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Canzano: Legend of 'Gloomy Gil' comes with lesson
Washington football coach never lost a game... but lost his job.
Kalen DeBoer had a hell of a first season at the University of Washington, didn’t he? But it turns out his 11-2 record has nothing on Gilmore Dobie.
Ever heard of “Gloomy Gil”?
I was perusing the football annals of the Pac-12 Conference on Thursday, trying to figure out just how impressive DeBoer’s first season was when I stumbled upon Dobie’s coaching record and fell down a rabbit hole.
Dobie coached the Huskies for nine seasons and never lost a football game. His 59-0-3 record is a remarkable accomplishment. As The Seattle Times once wrote, “his forgotten legacy has become his only loss.”
UW’s coach was an orphan who earned a law degree and found coaching at an early age. The Huskies hired Dobie at age 30 in 1908 and fired him nine seasons later amid a scandal that really wasn’t his fault.
I’m fascinated by football history. I grew up reading about Knute Rockne, Eddie Robinson, Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg. Years ago when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, I drove to the campus library at the University of Oregon and planned to spend an hour flipping through the archives reading about the school’s football history.
I arrived at 10 a.m. The research librarian set a pile of old scrapbooks, papers and files in front of me. I read about “Shy” Huntington, Hugo Bezdek and a Ducks football team in 1894 that played the season with two different head coaches.
When I looked up it was 2 p.m.
I could easily do that with Dobie today.
Did you know that UW’s opponents didn’t even score in nearly 70 percent of the games he coached? That Oregon, with 14 points scored in 1912, was the only opponent to ever reach double figures? That Washington once won 40 straight games under Dobie before the streak was snapped with a tie?
Speaking of ties — every photograph I found of Dobie featured one around his neck. He often wore a trench coat, a three-piece suit, and a frown. He was an impeccable dresser and detail oriented. The history books and newspaper accounts — including a 10-part series done on him in the 1940s — tell us that he leaned heavily on the run game, but also was among the first to embrace the forward pass. Also, that Dobie once challenged his entire team to a fight.
There were no takers, of course.
Dobie didn’t have the transfer portal to worry about. There weren’t NIL collectives. But he did have to worry about a couple of prominent fans who couldn’t see the game action from behind where the 6-foot coach liked to stand.
According to the Seattle papers, at one game a city politician and the Postmaster yelled at the coach to sit down so they could see. When Dobie ignored their cries, the men pelted him with peanuts. Dobie eventually whipped around and let loose a blistering tirade on the offenders. He later had to apologize when his loss of poise came to the attention of UW’s president.
Again, Dobie never lost a game.
In today’s college football world, they’d have given him a 10-year, $80 million contract. It would have come with a membership at the local country club, the use of an automobile and he’d never pay for a meal in a restaurant. But for his troubles, Dobie eventually got fired.
I’ll give you the short version of that tale. Star UW tackle Bill Grimm was caught cheating on a history exam. He was suspended on the eve of a big game against Cal. The rest of his teammates called for a strike. Dobie waved it off and, according to The Seattle Times, insisted the game would go on and that Washington would win it.
According to the newspaper: “Dobie held practice with only a few players and gave notice there would be a game even if he had to field a team of intramural players. He made no effort to coax the team back.”
His university president, Henry Suzzallo, apparently didn’t appreciate that. Nor did some faculty, influential local businessmen and UW boosters. The team played the game, beat Cal 14-7, and Dobie’s remarkable win streak remained alive.
Washington won the conference title that season, but its football coach was blamed for the player insurrection. Dobie was either fired or resigned. Depends on who you ask, but most agree the coach was not welcome back. When fans and players heard, they nearly rioted. But the coach settled the scene down, left Seattle, and later went on to coach at Navy, Cornell and Boston College. He won three national championships.
Kalen DeBoer in 2022?
Great first season. Amazing, really. The first-year UW coach took over a team that went 4-8 in 2021. Coach Jimmy Lake got fired, midseason. It was messy stuff. Now, the Huskies are sitting in an advantageous position and viewed as one of the favorites to win the Pac-12.
DeBoer was rewarded at the end of his first season at Washington with an extension that added two years and $1 million per year in value to his initial deal. He’s now got six years of job security and is owed $26.7 million in base salary.
Is there a lesson to be learned from the legend of Gil Dobie? Of course there is. Things may look simpler in those grainy black and white photographs. College football sure has evolved. But it’s always been a tough business.
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