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Exit speeches and "unjust firings"
A Washington tradition?
By: Malamute, Updated 5 November 2004

Since 1908, each head football coach that has stayed at Washington for more than one year has either been fired or has resigned under fire. The Dawgfather blamed the Pac-10 and media for his exile; Gloomy Gil had problems with the university president; Whisky Jim said he got a “Pearl Harbor deal.” Lambo thought 30 years deserved better. From a player revolt to a basketball pool, controversy surrounds each coach's unceremonious exit.

During his swan song, after being dismissed by President Harry Truman, General Douglas Macarthur said, “Old soldiers never die; they just fade away.”

Some of Washington’s old soldiers won’t fade away; the unfairness of their dismals are still haunting Husky history, at least according to their exit speeches.

University President Henry Suzzallo began this haunted history with the firing of Washington’s most successful coach, Gil Dobie. Was his termination unjust? Dobie never lost a game (1908-1916, 58-0-3), and was fired for a player insurrection he was falsely accused of starting.

"I performed my services in as conscientious and thorough manner as was possible under the conditions. Dr. Suzzallo does me wrong, when he says I did otherwise," said Dobie as he exited Montlake. As it turned out, Dobie was the victim and Suzzallo was the villain in their private rhubarb.

The mutiny was instigated by Quarterback “Tramp” Murphy, Louis Seagrave (team captain) and a member of a YMCA squad. That fact was disclosed in 1949, when Murphy admitted to it.

Enoch “Baggy” Bagshaw (1921-1929) may have gotten the most unfair deal of all the coaches, when University President Charles May restricted recruiting. The late all-American Chuck Carroll, one of Bagshaw’s players, said, “May started a drive to curtail the practice of recruiting…and because he (May) was from Washington, he started it at home…He squeezed Bagshaw. It got so bad…we just didn’t have enough players. Hardly anybody was turning out—17 or 18 guys—not enough to have a scrimmage.”

Although he fought his firing to the bitter end, saying that "Washington has no quitters," Baggy was sacked by Earl Camphell, not the famous footballer from Texas, but a former bookstore manager, named athletic manager in 1928.

Old soldier Jim Phelan (1930-1941) called his dismissal “another Pearl Harbor deal.”  He went on to coach Saint Mary's, and, in 1946, with the aid of Herman Wedemeyer, beat the Huskies in a game called "Phelan's Revenge."

Fired by AD Harvey Cassill, Ralph "Pest" Welch (1942-1947) gave an exit speech that was a bit more peaceful than Phelan's, ending with these words, “Due to my many years of active connection with the university’s athletic program, I shall always be watching its development with keen interest and hope for its continued success.”

Howie Odell, who was fired after going 7-3 in his final year, had this to say, “…Mr. Cassill called me in and said, ‘I’ve failed in my job and I’m going to resign. You have failed in your job, and you should resign, too’…Cassill again called me in and had a new attack. This time, he attacked me on some of my assistants. ‘A small but powerful group is demanding changes,’ he said. I asked who this group was, but could get no answer.”

University President Dr. Henry Schmitz approved Cassill’s recommendation that Odell be fired, saying, “There was no consideration of the win-loss record nor was there any criticism of Coach Odell as an individual. Rather the problems concern itself entirely with relationships involved in the general management of the athletic program.”

Cowboy Johnny Cherberg was the second of Washington’s coaches to be fired because of a player revolt. Cherberg’s exit speech was the most destructive of them all, which included words that would eventually torpedo the Pacific Coast Conference, “Could it be I was fired because (booster) Torchy Torrance was faced with the possibility of losing control of some of his players? Is it true that some players are receiving $200 a month—far above the amount approved by the grant-in-aid program?”

Those remarks led to an NCAA investigation of a slush fund run by an organization of Washington boosters. Eventually, the old PCC was replaced by the AAWU in 1959, a five-team conference consisting of the four California schools and Washington.

Ironically, some of Washington’s firings have provided better jobs for former coaches, with sympathetic voters voting two of them into public office: Howie Odell (1948-1952) landed a job as King County Commissioner; John Cherberg (1953-1955) ended up as Lieutenant Governor. Governor Roland Hartley appointed Enoch Bagshaw to the position of state supervisor of transportation on March 24, 1930.

A sagacious Darrell Royal (5-5) coached one year at Washington (1956) before jumping to a better coaching job at Texas.

Jim Owens (1957-1974) was the third Washington coach to be involved in a player revolt, a black player revolt that occurred in 1968, at a time when racial unrest seized the country. Owens, who resigned his job more or less, gave the most graceful exit speech of them all, quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson. He said:

“We are the sum of our days, and should look sharp at how they pass…Of our days, they come and go like muffled and veiled figures sent from a distant friendly party; but they are nothing, and if we do not use the gifts they bring, they carry them as silently away.”

Don James (1973-1992) wasn’t fired; he quit voluntarily. However, some people believe that University President William P. Gerberding was instrumental in James’ leaving Washington because Gerberding accepted sanctions from the Pac-10 that were not proportional to the crimes committed during the Fruit-Basket Scandal (1992) involving James.

In his exit speech, James blamed the media and the Pac-10 conference, saying, "I have decided I can no longer coach in a conference that treats its players and coaches so unfairly. We have suffered for nearly 10 months from media character assassination. By looking at the penalties, it appears we are all guilty, based in large part upon statements of questionable witnesses." 

After giving Coach Jim Lambright (1993-1998) a public voice of approval, AD Barbara Hedges fired him one month later, presumably for losing to the Air Force in the Oahu Bowl, although she said that loss didn't affect her decision.

However, it may have been player dissatisfaction with uniform changes Lambright made that cost him his job—at least, symbolically—so says Blaine Newnham (The Seattle Times) when he wrote in 1999, “It is preposterous to say Jim Lambright failed because he changed uniforms during his time at Washington, and yet the purple helmet is symbolic of his inability to please either the players or the alumni…He wanted the purple helmet and no one else did. He told the players they would wear white shoes when they wanted to wear black.”

Lambright gave this exit speech, "I'll always bleed purple and gold. I feel we left the program better than when we got it. I completely believe that we as a staff have given as much stability as possible during very difficult sanction times. My only regret might be that I needed to be more political in this position. I thought 30 years would deserve better."

Lambo, as he is affectionately called, spent 30 years at Washington in the roles of a player, assistant coach and head coach.

Rick Neueheisel blamed the NCAA for what happened to him, saying, “I think the NCAA has put on a lot of pressure because of some the statements they made. I think that the day after I was questioned by the NCAA, Miles Brand said I should be fired. There was no way they could know all the facts. The university felt pressure to make a decision. I think it was simple as that.”

Someday, inflation of the dollar will make Neuheisel’s basketball wagers seem picayunish (kind of like Gil Dobie’s starting salary of $1,000), and the unjustness of Neuheisel’s firing, a Husky tradition, will be written about. 

After several weeks of discussion with AD Todd Turner and with 3 games remaining on the 2004 season, Keith Gilbertson has decided to resign his job as head football coach after the season is over. Gilbertson (7-13) succeeded Rick Neuheisel and coached the Huskies for 15 months, starting in August 2003. You might say he resigned under fire. Most likely, he would have been fired at the end of the season, along with his 9 assistant coaches.

"I'm a bottom-line guy," Gilbertson said. "The bottom line is wins and losses, and it wasn't happening."

"The scoreboard doesn't lie," Turner said. "It's the most visible means of success. It is what it is."

"The way I got this job, when I saw Rick's situation, it was not a dream job," said Gilbertson. “I do love this place," he added. "I have a great passion for Husky football. I do feel I made a contribution, but this was not a dream situation."

Neuheisel was fired because he participated in a March Madness basketball pool; yet, the university's compliance officer said it was okay to participate in a pool. Dobie was fired for a player insurrection he was falsely accused of starting. Baggy was sacked because he found it hard to recruit in the state of Washington; yet, the university president restricted his recruiting to in-state products. Phelan got a "Pearl Harbor deal" from the UW. James quit under fire because the university president accepted "unfair" sanctions from the Pac-10. The "apolitical" Lambo, with 30 years of loyalty to the UW, apparently was fired for losing one game, in the wake of his bad taste for dressing players. Gilbertson resigned under fire because of a losing season that wasn't his fault, having inherited a mess at Washington.

What's missing from all of this is the university's side of the story, where complex human interaction exists between the coach and alumni groups, between the coach and the university president and between the coach and his athletic director. The NCAA, the media, fellow coaches and his very own players, among others, are deterministic forces with which a coach must deal.

The University of Washington is not the only school in the country that has given a headman the proverbial shaft, when placed in the context of his exit speech.

In his own way, however, each of these redoubtable coaches has succeeded at one time in his life, for who is to say that any one person may judge a life's whole work.

"To laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends...this is to have succeeded." (Ralph Waldo Emerson).

-----------------

Since the days of Gil Dobie (1908-1916), each coach that has stayed at Washington more than one year eventually has been fired or resigned under fire.

Ironically, most of the coaches left Washington with winning records (8 of the 11 listed in the table below).

Coach

Years

Record Swan Song

Gil Dobie

1908-16 58-0-3 Fired

Enoch Bagshaw

1921-29 63-22-6 Fired

Jimmy Phelan

1930-41 65-37-8 Fired

Ralph Welch

1942-47 27-20-3 Fired

Howard Odell

1948-52 23-25-12 Fired

John Cherberg

1953-55 10-18-2 Fired

Jim Owens

1957-74 99-82-6 Under Fire

Don James

1975-92 153-57-2 Under Fire

Jim Lambright

1993-98 43-24-1 Fired

Rick Neuheisel

1999-03 33-16-0 Fired

Keith Gilbertson

2003-04 7-13 Under fire

References:

[Rockne]. Rockne, Dick, “Bow Down to Washington,” The Strode Publishers, Huntsville, Alabama, 1975.

[100]. “100 Years of Husky Football,” Professional Sports Publications, New York City, New York 

[Burke]. Burke, Roger, “Once a Husky, Always a Husky,” Columbia River Book Co., 2001.

Richard Linde (a.k.a., Malamute) can be reached at malamute@4malamute.com

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