Gil Dobie: Apostle of Grief

(AP) Several construction workers at Husky Stadium reported a pungent cigar odor when there were no cigars around. None of the construction personnel smoke cigarettes, much less cigars, on the job, they explained.
An OSHA investigative team found nothing that would lead to the smell of cigar smoke. No further explanation was given.

Future Husky Stadium (Washington.edu)

I spoke with a long-time (he’s now 96) Husky fan about this last weekend, and he said that the construction workers weren’t the first to experience that smell, that it’s been around Husky Stadium since late 1948 and he gave me this explanation.

Go back to 1908.

The previous season Washington went 4-4-2 including losses to Oregon and Washington State. Avid Washington fans wanted something better and let the college know what they thought. The college fired the coach, hiring a new guy who had done very well at his previous two coaching positions, winning all his games over a four-year period.

At first the players disliked the tall, gaunt new coach. At 30, he wasn’t much older than his players, and he didn’t say much, but what he said was usually uncomplimentary and critical. The new coach wouldn’t tolerate limited effort. Wouldn’t tolerate obvious imperfection. And he wasn’t a real nice guy.

“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,” said former player, quarterback Wee Coyle.

The new coach usually wore a three-piece suit and a black topcoat, and smoked a cigar.  Think of a slender, gaunt Al Capone.

Growing up a loveless orphan, he was indentured out four times as a child laborer, ran away, was eventually adopted by a well-to-do family but, although very bright, did not graduate from high school until he was 21.  He continued on at the University of Minnesota and received a law degree.

New Head Coach Gilmour Dobie’s first game at Washington was against Lincoln High in the day when Washington played anybody who would play.  Washington won 22-0.  Dobie was livid.  His players were going to have to do a lot better than that.

As the season progressed, toughness began to kick-in.  By the Washington State game – a brawl that ended in a 6-6 tie (touchdowns were five points) – Dobie was instituting what later generations would call Husky football.  Dobie’s Indians (they weren’t the Huskies yet) went on to beat Oregon 15-0 and OSU 32-0.

The 1908 tie would be one of three experienced by Gil Dobie teams – the others in 1914 against Cal, and 1916 against Oregon in Eugene (on a field that “resembled a lake”).

Dobie’s teams won all other games.  They never lost.  58-0-3.  In 69% of those games, the opponents failed to score.  In 1913 they beat Whitworth 100-0.

Dobie’s method was simple: pessimism and discipline.  He continually reminded his players that they had “a fine chance of being whipped and only a small chance of winning.”  His players feared his disapproval, and never wanted to face the wrath of “The Apostle of Grief,” as he was known.

“You’re a pack of bums. Lucky you had the breaks with you. Half of you fellows who played today will be lucky if you are on the sidelines on Thanksgiving day.”

He had only a dozen plays but they were practiced to perfection.  Gil Dobie was a disciplinarian who emphasized repetition in practice, particularly blocking and tackling.  His system was discipline uniquely spiced with pessimism.

“…he always called me ‘kid’…and he’d say, ‘Kid, listen to me, we’re going to get licked.’  He’d say the opponents were ‘great, big monsters…we haven’t got a prayer…’”(Coyle)

His players believed him.  They were too afraid not to.  “We were always scared of him,” said Coyle.  Inwardly, however, they all wanted to show the son-of-a-bitch he was wrong – as he had hoped they’d want.  It was part of his motivation.

As the winning continued, so did the pessimism, however.  Dobie later explained, “Overconfidence has lost more battles than superior opposition.”  Dobie did his utmost to insure no one became overconfident.

At the same time, the players began to understand Dobie better, and a deep respect grew.

“He was held in the highest respect and admiration by the men over whom he held his mailed fist because he was fair and honest.  He was a natural leader of men.” (Coyle)

And Dobie was loyal to his players.  When left tackle Bill Grimm was expelled for “irregularities in an examination,” the players went on strike, jeopardizing participation in an important upcoming game against Cal.  Dobie stood behind Grimm who, because of National Guard responsibilities in the war against Pancho Villa, had been called to temporary active duty with no time to prepare academically.  The circumstances were unique and Dobie, who never pampered his players, suggested there must be some alternative, compromise.  University President Henry Suzzallo said, no, Grimm was gone.

The rumor began that Dobie actually planned the strike.  Citing insubordination and unacceptable ethical standards, Suzzallo fired Dobie, saying,

“It has become quite apparent that Mr. Dobie and I disagree as to the functions of a university coach.  He has not accepted in practice the obligation to be a vigorous moral force as well as an excellent technical instructor.  In such a disagreement it is natural that we cannot utilize Mr. Dobie. Every part of the university organization must cooperate toward one end, character building.”

While it became evident from player interviews years later that Dobie had not planned the strike, the entire incident took its toll, and Dobie stated,

“I have fought for Washington for nine years on the field but have met with too much opposition in my own university to consider another year of it.”

The interesting thing is – stop and think – this all sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Dobie left Washington for other coaching jobs including a stint at Cornell where he won two national championships and shared a third.

Henry Suzzallo had a library named after him (he was stepping down about the time the building was being finished); otherwise his memory would be gone.  Essentially it is; few know who Suzzallo was or anything about him unless it’s that he was the one who fired Gil Dobie.

Gilmour Dobie doesn’t have anything named after him but, like the library, Dobie is still around…and apparently still smokes cigars.

He knows he should stop smoking.  My golly, what has it been, 96 years since Dobie coached Washington?  My 96-year-old Husky fan believes there will come a time when Dobie will quit: when his statue goes up next to a kneeling Jim Owens along Montlake Boulevard.

Until then, construction workers will continue to experience a sensation of cigar smoke when it appears no cigars are around, as the ghost of Gil Dobie busies himself watching stadium construction with pessimistic glum, silently expecting the best.

Gil Dobie

Topics: Gil Dobie, Gilmour Dobie, Henry Suzzallo, Huskies, Husky Stadium, Washington, Wee Coyle

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  • Husky History

    Good job overall of honoring this great coach. I consider Dobie to be tied with Don James for #1 UW coach. Dobie deserves the statue you suggest because he fathered the winning tradition at Washington. I think some of your account is not entirely accurate but this was 100 years ago! Somehow Washington does not seem to honor its great football history  like Caifornia, USC or Stanford to name three teams. And yet the storyline is much richer. Why is that?

  • affolter

    Great story!