Washington's Apostle of Grief

There was a brothel on every street corner. It was said that there was a saloon for every fifty citizens. On the downtown streets, there was a bustling, swarming mass of eager prospectors. They gravitated to the city from far and wide, flooding into Seattle, and they all had the fever.

They were using Seattle as a jump-off point to reach Alaska, following the pulse quickening rumors of gold mines and untold wealth to the north.

Such was the amazing scene of Seattle in the early 1900s. A city filled with logging mills, docks, fisherman, gambling, prostitution, hucksters, saloons, clothing outfitters, and a growing company called Nordstroms. Native Americans would come in by canoe from the islands of Puget Sound and roam through downtown looking to trade and shop.

Meanwhile, six miles to the northeast, there was a growing college called the University of Washington. In those days its buildings were practically lost amid the thick forest and countless tall timbers. Many an incoming, freshman student found himself bewildered upon its trails, searching for the campus. When he finally did find it, he would see how the university was cleverly situated upon the gently lapping shores of Lake Washington, with a magnificent view of Mount Rainier to the south.

To fully capitalize on the rampant gold fever that gripped the west coast, Seattle's leaders decided that there were two things they needed to boost the city's image. The first was a fair, originally scheduled for 1907, called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. This featured Seattle as the portal to Alaska's perceived riches. It was held on those forested grounds of the University of Washington, and attracted over four million visitors in six months.

The second need, it was decided, was that of a great football team. The prevailing thought was, if there was a football powerhouse in Seattle, then the elite teams from the east coast would hear of them and want to play them, and this would give Seattle some much-desired attention from the big cities.

Thus it was in 1908 that Gilmore Dobie was hired away from North Dakota State, at the (then) eye-popping amount of $3,000 a year. He had coached NDS to two consecutive undefeated seasons, and his teams were reputed to be highly disciplined, and Dobie himself a master psychologist.

Thus began his career in Seattle.

In his nine seasons at Washington, Dobie never lost a game! He compiled a ridiculous record of 58-0-3, which transpired into a streak of 63 consecutive games without a defeat. This is an NCAA record, which still stands.

He was also a character of legendary proportions. He was the gruffest and terse human being you'd ever meet. He was despised by those on the upper campus, often pelted by peanuts thrown by Washington's own fans, and once had to be separated from a near fist- fight with the mayor of Seattle.

His first practice was remembered by a player: "No smile, no handshakes, no slap on the back, - nothing but a pair of eyes peering coldly out of a dark face that was hidden partially by a slouch hat drawn loosely over a head of mussed black hair. He began to unfold himself from a lounging position. He seemed to mount into sections until his six feet and more of black overcoat had assumed an upright position. Those eyes were still working on us...."

In Dobie's nine years with the Purple and Gold, his teams outscored opponents 1,930 to 118, and recorded 26 shutouts. They threw the ball only a half-dozen times a game, but would instead focus on smash runs. Dobie demanded precision, and would often spend an entire practice devoted to running the same play- over and over again, until choreographed into perfection.

Among his noted players was QB Willie Coyle, a four-year starter. Coyle never lost a game, and yet in 1974 as an old man recalled the words Dobie had for him his senior year. The "encouragement" came at the end of a Friday night strategy meeting, in a tiny room filled with smoke and his gruff coach peering across at him with his trademark tombstone glare. "Coyle, you're a rotten quarterback and if I didn't have so many cripples you'd be sitting on the bench. You've played your last two games like a man devoid of brains."

Coyle's career record as a starter was 26-0-1.

In those days Washington played its games at Denny Field, which served as the home field from 1895-1919 (Husky Stadium was not built until 1920). It was notorious for being covered with countless small rocks. A graduate manager named Victor Zednick would hire young kids to come in and scour the field to pick up the rocks.

Years later, Zednick reminisced. "If even one small rock was found after the cleanup, Dobie would rant and rave like a wild man. He would even intimate that I put it there to annoy him."

The groundskeepers from opposing team were not spared either. Prior to the 1908 Washington-Oregon game, Dobie became unglued and it is unclear whether he was a candidate for Prozac or just a brilliant tactician. Kincaid Field in Eugene was a muddy mess, and the groundskeepers had placed three inches of sawdust upon the surface to improve conditions. Dobie brought his players out a full ninety minutes prior to the game and at once began ranting and raving about how Oregon was using the sawdust to slow down Washington's speedy running backs. He demanded that the sawdust be removed, or else they would refuse to participate.

At the very last moment, with players, refs and fans in attendance all thinking the game was going to be called, Dobie put his men out onto the field to play. A player quoted him as saying, "boys, you're going to go out and get licked and I can't help you. But I'll be ashamed if you don't go out and fight ‘em, and fight ‘em hard."

Washington beat Oregon 15-0.

After Willie Coyle graduated, the player to follow in his enormous footsteps was Ernest "Tramp" Murphy. Dobie was no kinder to him than his predecessor: Said Murphy, "One time Coach Dobie threatened to have me tied in a sack with some old iron and thrown into small Lake Union (west of campus). That would be a more ignominious fate than being drowned in big, beautiful Lake Washington. Dobie was a master at supplying these subtle belittlements... At the time, he left me without the slightest doubt that he actually meant the threat."

Dobie was a widower at a very young age, when his wife was killed in an automobile accident. He was left to raise two small children, as well as coach the Washington football team.

Almost to a man, every former player who has been quoted has made almost the same statement about playing for Gilmore Dobie. They simultaneously loved him, hated him, feared him and resented him. Said Maxwell Eakins "Drill (practice) those days was the toughest part. At least while we were playing the game on Saturday, we had some fun. Dobie drove us hard but there was great satisfaction in the end. We always won."

And win they did! In the process they racked up some big victories. 100-0 over Whitworth. 50-0 over Idaho. 46-0 over Colorado. 72-0 over California. 35-0 over Oregon. 47-0 over Oregon State. 45-0 over Washington State.

Through the years, his players anointed him (behind his back!) with great nicknames... "Gloomy Gil", "The Dour Dane", the "Sad Scot" and the "Apostle of Grief". However, he was loathed by opponents, who by 1911 resented the fact that Dobie was the one to dictate who played who and on what days. By 1916, the other conference teams even colluded to avoid playing Washington, and thus break Dobie's chokehold over northwest and west coast football.

His thunderous victories were even felt and resented years later. In 1915 Washington destroyed California 72-0 in Berkeley. Seven years later in 1922, and long after Dobie's departure, California had their "Wonder Teams" and Golden Bears coach Andy Smith wanted revenge. Before the game, he implored his team to "go score just as many points today as Washington did on us six years ago." Remarkably, they did! The Bears scored a wild 72-3 triumph over the Huskies, which to this day remains the worst defeat in Washington football history.

Dobie managed to infuriate the University of Oregon in 1911. He came up with his devious play forever known as the "Bunk Play". The week before the game, he closed practices and swore his players to secrecy. Over and over they practiced it.

Said Coyle, "for thirty minutes each night we practiced this play, and the eleven starters were the only ones in on the secret. We had all pledged our word of honor as men not to tell a living soul what we were doing... Dobie had us try it out finally on the second team in a scrimmage. It worked so well and I remember that the coach burst out laughing, the only occasion he did that in my four years under him."

It was a fake snap, with the center falling to the ground with the ball, and then having the right end sneak over and take the ball and run for the goal line. As was noted by a newspaper account, "Coyle apparently took the ball for a sprint around his own left end... The whole Oregon team was drawn after Coyle. Suddenly the end (Sutton) emerged from the mixup with the ball tucked under his arm and raced 40 yards with a clear field. The play stupefied spectators and many left the stands after the game unable to fathom the workings of the fake."

Recalled Coyle years later with a laugh, "It was great! Nobody knew what the hell happened and here was Sutton with a touchdown."

Washington used it one other time, before it was declared illegal. The University of Oregon led the protest.

At Washington, even the school fight song revolved around their coach. The lyrics used to include "Dobie, Dobie Pride of Washington! They're trembling at the feet of Mighty Washington!" (In 1918 this was changed to "Heaven help the foes of Washington! They're trembling at the feet of mighty Washington!")

At the end of the road, University President Henry Suzzallo ousted Dobie. Due to an "exam irregularity", the university suspended a Washington player. To support him the Washington players went on strike for two days. This was three full years before the famous Seattle General Strike of 1919. The upper campus of the University of Washington was horrified by the insurrection, and Suzzallo was furious at Dobie for refusing to stop it. He suspected Dobie was the cause behind it, and a few weeks later had him fired.

Thirty-three years later a former player admitted that it was he, and not Dobie, who had instigated the strike.

The night that Dobie was fired, word traveled quickly and over 300 students amassed outside Dobie's house at 2 AM. They chanted wildly his name, and when he appeared at the front door in his pajamas they went wild. While he felt wronged by the university, he later stated that this act of support from the students had eased his mind of the turmoil.

Seattle had become a bit more cosmopolitan in his time there. The city had its first taste of minor league baseball with the Seattle Indians of 1912. The Pike Place Market was operating with great success. And a guy by the name of Bill Boeing was testing airplanes with his new company, operating out at a floating hanger on Lake Union.

A year later Dobie was in Maryland, coaching the Navy Midshipmen. Halfway through the season, the college football world was shocked by the unbelievable news. West Virginia had beaten Navy 7-0! It was Dobie's first defeat in 12 years of coaching! And it was his team's only loss that season.

Dobie coached through 1935, moving from Annapolis to Minnesota to Cornell. His only two losing seasons of coaching came at Cornell, where upon his firing he made the legendary quip "You can't win with Phi Beta Kappas".

Following his retirement, he had these words. "I don't miss football. Sleep comes easily now, and I get up when I choose. The pressure, and it was terrific, is gone now. Sometimes I think football has gotten out of hand. I prefer the old-fashioned way when the game was played not so much for the gate receipts, but for itself."

Dobie is a member of the College Football and Husky Hall of Fames.

He died in 1948.
Derek Johnson can be reached at djohnson@Dawgman.com

This piece originally appeared in PigskinPost.com and Historylink.org Much thanks to these great materials:
The Glory of Washington by Jim Daves and W. Thomas Porter
Bow Down to Washington by Dick Rockne
Washington Centennial Program by Steve Rudman and Karen Chave
Seattle by Nard Jones
Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers by Sharon A. Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy

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