The firing of
Gilmour Dobie: the triumph of the nerds
Richard Linde, 31 March 2010
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
varsity players went on strike because they felt the punishment was too
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
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.
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
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
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.
response: "No excuse, sir," regardless of any extenuating
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
(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
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.
accounts of that period proffer the notion that Suzzallo may have been
jealous of the notoriety that Dobie was receiving on the football field.
Or did Suzzallo feel that football had gotten too big for its britches
and was detracting from Washington's reputation as a scholastic
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.
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
upshot of it all (my opinion)
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.
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.)
it comes to a showdown between the upper and lower campuses at Washington,
it's a no brainer, the academics will always win.
it "the triumph of the nerds." ;-)
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.
[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