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MEET THE REAL GILMOUR DOBIE

Loyal Washington football fans probably thought they had a fairly good idea of the “Real Gilmour Dobie.” I thought so too until I was well into researching the great football coach for a biography I have written. When I first learned of Dobie many years ago the mental image I drew of him was that of a rough character,  unpopular on campus, who got into fist fights with fans and was despised by his players. Wow! And this was a coach who holds the national record for undefeated games which he established at Washington between the years 1908 to 1916. How was it that such an irascible character could be so universally disliked and yet deliver a nine-year record of never having lost a game? The answers are quite surprising and make for a fascinating study of just how history can stray off track when an actual event grows into legend that is told and retold over many decades. Each retelling adds another author’s twist and in the end the original facts are hardly recognizable.

It is correct that he could be extremely tough on his players and he frequently had a pessimistic attitude about his upcoming games – but not always. For this he has forever been tagged as “Gloomy Gil.” The tough treatment of his players springs from his demanding practice regimen where he insisted on micro managing every detail of the game. Players who didn’t work up to his exacting standards could be openly rebuked in practice when he detected laziness or ego-inflated self importance. This was his method of getting the team to work in total unison in what followers of football across the country came to know as the Dobie Machine. His widely acclaimed gloominess was an affectation he loved to use when his team came up against a beatable or even a pushover team that week. This was done to place a bit of doubt into the players’ heads that perhaps they needed to hunker down because the coach may have seen something they missed. However, if the game was more competitive Dobie would be either non-committal or guardedly optimistic. If it looked to the world that Washington had a fight on its hands, everyone else relieved him of the job of casting doubt on the outcome. Rather than always being pessimistic which sold more newspapers Dobie was actually a contrarian. But this wasn’t as rich of a story line, it makes for much more interesting copy to do as editors expect. Find a negative angle whether it’s there or not.

Legends regarding people of history begin somewhere. Once established they are hard to shake. When I started to turn up inconsistencies between contemporary writings of Dobie versus eye witness accounts going back to 1908 I set out to separate fact from fiction. It was astounding as to the disconnect between on-the-scene reports from 100 years ago compared to latter day interpretations composed 25, 50 or 100 years later. Many authors writing well past an event would cherry pick an incident say from 1908 and blend it into a happening of 1914. This device enables the writer to prove his/her premise, never mind that the event as reported never happened. Thus the legend was born, but the telling results in a made-up picture of the real Gilmour Dobie.

Dobie did start out on the wrong foot in his first year at Washington and proved to be immature and loose lipped. He was quickly brought into line when University President Thomas Kane boxed his ears for unacceptable conduct. Dobie got into a wrangle with a couple of prominent businessmen for blocking their view as he coached from the sidelines. This dustup was published as an open letter of complaint to President Kane in The Argus, a Seattle newspaper of the early 1900s. The highly publicized rebuke and President Kane’s intervention did the trick – Dobie learned that a highly visible public figure had to comport himself in a civilized manner.

In trying to get Dobie’s attention the two businessmen threw a fusillade of peanut shells at the tall Scotsman. This simple action of peanut shell throwing grew into all sorts of distortions over the years. A later writer who wrote a compendium of famous football coaches received the widest coverage for his version of the story. His take on the event that occurred before he was born and that was written well after the fact stated, “Fans hurled stones at him during games.” In his account this widely read author had twenty-two substantive errors regarding Dobie and his teams. Hardly a source to be relied on, and yet in later years, his story found its way into numerous follow-up pieces. Peanut shells morphed into stones in this retelling which has been repeated so many times in the decades since the original fracas, it became revealed truth. As recently as 2007 another author, in a published account of the great peanut throwing debacle had fans tossing vegetables at Dobie from the stands. I became convinced that only peanuts were thrown because I have read three newspaper articles of the actual November 24, 1908 Whitman game where, yes peanut shells were indeed the missiles of choice. I also have researched from at least one to as many as six newspaper eye witness accounts of all sixty-two games Dobie coached at Washington. None of these have even an oblique reference to rocks or vegetables having ever been hurled.

Yes, you sharp-eyed Dobie aficionados you read correctly – I said sixty-two games played by Gil Dobie’s teams and not sixty-one. Somehow in the tabulation of Washington’s games way back when the statisticians inexplicably dropped one through the cracks. I uncovered three newspaper write-ups of this game authored by sports reporters who witnessed the contest from the press box. Since it was a preseason game it takes on less importance than had it been against a conference foe but Dobie’s national record does include all of his preseason matches. It took just short of 100 years for this scoop but at long-last you are reading the first public reporting of this game since the week it was actually played.

What about the reports of Dobie’s players, fans and sports writers hating him? Didn’t happen. His players would openly admit that they hated the difficult and mind numbing repetition of his practices but loved the constant winning that they produced. The record is replete with legions of players who after hanging up their cleats reported a reverence for their coach. Thunderous applause at rallies that were held while he still coached, large turnouts at player reunions after he retired and even long after he died serve to document sincere respect for their mentor. A recurring theme is the attitude that he taught them life altering lessons of character building and the benefits of hard work. Wee Coyle, quarterback from 1908-’11, an athlete’s athlete, member of the Husky Hall of Fame, wounded World War I veteran, former Lieutenant Governor and prominent Seattle Attorney had this to say of his coach, “He was held in the highest respect and admiration by the men over whom he held his mailed fist, because he was honest and fair. He was a natural born leader of men.”

The scattered reports that cropped up over the years of his own fans hating a coach who never lost in nine years over sixty-two games is so far off base as to be downright laughable. And yet, there is a consistent thread running through reports that this was actually the case. The record reflects a coach who was exalted for his service at Washington. Students griped about his on-again, off-again closed practices but when it came to saluting him at rallies, writing numerous declarations of praise, a student body gift of an inscribed gold watch, women’s league gifts of solid gold pens to the coach and each of his players and a yearbook dedication one is given to wonder; just where are these loathing fans? Dobie was so popular on campus that the original version of “Bow Down To Washington,” written during his 1915 season included the stanza “Dobie, Dobie pride of Washington.”

Local sports writers also were reported to have been disgusted with the famous coach. Journalistic ethics, of course, would dictate that a reporter spell out the facts, warts and all. Quite naturally it is to be expected that a coach who received such national attention would be closely scrutinized. There’s no predicting when a catchy story could come along and be picked up by the national wires. Sensational stuff sells and gets reporters promotions and pay raises. Nothing new there. But hating Dobie in and around Seattle newspaper circles did not happen. In Portland, Spokane, Eugene, San Francisco, Oakland, Corvallis, Moscow Idaho, Tacoma and Denver where Dobie’s teams inflicted such abuse, he was most assuredly not a favorite of the local press. Then as now a sports reporter doesn’t win points by throwing roses to the enemy coach. But there are many instances of professional respect shown by reporters for Dobie’s incomparable record and for his skills as a practitioner of his craft. Specific reporters of the day who openly expressed admiration for Dobie were Biddy Bishop of the Tacoma Tribune, George Varnell of the Spokane Chronicle and later Seattle Times, Foscoe Fawcett of the Oregonian and the great Royal Brougham of the Seattle Post Intelligencer. Bobby Boyce of the Argus who wrote the open letter back in 1908 almost getting Dobie fired later became a very close personal friend.

Dobie himself wrote syndicated columns on football techniques for over twenty years during his career that went out to a huge national audience. Sports editors in virtually every state in the country prominently published his writings in their papers. In referencing his articles reporters unabashedly referred to him as a genius, a wizard, a football expert, as incomparable and a great coach. During his heyday he would often be singled out as “the greatest.” 

The accepted national standard for All-American recognition for Dobie’s time and long thereafter was to be named on the Walter Camp Foundation (WCF) teams. The foundation selects a first, second and third team. It is unfortunate that Washington’s enormously talented right guard, Louis Seagrave of Spokane is mistakenly designated on some listings (including official UW publications) as having won a first team position on the WCF squad of 1916. In actuality he was awarded a third team placement on this team. It seems quite difficult to get his bio correct as his name often erroneously ends in “S” on some lists and his position is shown incorrectly as an end rather than as guard. In many writings it states that Captain Seagrave is, “Washington’s first, All-American first team selection.” There was a Midwest newspaper seeking to gain balance among all regions of the country (rather than being east coast centric as was the WCF of the day) that selected Seagrave on their 1916 first team. But this obscure selection gets little notice and is not an officially recognized source.   

Getting an accurate play-by-play in those days of hot lead typesetting coming from an editor’s galley proof of a reporter’s phoned in story under sleep-depriving deadlines was far from a science. Even with today’s digital technology the story is often wrong. Considering the primitive technology of 100 years ago, it is little wonder that the end result would just about always contain errors. I encountered several instances where a newspaper would assign two reporters to a game, both filing reports but with widely divergent takes on specific aspects of the game. A biographer’s job is to sort through the sources and make every attempt to set the record straight. To this end I maintained a standard of only utilizing original documents of the era to get to the bottom line. Where questions arose these were further matched against second and third sources of eye witness accounts, if these exist.

It was discovered that players’ names, game scores, game dates and where the contest was played are incorrectly reflected on widely circulated modern records.  As we have seen even the very existence of a game can be lost to history. In digging back into the original documents I found one 1927 source that carried a whole host of errors concerning Dobie’s players. I traced misspelled names, missing names, non-players included and incorrect dates as just some of the errors originating with this document. All of these mistakes are still carried on records to this day. It is obvious that a person today seeking to put a list of Dobie’s players together would feel comfortable in relying on an eighty-two year old record. At first I thought so too believing this document to be a Rosetta stone of player data. After all it came from an official source. No one can be blamed for depending on a record going back eight decades. But since Dobie’s era was nine decades ago this experience taught me a lesson. It was here that I abandoned all writings done after Dobie’s service at Washington and only drew information from writings of his day.

We can now upgrade the record and all would agree that we owe this to Coach Dobie and his players. Neither Dobie, his incomparable athletes or their thousands of fans are alive today but the remarkable achievements of his celebrated teams are truly one of the cornerstones of Washington football tradition. No monuments, statues, buildings or plazas exist to honor their memory but whatever medium is chosen their notable accomplishments should be memorialized for future generations. If we do not preserve a link to our past we have failed in our responsibility to these great athletes.  

Lynn Borland

lynn@authorwilliamlynn.com

 © Copyright 2009, Lynn Borland. All rights reserved.

This article may not be reprinted in whole or in part in any form without written permission from the author.

 

 

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