Dobie, Gilmour (1879-1948)

  • By Derek Johnson
  • Posted 3/08/2002
  • Essay 3693

Gilmour Dobie was a legendary coach for the University of Washington football team. The team has been called Huskies ever since 1922, but in the Dobie era it did not have an official name or mascot. In his nine seasons at UW (1908-1916), Dobie never lost a game, and his remarkable record of 58-0-3 has never been surpassed. He is honored in the College Football, Husky, University of Minnesota, University of North Dakota, Naval Academy, Cornell, and Boston College Halls of Fame.

Seattle in the Dobie Era

Dobie arrived a decade after the Gold Rush to the Yukon River through Alaska (departing from Seattle) had brought prosperity to Seattle. Seattle was a burgeoning city growing out of a rough town: A city filled with logging mills, docks, fisherman, gambling, prostitution, hucksters, and saloons, as well as churches, libraries, schools, clothing outfitters, and growing firms like Nordstrom and Bartell Drugs. 

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 commemorate the 1897 Gold Rush that had provided prosperity to Seattle, Seattle leaders decided that there were two things they needed to boost the city’s image. The first was a world's fair, originally scheduled for 1907, called the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition. It was held in 1909 on those forested grounds of the University of Washington, and attracted more than three 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 Gilmour Dobie was hired away from North Dakota State, at the (then) eye-popping amount of $1,200 a year. He had coached North Dakota State 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 (in 2008) stands.

Gruff and Terse

He was also a character of legendary proportions. He was one of the the most gruff and terse human beings you’d ever meet. He was envied and disliked by those on the upper campus, was once reported to have been 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 42 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 William "Wee" Coyle (1888-1977), a four-year starter who also lettered in baseball and track. He is honored in the University Hall of Fame in all three sports. He became a successful lawyer after graduation and served as Washington's lieutenant governor from 1921 to 1925. Coyle never lost a game at UW, 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." Contrast this with Wee Coyle’s assessment of Coach Dobie upon the coach’s departure from Washington in December 1916: “The man who is about to leave our midst has developed more character, more manhood, than any member of the faculty, except our beloved Professor Meany.”

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 built in 1920). It was notorious for being covered with countless small rocks. Graduate Manager (today’s Athletic Manager) 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.” Zednick later served as state senator and state representative from King County.

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. At game’s end Dobie’s men carried him off the field on their shoulders in triumph and in a magnanimous gesture for a well fought contest, the Oregon fans carried both teams’ players off the field in appreciation.   

After Willie Coyle graduated, the player to follow in his enormous footsteps as QB was Allan “Bud” Young. The versatile superstar Ernest “Tramp” Murphy was a tackle, end and halfback from 1914 to 1917 and served as team captain his senior year. Dobie was no kinder to Murphy than he was to the great Wee Coyle:  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 the Father

Dobie became a widower at a very young age, when his wife, Eva (Butler) Dobie, died of stomach cancer in 1927, leaving three children, the oldest of whom was 12. Eva died while Dobie was head coach at Cornell (where his teams won two national championships).

He was left to raise the children, a job which he took on with total dedication. He stated that his primary goal in raising the children was to assure that they all graduated from college. He was a hugely successful businessman, striking it rich in the stock market, and was a greatly loved father.

Love, Hate, and Fear

Almost to a man, every former player who has been quoted, has made almost the same statement about playing for Gilmour Dobie. They simultaneously loved him, hated him, feared him, and at times 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 State; 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 whom and on what days. By 1915, 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 Coach Jimmie Schaeffer’s California Bears 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. Coach Smith replaced Schaeffer who was fired by California in 1915 because of the disastrous 72-0 defeat.  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 “Indians” (lacking a team name, this is the name given to Washington by the Oakland Tribune sports writers who had to have a name to identify the purple and gold team), 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 (legal by rules of the day) 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, 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.

Pride of Washington

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, Dobie was ousted by UW President Henry Suzzallo. Bill Grimm, a Washington tackle, was suspended by the university for cheating on a history exam and to support Grimm 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, Ernest Murphy admitted that it was he, Captain and 1916 All American Louis Seagrave, and not Dobie who had instigated the strike. After graduation Grimm, in his professional career, became prosecuting attorney for Lewis County. After he left Washington, Dobie said that Grimm was the best tackle in the United States.

The first week of December 1916 through events of ego, pride, and resentment between the athletic and academic side of University life, Gil Dobie was released of his duties as the winingest coach in college football history. A crowd reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer of “close to a thousand” and by the University of Washington Daily as “800 students” amassed outside Dobie’s house at 10 p.m. on December 11 to demonstrate their appreciation to the coach. They chanted his name, and when he appeared at the front door in his pajamas they went wild. He felt wronged by the university, but  stated to the crowd gathered in the rain on that cold winter night, “Kings, presidents and statesmen have been greatly honored, but I know that they could have felt no greater honor than the honor I feel has been bestowed upon me tonight.”

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 (the downtown farmer's 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 of 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 Cornell to Boston. 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.”

Gilmour Dobie is a member of the College Football and Husky Halls of Fame and a member of the Hall of Fame of every other team he coached or played for. He died in 1948. As a tribute to his dual professional and personal qualities, his life was most eloquently summed up by the Reverend Dr. Walter Dodd in eulogizing the great coach and father at his funeral. His life was described as achieving, “the virtue of perfection in doing all things.”  


Jim Daves, W. Thomas Porter, and Thomas Porter, The Glory of Washington: The People and Events That Shaped the Husky Athletic Tradition (Sports Publishing, Inc., 2001); Dick Rockne, Bow Down To Washington: a Story of Husky Football (Strode Publishers, 1975); Steve Rudman and Karen Chave, Washington Centennial Program; Nard Jones, Seattle (Garden City: Doubleday, 1972); Sharon A. Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy, Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers: Alden J. Blethen & The Seattle Times (Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1996); Seattle Post Intelligencer, December 1916; The Seattle Times, November 1908; University of Washington Tyee, 1908-1916; Oakland Tribune, November 1915; University of Washington Daily, 1908-1916; Cornell Alumni News, July 1927; The New York Times, December 1948. 
Note: This biography was extensively revised and corrected on October 1, 2008, and was corrected on July 25, 2015, to state that William "Wee" Coyle served as lieutenant governor (not attorney general) of Washington.

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