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History: Coyle's coaching, the Prez's couching
Rich Linde, 5 March 2012

Standing in a wintry line that stretched from the Registrar to Denny Hall, the recurring thought of "class closed" failed to roil my resolve.

William ("Wee") Coyle quarterbacked Washington from 1908 to 1911, becoming the first quarterback -- and maybe the only quarterback in college football -- to go unbeaten in four seasons of leadership. He also lettered in baseball and track and is now honored in the University of Washington Hall of Fame in all three sports.

Coyle quarterbacked the 1909 team, which in Gilmour Dobie's later life he would trumpet as his best team ever. Dobie (59-0-3) coached Washington from 1908-1916 and never lost a game, a record that has never been equaled or surpassed at any other school.

One of my readers found an article that suggested Coyle coached Broadway high school in 1912, the year after he graduated from Washington. His question encouraged me to research Coyle's activities in 1912.

An article I found (Seattle Times, "Coyle puts 'pep' into Broadway eleven," November 21, 1912), states that Coyle was a volunteer coach at Broadway, assisting Coach Smith in his preparation for a game against Queen Anne high school on the following Saturday. Specifically it states that Coyle was teaching the fine points of the game to players at various positions. His presence was meant to serve as an inspiration to the team, since he had been a football star at Broadway before he enrolled at Washington.

On the following Saturday, Queen Anne walloped Broadway 41 to 7, in a game that featured fumbled punts, missed tackles, and poor blocking on Broadway's part, along with just about anything else that can lead to a team's demise. The Times' article that described the game said it would be unfair to hold Coyle in any way responsible for the failure of the team. "If Coyle ever coached a team and sent it on the field knowing as little football as Broadway has shown this season, his friends would disown him," the paper went on to say.

Coyle married his longtime sweetheart in 1912 (marriage photo above) and coached football at Gonzaga in 1915.

In 1913 Coyle refereed some high school football and worked as an attaché to the State Attorney General's office.

Suzzallo's sales pitch:

On November 23, 1916, a week before Washington's game with Cal, the university suspended tackle Bill Grimm because of "irregularities in (taking) an examination." As a result of his suspension, the varsity players went on strike in support of Grimm, refusing to play in the Cal game scheduled the following week.

Coach Gil Dobie said he would train a volunteer team, although stating his sympathies were with the varsity.

The alumni and Grimm convinced the team to play "for the greater good." On voting to end the strike, it was reported that team members passed a resolution denying their action in refusing to play without Grimm was inspired by Coach Dobie.

On December 9, 1916, university president Dr. Henry Suzzallo (photo above) fired Coach Dobie, unbeaten in his nine years of coaching at UW, saying, “Mr. Dobie will not be with us next year. That is now final. The chief function of the university is to train character. Mr. Dobie failed to perform to his full share of that responsibility on the football field. Therefore we do not wish him to return next year."

A week later, on December 16, Suzzallo addressed 100 Seattle members of the UW Alumni club at a luncheon held at the Butler Hotel, defending his action. Call it a sales pitch, if you will.

At the meeting, President Suzzallo used Dobie's own words against him, saying that the coach's statement that the "strike had shown that the football team has a weapon to use when similarly attacked" was an expression recommending resort to a forceful rather than a rational solution of problems.

"We have no desire to set ourselves against intercollegiate athletics, the fraternity system, or any other institution of college life; but we insist that whatever is done be done in the spirit of good citizenship, that it conduce to rationality, that the boys and girls be taught to think in the heat of a crisis with the same precision that they think in the calm of the class room, and that whatever is is done must conform with the highest ethical ideals, "Suzzallo said.

"Our theory is that we shall let the students handle everything that tends to their growth. We turn these things over to them, but when we see signs that they are on the verge of failure, we enter into the matter. The moral laws, the principles of good taste and of sound judgment may not be set aside by the students or by anyone.

"The University teaches men to settle problems by an appeal to facts instead of force," said the president," I would not tolerate on the football field or faculty of any institution which I head a man who advocated a resort to coercion."

After Suzzallo's talk the alumni club adopted a resolution thanking Dobie for his nine years of service and expressed its approval of the action taken by the president, congratulating him "for his courageous insistence upon the principle that athletics shall, at all times, be subservient to the building of character, the main and unalterable purpose of the University of Washington." (#)

In my opinion, Suzzallo's talk was an obfuscation that masked his perfidy in the matter, given the details of Dobie's controversial dismissal with which the alumni club was not aware. 

In his book, "Pursuit of Perfection," biographer Lynn Borland describes the circumstances that led to the strike and Dobie's firing; he details Suzzallo's culpability in the matter and a salient commitment not kept. (%)

Ten years later (in 1926), a new UW board of regents announced Suzzallo's "leave of absence" (expulsion) for no apparent reason. Enraged students threatened to strike, but were compelled not to upon Suzzallo's request.

An executive committee formed from the UW alumni association in a prepared statement said that Governor Roland H. Hartley "is attempting to make a political football of the state's educational institutions." Hartley had packed the board of regents with his own appointees and was enraged at Suzzallo's actions in helping settle a labor dispute in the logging and lumber industry.

On the night of October 4, 1926, in a show of support and a wish to honor him, several thousand students marched to home of Dr. Suzzallo just as they had done ten years earlier to honor the ousted Gil Dobie. "We want Suzzallo, we want prexy," they shouted, as history repeated itself.

Did Suzzallo follow the procedures set forth by the Student and Faculty committees in his firing of Dobie?

Biographer Lynn Borland answers that question, as follows:

"Suzzallo failed to go through either the Student or Faculty committees that were the administrative bodies in place to act on such matters. By his own statement of failure to "train character" he directly contradicted himself of his prior praising of Dobie for doing just that. Suzzallo was absent when the team strike took place. Also, in his own words by telegram, he proved he did not understand the details of the unfolding problem. He then did not go through the Faculty Committee to adjudicate the matter - he did not attend their hearing and ruled on the matter himself. He held no public hearings and seized the opportunity to take his action during the busy Thanksgiving, Christmas holiday season. He did not arrange for any type of hearings or reviews with the many parties involved. He made an executive decision to terminate Dobie that today would have resulted in a wrongful termination lawsuit. Back then, had Dobie felt the need to fight the matter, public opinion would have greatly weighed in his favor. Would Suzzallo back down under such pressure? Probably not - but the bottom line of the whole matter is that Suzzallo did not follow the procedures set down to rule on such matters. For this he can be faulted. He did irreparable harm to the football program which was felt for generations."
------------

(#) "Washington Alumni praise Suzzallo and give thanks to Dobie, The Seattle Times, December 17, 1916.

(%) Borland, Lynn, "Pursuit of Perfection," Tribute Publishing, November 2010.

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

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