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The firing of Gilmour Dobie: the triumph of the nerds
Richard Linde, 31 March 2010

Why did University of Washington president Henry Suzzallo (1915-1926) fire a football coach who was unbeaten in 62 games -- a coach who had a record of 59-0-3 in the period from 1908 through 1916 -- that coach being the legendary Gilmour Dobie?

Gilmour Dobie is to Washington as Knute Rockne is to Notre Dame. Dobie's record at Washington is unsurpassed in college football.

The Sad Scott's firing has puzzled people for years. Trying to leapfrog one's mind back from today's football milieu to those of "ancient" times is indeed like navigating through uncharted waters, but I'll give it a try.

First I'll look at the year preceding Dobie's firing, which sheds some light on the milieu at Washington, and then discuss the 1916 season, the year Suzzallo fired Dobie. After that I'll give you my opinion as to what really happened, drawing a conclusion that fits a pattern at Washington.

(Reference "A statue for Gil Dobie," for a historical perspective. Note that Dobie's teams played one more game than has been previously thought. Reference "Meet the Real Gilmour Dobie.")

1915: Dobie resigned his position, didn't he?

Concluding his 1915 season at Washington, Dobie resigned his position as head football coach. He had to scramble for opponents that season since the northwest schools had dropped Washington from their schedules, unhappy with the fact that Dobie was choosing the time and place when the teams would meet.

To say the least, Dobie, a Martinet with his players, had built enmities in the Northwest over time. People back then didn't understand why the Apostle of Grief was so focused on winning all of his games.

On November 26, 1915, the Reno Evening Gazette reported that Dobie had retired at Washington, saying "Dobie was out of game for all time." The Gazette said he had previously offered his services to Wisconsin.

Reportedly Dobie told friends that he was dissatisfied with the conditions at the school, that the students lacked loyalty and had no pep, that they did not understand what it meant to have such an athletic record for one's school. (Evening News, December 3, 1915, Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan).

In December 1915, the Oakland Tribune reported that Washington had lost $3,560 on its football program, incidentally, on the same day men's hats went on sale for 95 cents in Oakland.

1915 was the same year Dr. Suzzallo assumed his presidency at Washington, and on February 3, 1916, he convinced Dobie to stay on at Washington.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer editorialized, "Tune up the sackbut, psaltery, harp and lute, and anything else that will make a noise, and let us sound a paean of joy over the return of the mentor whom we had mourned as officially dead."

The 1916 season: Dobie's final one at Washington

A formidable, powerful team in 1916, the Purple and Gold (4-0-1) prepared for their last two games with California and a chance to win the first-ever PCC title. Prior to the games with California, the only blot on Washington's record, a tie game against Oregon, was played in Eugene on a field that "resembled a lake."

In November 1916, Washington beat Cal at Berkeley, 13-3. The next week before the next big game with Cal, the university suspended Bill Grimm, Washington's left tackle, because of "irregularities in (taking) an examination." Allegedly he'd copied someone else's paper during a history test.

The varsity players went on strike because they felt the punishment was too harsh.

Later that week, the alumni and Grimm convinced the team to play "for the greater good." On voting to end the strike, it was reported that "Team members today passed a resolution denying their action in refusing to play without Grimm was inspired by Coach Gilmour Dobie." (Nevada State Journal, November 24, 1916).

Previously, Dobie had "announced himself ready to train a volunteer team, although stating his sympathies were with the varsity." The varsity beat Cal 14-7, its victory securing the PCC championship. Although Oregon was unbeaten, Washington was awarded the championship because Oregon had used an ineligible player.

After the season was over, because of the players mutiny, university president Henry Suzzallo fired Dobie for failing to fully train character on the football field.

Dr. Suzzallo is quoted as saying, “The chief function of the university is to train character. Mr. Dobie failed to perform his full share of this service on the football field.  Therefore, we do not wish him to return next year.” 

Dobie countered Suzzallo's criticism with the following statement, "I performed my services in as conscientious and thorough manner as was possible under the conditions. Dr. Suzzallo does me wrong, when he says I did otherwise."

Dobie demanded that each of his players be loyal to the team, and in turn, ironically, his steadfast loyalty to his players led to his termination -- that is, his support of them during the mutiny, which in his mind was their only line of defense when they were unfairly attacked.

In his termination letter, Dobie wrote that, "Neither the members of the football squad nor myself ever approved of the alleged offense of the player who was removed..." [Borland].

However, Dobie felt that Grimm should have been given more time to prepare for his examinations because of a stint he performed in the National Guard that had deprived him of studying time, and that is, he had been "obliged to crowd two months' work into one month's study."

"Had there been any faculty mercy the student-player would have been allowed to make up his studies during the holiday vacation..." Dobie wrote. [Borland].

"My support of the strike was justified and great good has been accomplished. I feel that the football team was grossly wronged by robbing it of a member whom I had approved all season as the best man in the defensive scheme of the team's existence," Dobie is quoted as saying.

Much later in time it was learned that Tramp Murphy, Louis Seagrave (team captain) and a member of a YMCA squad had actually instigated the mutiny. That fact was disclosed by Murphy in 1949, a year after Dobie's death.

Was Dobie going to quit, anyway, as he had in 1915?

A couple of articles I found suggest that Dobie was prepared to quit Washington after the 1916 season, no matter what happened between him and Dr. Suzzallo.

During my research, I came upon this article printed on December 23,1916, by the Daily Courier, Conellsville, Pa., which said in a headline that "Gilmour Dobie quits again." It quoted Dobie as saying, "I wouldn't coach another team here for $3,000 or for three times $3,000. I am tired, and I am through with Washington for all time."

The resignation angle appears again, this time in a Pennsylvania newspaper.

On March 28, 1917, the New Castle News, writes about Dobie having resigned again in the Fall of 1916 and that "Dobie thinks, no doubt, that he has been coaching Washington teams long enough, and will be glad to get into a new field." Dobie had recently signed with the University of Detroit to coach its football team, but, somehow, managed to void that contract to coach Navy for the 1917 season.

There is no doubt, however, that Suzzallo fired Dobie, regardless of Dobie's comments and several newspapers' interpretation of them. 

Really, in my mind, it was all about the upper campus versus the lower campus

Football was much different back in 1916 than it is in today's game with its large TV contracts, its high-attendance figures and its facility for attracting donors to the school. Also, the eastern press didn't give Washington football the notoriety it deserved back in Dobie's days.

The point is that winning in football probably wasn't that big an issue with Suzzallo. In his mind, academics trumped football, as down through the years, it has always been at Washington.

The military response: "No excuse, sir," regardless of any extenuating circumstances

When you consider the academics issue, the fact that Dobie sympathized with strikers boxed Suzzallo in a corner. Was Dobie asking to be fired? Academically speaking, Grimm had no business cheating on a test, regardless of whether he had to incorporate two months' work into one month's effort. Seemingly Grimm was trying to take a shortcut rather than, over the long haul, work something out with his history professor. Obviously, he was passing other courses -- why not history?

Although Dobie said he didn't condone Grimm's cheating on the test, it's ironic, when considering his boot-camp practice methods, that he offered an excuse for his player, where in practice, most likely, the military response -- "No excuse, sir" -- to a player's running amok was expected from him. Also, Dobie's justification for Grimm's offense aroused public opinion against the president, which angered him. Suzzallo felt Dobie should have intervened in the strike and prevented the subsequent controversy instead of taking a stance that worked against the faculty.

In his article cited below, Welch writes, "Others (have) suggested that the sophisticated Suzzallo, with no shortage of ego himself, was simply tired of playing second fiddle to a man whose success stemmed from Xs and Os scribbled on restaurant napkins."

As a comical aside to the confrontation, other members of the faculty were unhappy with Dobie's salty language on the practice field. [San Antonio Light].

Both Dobie's and Suzzallo's stubbornness, along with their blind loyalty to their minions, worked against their relationship. That stubbornness placed each of them in opposite corners of the ring: the faculty's corner and the players' corner. Neither opponent would budge off an opinion that would undermine his subordinates. In my mind, the psychological aspect of their bull-headedness, fierce pride and blind loyalty is what terminated their relationship.

The historical accounts of that period proffer the notion that Suzzallo may have been jealous of the notoriety that Dobie was receiving on the football field. [Welch]. Or did Suzzallo feel that football had gotten too big for its britches and was detracting from Washington's reputation as a scholastic institution?

Or was Dobie simply looking for a way out of Washington by calling Suzzallo's hand after doing a rope-a-dope on him in one corner of the ring? He'd resigned his job the year before he was fired, had made a lot of enemies in the league because of his penchant for winning and had been negotiating for a coaching position with other schools.

This notion is supported by his statement, “I did not suggest or incite the rebellion against a faculty authority, but I did stand with the players when they rebelled. I did it with a full knowledge of the responsibility I had to assume. I knew at that time – and long before – that I could no longer work as football coach under the conditions with which I had been surrounded."

The upshot of it all (my opinion)

Each year that I attend the annual southern California banquet Chow Down to Washington, which is held in March, university president Mark Emmert (2004-present) precedes the football coach to the speaker's podium, extolling the academic virtues of our school and its high ranking among other universities in the country. Even though most of us alums are there to hear the football coach speak about next year's team, Dr. Emmert's presence is a not too subtle reminder that scholastics trumps football at the University of Washington.

And so it was in the Dobie era and then the Enoch Bagshaw era (University President Charles May versus Bagshaw); followed later in time by Don James' controversial resignation in 1993 (Dr. Gerberding versus James); and in the firing of Rick Neuheisel (Hedges versus Neuheisel); and so on in the hiring of Tyrone Willingham and the retention of his services for the controversial year in 2008 (the fans versus Todd Turner, et al.)

When it comes to a showdown between the upper and lower campuses at Washington, it's a no brainer, the academics will always win.

Call it "the triumph of the nerds." ;-)

--------

Note:

The events leading to Dobie's firing are more complex than I've made them out to be. Reference Chapter 12 of Lynn Borland's book, "Pursuit of Perfection," for a detailed description of the events before drawing your own conclusion. The book is in its editing and revision phase.

---------

Reference:

[Borland]. Borland, Lynn, "Gilmour Dobie: Pursuit of Perfection," Preliminary Manuscript, January 2010. (Not yet published).

[Welch]. Welch, Robert S., "The loser who won," Columbia Magazine, Fall 1987.

[San Antonio Light] "Some years ago two members of the Washington faculty passed by the football field and overheard Dobie using 'shocking language.' They hustled to the Prexy and made a complaint. Dobie explained at his 'trial' that he had to use 'language' at times to emphasize his orders, and that he intended to go right ahead and use 'language.' And he is." November 7,  1915, the San Antonio Light.

 

Richard Linde can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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