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Gil Dobie, the man and the myth
Rich Linde, 11 May 2011

Legendary coach Gilmour Dobie came to the University of Washington in 1908 and coached nine years.

Because of his unbridled zeal for winning, Dobie markedly changed the perception of west coast football, along with the city of Seattle's.

He'd gone 8-0-0 in his first coaching stint at North Dakota State, prior to his takeover season at UW.

In his first season at Washington, the "Sad Scott," as he has been called, also went undefeated, winning the Pacific Northwest Intercollegiate Conference championship, a six-team league consisting of Washington, Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Idaho and Whitman.

When Dobie left Washington after the 1916 season, his coaching prowess was likened to that of Percy Haugton, 'Pop' Warner, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Laurence Bankhart, Fielding Yost and all the other great coaches of that time. Later, Knute Rockne and Howard Jones, among others, joined this elite group.

The Dobie record at Washington is 'statuesque'

-- Dobie went undefeated in his 62 games at Washington, which is the longest undefeated streak (59-0-3) for any coach at any one school in college football.

-- At North Dakota State, Washington and Navy, he coached 71 consecutive games without a defeat -- also, an NCAA record.

-- At Washington, from 1908 to 1914, he compiled the second longest winning streak (no losses/no ties) in the history of college football (40 games).

-- Washington's undefeated streak of 64 games, of which Gil Dobie coached 97% of them, is an NCAA record.

-- Based on his coaching records at North Dakota State, Washington, Navy and Cornell, it took Dobie fewer games (just 108) to reach 100 wins than any other coach in the history of college football.

Pure amateurism

He had no scholarships to offer highly-coveted recruits -- which really didn't exist for the most part. His era lacked the corrupted amateurs, sleazy sports agents, and NCAA rules' bending coaches of today. He couldn't promise a recruit TV exposure, an indoor practice facility or an elaborate training table to eat from. In his period of coaching, college football wasn't a minor-league ticket to the professional ranks; it was a labor of love.

He drew his players, who were purely amateurs, from the same talent pool as his rivals in the Northwest Conference, and molded them into men of character.

"There is one thing about that body of men I feel particularly proud of. They were strictly amateur. They played because they liked to play and because they wanted the distinction of making the Washington team. Their victories were many and they were honest victories. They are justly proud of their football achievements and need not take a back seat for the generations to come." -- A quote taken from Gil Dobie's letter to Wee Coyle, thanking him for arranging his reunion with former players at Seattle's Olympic Hotel in 1940.

The Dobie difference: his coaching methods.

Dobie kept his playbook simple and easy to learn. As a result, he insisted that each play be run to perfection and practiced repeatedly until it was sure to gain yards. Often times a practice session was devoted to  practicing and learning the intricacies of just one play.

Somewhat of a martinet, to put it mildly, he emphasized defense as much as offense, that is, blocking and tackling equally. His line play, both offensively and defensively, functioned like a machine. Every man knew his role and did it flawlessly with timing and dispatch. Finding a good kicker/punter was paramount because maintaining field position on Denny Field's muddy track could be the difference between winning and losing.

Before his game with Oregon in 1916, which ended in a 0-0 tie on a quagmire of a field, Dobie complained of not having a dropkicking specialist, saying that Ted Faulk, a rowing specialist, was good for one out of every six dropkicks and that he'd been tutoring him in the "art of how to kick."

He had no aversion to throwing the ball as long as he had men comfortable in handling it. 

As early as 1908, Dobie was talking about the pass, according to this newspaper article. "Coach Dobie believes football players, particularly the backs, will be benefited by playing the game. His theory is that men who learn to handle a basketball and shoot it accurately can utilize this knowledge in football when the forward pass is used. Besides, says Dobie, the game develops quick thinking and greater ability." (Centralia Daily Chronicle, Centralia, Washington, Dec 15, 1908)

Egregious egos were held at bay, with teamwork emphasized.

"He (Dobie) has seen so many heroes fail and unheard of players rise to great heights, that he considers the 'good boy pat on the back stuff' useless," the Oakland Tribune opined.

His men were well-conditioned physically and able to fourth-quarter their opponents. He emphasized mom's home cooking and a sound night's sleep as a recipe for staying healthy, this, in addition, to his rugged conditioning drills on the practice field.

The wily Dobie kept a hungry press fed -- and off stride -- with his renowned for pessimism and one liners. Off the field, especially with nosy reporters and sycophantic alums, he was taciturn and seldom talked football, his personality reduced to an unimpeachable form.

Simplicity is the product of good design.

His wicked off-tackle play and its variations, like a tank from World War I, was feared by all of his opposing coaches. As sure as tomorrow, they knew it was coming -- but couldn't devise a plan to stop the rolling monster.

In his article "Gil Dobie talks football" (Boys' Life, October 1932), Edwin B. Dooley, who played quarterback for Dartmouth, describes Dartmouth's game in 1923 with Cornell and the off-tackle play. Dobie coached at Cornell from 1920-1935, compiling a record of 82-36-7, along with three undefeated seasons.

"Finally, it was agreed we'd play a 7-2-2 defense. That would allow our two fullbacks to back up a seven-man line and stop the juggernaut. We kicked off. Cornell ran the ball back to mid-field. On the first play (George) Pfann went off tackle for thirteen yards. He ran slowly, allowing his interferers to clean up in front of him. And clean up they did. The next play saw Pfann go off the other tackle for ten yards. It was cruel. The play functioned despite everything. There was no stopping it.

"It came at you like a thundering herd, clearing everything out of its path. Five men ahead of the ball carrier, and each man doing his job with finesse and gusto. If you dived into the interferers to pile them up, the ball carrier would run up their backs and keep right on going. If you waited, you were cut down as though hit by a scythe. It was a play that bred fear and bewilderment and always gained yardage. On first down with ten yards to go and our team set for another smashing off-tackle play, Pfann stepped back and shot a "bullet pass" right down the center alley for a touchdown.


"Gil Dobie talks football," Boys' Life, October 1932.

"The ease, the methodical coolness and the precision with which the touchdown was attained worked psychologically to our disadvantage.  Cornell scored fast and often that day and trounced us badly.

"When the Big Red team came out on the field, the faces of the players were blackened with charcoal under the eyes, to counter the effects of the strong sun. They looked weird and imposing. Dobie never overlooked a single detail in preparing for a game."

Dooley dispels some myths about Dobie

In his article, Dooley, who drove to Dobie's house in Ithaca, New York, describes an interview with him. Chatting with him in front of a warm fire in the fireplace, he found Dobie far removed from the despondent, unfriendly recluse other writers had characterized him as being.

"I do not remember a more delightful session," Dooley wrote. He remarked that Dobie split his sides with an endless stream of rich and pungent humor; that he continued with witty, penetrating observations and analytical football deductions that defied comparison.

"Never was a host more congenial or entertaining," Dooley remarked.

"'Gloomy Gil' -- never was a nickname so inappropriate," he continued. "And, yet, as he discussed (Cornell's) prospects for the season, I realized how that nom de guerre came into existence. In talking with other coaches, I observed that their youthful enthusiasm and intense desire for a successful season, often blinded their judgment. They were likely to be overconfident and self-assured. Not so with Dobie. He had not coached teams for twenty-five years for nothing. His alert brain had absorbed a lot of football in that time."

Something to think about ...

Reference:

Dooley, Edwin B,  "Gil Dobie talks football," Boys' Life, October 1932.

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

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