game of 1909, the marching band performed throughout this era and Albert J. Adams, its first professional director, was hired in 1914, the women’s league actually invented pom-poms that were in use years before any other college and the first games documented on film were recorded then.

National Acclaim

His exploits are legion. Dobie won two national championships and shares a third, heralded in his day by the top sports writers of the times with such acclaim as “the greatest coach in America,” “football genius,” “a wizard,” “incomparable,” “the most remarkable coach of the college game” and “the most remarkable record ever hung up by a coach.” His contemporaries were Fielding H. Yost, Knute Rockne, Percy Haughton, Dr. Harry Williams, Pop Warner and John Heisman and at his prime was lauded by the Associated Press to have “topped them all.”

Washington’s Undefeated Streak

Washington holds the longest continuous record in the NCAA books. It’s for the program’s undefeated streak that began with the last game of 1907 and ended with the first game of 1917, 60 wins, no losses and 4 ties (varies from the “official” total because one game was mistakenly not counted.) Sandwiched in between are the 59 wins, no losses and three ties of Dobie coached teams from 1908 to 1916. He accounts for 97% of a record that will never be beaten. In those times players were required to play offense, defense and special teams. If they came out of the game they were not allowed to return. In 1910 the rule was relaxed somewhat allowing a player to come out one time only and couldn’t return until the next quarter. There were indomitable warriors on his teams who played every minute of every game for their entire four years! Wee Coyle, a Dobie player is the only quarterback in the country to ever play four years without losing a game. Huber “Polly” Grimm was selected on the 1910 Walter Camp All-American third team at tackle. The first Washington player ever selected for All-American honors.

Most Important Game Ever Played On The West Coast

In 1915, Washington booked passage on the US Congress for a shipload of fans and its marching band to sail from Elliott Bay to San Francisco for a historic game with California. The teams hadn’t played since 1906 because California, Stanford and USC, among others had switched to Rugby out of concern for mounting injuries in the sport. California Coach, Jimmie Schaffer, met with Coach Dobie for a tutorial with the master on American Rules Football when the school decided to return to the game.

The stage was set for a showdown on November 6, 1915. Washington dominated every aspect of the game before 20,000 fans winning in Berkeley 72–0, leaving little doubt as to where the power resided on the West Coast. The New York Times, in reporting on the game, labeled Dobie “the most remarkable coach in the history of the college game.” This blowout signaled to every other western team just how much work had to be done to compete at Dobie’s level. California caught on. They fired Jimmie Schaffer effective at the end of the season and committed the unbelievable sum of $12,000 to hire a staff of coaches with one objective in mind – beat Dobie! For next season, they hired Andy Smith, an All-American fullback at Pennsylvania and later championship coach at Penn and Purdue. He assembled a Who’s Who staff that went about the task of evening the score with Washington. But, this was not to be while Dobie was still in town. The two times these two truly great coaches went head-to-head, Dobie won both games.

Dobie Is Fired By President Suzzallo

It was in 1916 that the US Southern Border was under attack by Pancho Villa’s raiders leading to President Woodrow Wilson’s activation of the National Guard. Seven players, including star tackle Bill Grimm, were called up and ordered to report for training south of Seattle at what is today Fort Lewis. This placed a serious strain on their schedules, what with juggling reserve duty, travel time in the primitive cars of the day, football practice and study time. Recognizing this, President Henry Suzzallo promised that he would put a policy in place to assure “that the guardsmen receive every consideration in making up their studies.” However, Suzzallo soon thereafter packed up and left town on October 7th for an eastern academic tour, not to return until November 28th, being absent over seven full weeks. He missed five out of the six games played so far that season. Owing to a serious breach of administrative follow-through, he neither placed his plan for more study time into practice nor did he delegate the responsibility to his staff.

In a moment of weakness, Bill Grimm under so much pressure cheated on a history test, was caught and the faculty ordered that he be immediately suspended from the team, thus ruling him out for the upcoming Thanksgiving game against California. The team called a strike and the campus erupted. Through it all, Dobie remained steadfast and because of a core principle of his being team loyalty would not encourage the players to break the strike. But he did hold practice for anyone who showed up and swore that the game would be played, even if he had to fill in with intramurals. Since Suzzallo hadn’t placed a person in charge of such matters in his absence, his staff communicated with him by telegram, a wholly unsatisfactory means for getting to the heart of all the conflicting issues and emotions swirling around campus. The issue was quite simple; Suzzallo had promised extra study time, didn’t follow-through and when a member of the team fell victim to a compromise of ethics; his fellow players and Dobie rallied to his cause. All this could have been avoided had the President of the University fessed-up and admitted to his own failing. He exhibited a compromise of ethics of his own in not doing so.

By the time Suzzallo returned to town on Tuesday November 28, the team had been lobbied to abandon their strike from every quarter, alumni, sports reporters, faculty, politicians, influential businessmen, Grimm himself and former players. At the eleventh hour, they agreed and with hard feelings still simmering the game was played. This win would mark Dobie’s last victory at Washington. The next week in a Suzzallo led process that fell far short of a fair and equitable airing of all issues on the table; the outcome came down to the firing of Coach Dobie. This single act would prove to be the sole reason that Washington isn’t today included in that pantheon of greatness as being one of the top five football programs in collegiate history. Admittedly they have a great tradition and have an enviable heritage, but how much greater they would have been had passion not triumphed over reason in Dobie’s dismissal.

The firing was national news and Washington loyalists were outraged. Students took to the street in massive protests. To illustrate how totally out of control things had gotten, consider that in these simpler times where young people did not so readily buck authority that the University of Washington Daily on December 11, 1916 led with this editorial:

 “Jealousies, conceit, hatred, petty politics, hypocrisy, false pride, all were overcome. And of all the institutions peculiar to student and university life, football is the only one that to this time has stood free from influences. Dobie is the cause.”

Openly castigating President Suzzallo and the faculty so publicly illustrates just how strongly students were behind the coach they loved and respected. At the same time placing him on a pedestal above the fray.

 UW’s Bagshaw Is Good, Cal’s Smith is Great, Cornell’s Dobie Is Perfect

Only months after the dismissal the United States’ entered World War I that was closely followed by the world wide pandemic of 1918. For several years there were far more important matters to deal with than football. In 1920 Dobie took over the head coaching job at Cornell and Andy Smith was settling in at California. The decade of the ‘20s is considered by many to be the Golden Era of College Football. Dobie and Smith were the two coaches who garnered the greatest acclaim on the national stage as this remarkable era began. Here is how these two National Hall Of Fame coaches performed compared to Enoch Bagshaw, in his first year at Washington:

California’s $12,000 coaching staff hired to beat Dobie had reaped dividends well before the 1920s. They were the team that ended UW’s record unbeaten streak back in 1917. After Dobie left Washington, the program was in disarray with three coaches hired over four years posting a record of 8 wins 9 losses and 1 tie for a winning percentage of .472. In 1921, Enoch Bagshaw’s first year, the Golden Bears resoundingly settled the score with a 72-3 shellacking. Order was not restored until 1922 when Bagshaw led the team to his 6-1-1 record.

Meanwhile, Dobie and Smith were garnering national championships. Smith’s undefeated record with two ties only being outdone by Dobie’s perfect run. It’s clear that Dobie could excel at any venue. After establishing himself as the greatest coach out west, on the east coast he picked up where he left off, claiming his two national championships and sharing another. From 1920 to 1925 the Andy Smith led California squads were known as the "Wonder Teams." Tragically, Andy Smith’s career was cut short as he died of pneumonia in 1926. Enoch Bagshaw performed very well for his nine years posting a record of 63-22-6 (.725), twice taking his teams to the Rose Bowl with one tie and one loss.

Lost Chance For Football Immortality

What if calmer heads prevailed and Dobie hadn’t been unjustly fired in 1916? By the 1920s, the great coach would have the luxury of even more time to firmly establish his foundation at Washington. He never missed a beat when he left so staying put would have been all the better.

The scene then would be set for a classic battle between two coaching titans—altering football history and shifting the balance of football power from east to west. Dobie established his superiority out west for his nine years at Washington as did Andy Smith for his nine years at California. But the football world never got the opportunity to witness how vastly more exciting West Coast football would have been during the Golden Age if Smith had been given the chance to get back at Dobie for coming up short the two times they faced off. Dobie also would have the opportunity to mix it up with such household names as Howard Jones at USC or Stanford’s Glenn "Pop" Warner in the battle for national supremacy, since the power base for football now resided out west.

Alas, Washington football fans were denied this chance for football immortality.

Lynn Borland can be reached at lynnb@authorwilliamlynn.com

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