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In the Spirit of Christmas
"You can't win games with Phi Beta Kappa's"
Richard Linde, 24 Dec 2005 (updated 24 Dec 2007)

With their sloping shoulders and bulging arms, the snow-capped Evergreens fronting the Willingham home presaged a recruiting season focused on linemen. Upstairs, Coach Willingham and his wife, Kim, slept peacefully, oblivious to a former coach’s apparitional shenanigans.

'Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house not a creature was stirring, just an old souse…

A half hour before midnight, a bolt of lightning struck their home with thundering, rattling fury, and Ty Willingham fell from bed as if knocked to the ground by a bruising linebacker. Strangely, the tumultuous crash of thunder and blinding light failed to waken his wife.

After catching his breath, Willingham righted himself slowly, the aggravated pain from an old football injury promising to ruin a golf outing at Manelli Bay. Slipping into slippers and robe, he hobbled down the stairs, clutching at the railing, reaching right foot first towards each step. “How am I going to make a follow-through with a bad back?” he muttered.

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Dobie would soon not be there…

His three immediate predecessors had warned him of the Dobie look-alikes, an Elvis sort of thing, and he could smell the telltale cigar smoke: Gilmour Dobie’s calling card. Husky fans were crazy, he decided, for focusing on a deceased football coach, albeit Washington’s most successful coach ever.

Ty’s den was brightly lit and filled with purple-and-gold smoke that billowed out the doorway, eerily darkening into a miasma that swirled about the Christmas tree in the holiday room.

The intruder sat at the desk dressed in a shaggy woolen overcoat, wore a tam-o'-shanter, and smoked a black cigar. Gaunt and precariously thin, he abruptly swiveled the leather chair about to face the the U-Dub coach directly. “Howdy, I’m “Gloomy” Gil Dobie and I’m here to help you.”

“Nice meeting you,” Ty answered, bending over his own desk to shake hands with him, deciding to humor the look-alike who seemed harmless enough. If he got too annoying, he could always hoist him by the scruff of the collar and give him the bum’s rush. 

“My unbeaten record -- 58-0-3 -- has been sullied by your wretched record of 11-25 football,” he said in a slow, methodical tone. 

“Yes, sir, I didn’t mean to disparage your record, but I have just completed my third season at Washington.”

“You’re military. ‘No excuse, sir,’ is the correct reply.” He blew a purple and gold rainbow of smoke in Willingham’s direction, one that Dobie might have directed at Henry Suzzallo, the former UW president who had fired the unbeaten coach because of a player mutiny.

“No excuse, sir,” Willingham replied in a humbled voice.

“That’s better, Gunny,” the old geezer replied gravelly and remonstratively. “And cut out the two-bit crap like ‘disparage.’ Have a seat, Gunny, and a drink of Old Crow.” He tossed the bottle to Willingham -- who caught it one handed -- then reached inside his overcoat, pulled out a business card, glanced at it, tore it in half and tossed it towards the waste basket.

The old coot began to chide the front-seated Willingham about his coaching methods and his affiliation with the upper campus at Washington.

"Stay away from Emmert, he's bad news for a football coach. He doesn't know Chuck Carroll from George Wilson."

"Dr. Emmert appreciates my plight and jokingly said, 'Ty, you get your five without Notre Dame's jive.' And he gave me a high five as assurance. That's how close we are."

"Horse feathers! What in the hell is a high five?"

Whenever the learned Willingham talked in the vernacular he fell flat on his face, and he knew he just had with the "jive" stuff, and wondered whether Emmert had even said it like that. Nevertheless, he sat up straight in his chair, brazening it out, trying to seem pleased he was so close to the administration that he could reveal a private conversation with a joking president. He awkwardly reached across the desk to give Dobie a high five, but the old reprobate turned away and continued with his criticism.  

"Banter like that with a university president is the prelude to getting the old heave ho. The upper campus is embarrassed by a winning a football team. Good footballers don't have the brains they were born with, and the upper campus knows it. You are being played for a fool, you knucklehead."

Once more Tyrone fell flat on his face, out of his elements in a spirited conversation. "Wo there, don't call me any names, you...you...sour Dane"

"The upper campus thinks you are a mediocre coach; that's fine with them. A second faction wants you out so they can get Jim Mora. A third group wants, ahem, to see you continue as coach. They think, ahem, your self-reliant like your father...who was like Thomas's 'Daddy,'" he added, "about the same time you were growing up, about six years farther back in time, his brother and him, too, Clarence and Myers." (*)

A puzzled look crossed Willingham's face, and the last words set him to thinking. His father and 'Daddy'? The parallel? In his eighties, his father had literally torn a house down with his bare hands and had been self-employed for years. He and his brother Jerome dreaded the summers growing up, knowing they would have to put in hard work with their father. Whether hard work was in their genes or not, it was certainly inspired by the encouragement of both of their parents, who were now deceased. Could he reclaim the past? It was up to him now, as it had been for most of his life.

Dobie gave him time to think, before growing contentious again, "I used to tell my players, ‘I’m right; you’re always wrong,’” 

“We recruit athletes that will both perform on the field and in the classroom,” Willingham said, coming to life, in a slightly raised voice, trying to regain his composure.  

"You can’t win games with Phi Beta Kappa’s...or with fancy helmets," the last swipe being directed at Oregon's "glowing motorcycle" helmets. 

"Anything else?"

"In the Apple Cup you had two different defensive plays called. Your players were out of position." 

"Maybe you can work a miracle for me and get me a PlayStation 3 so I can practice my coaching methods with Madden 2008."

Dobie's ashen-gray face reddened as if he were near an apoplexy. "If you had played football for me, I would have run you off the team."

"That's it." The coach stood up and stared defiantly at the old man. "You come into my house uninvited, conjuring up some weird magic to wake me up. You stink up the house with your smelly cigar. You preach to me in a condescending manner, playing a mind game with me, talking about 'Daddy.'" Pausing to catch his breath, Tyrone turned around and pulled a notebook off a bookshelf and opened it up. "Ah, here we go. It says here that in 1916 you beat the Bremerton Submarines 62-0. Wow, what a touch schedule. I could go on." And then he sat down, slamming the notebook on the desk.

Dobie raised his voice, shouting back at the coach. "Try playing a game on a football field that is so muddy a plow horse can't lift his hooves. I don't care who in the hell you're playing. Mud is an evener. You and your blasted fake grass fields and fancy indoor practice arena."

Coach Willingham waved the notebook at him, threatening to remind him of more scores he had run up on lesser teams.

Fortunately, the heated exchange was interrupted by Kim Willingham, who stood in the doorway with a plate of Christmas cookies in her hands and a frown on her pretty face.

“Boys, be silent and I mean right now. I could hear both of you shouting all the way upstairs. And, Tyrone, why are you drinking?”

 “Ugh, Mr. Dobie offered me…” his voice trailed off as he could see that his wife was more than upset. He put the Old Crow back on the desk, having only pretended to drink from the bottle.

“And, Mr. Dobie, kindly remove your heavy boots from Tyrone’s mahogany desk. It’s Christmas eve and you have to come here to pick a fight with my husband, trading gibes with him? Are you a Secularist who doesn’t believe in the spirit of Christmas?” Her critical look melted into compassion, as the old man looked befuddled.

She righted the photo of Washington’s national-championship volleyball team that Dobie had sent flying teapot over kettle with a black boot.

The photo of the women’s team reminded Dobie of former AD Barbara Hedges, who had hired its coach, but he decided to leave it in place in deference to Kim. “That, that woman…she…destroyed…” he blurted out.

Willingham interrupted, “Gil, that’s enough.”

“Gil?” he asked. He blanched at being spoken to with the familiar ‘Gil,’ but wisely hid his displeasure. “I know what you mean. Mrs. Willingham, but I’m here to help your husband,” he said, forgetting the lamentable Hedges for a moment.

“How can you help him? Notre Dame fired him without giving him a chance to implement his program fully and, now at Washington, he's on the hot seat, they are saying.

“I’ve already helped him,” the suspected impersonator admitted. There was something about her that reminded him of a long lost love, and he started to soften.

“Pray tell me how?” Kim asked, raising her eyebrows before furrowing them.

"I give each of Washington's coaches a miracle in the way of an outstanding quarterback. I gave Odell, Don Heinrich; Cowboy Johnny got Lee Grosscup (**) and Bobby Cox, though he threw them both away; I gave Bob Schloredt and Sixkiller to Owens; James got Warren Moon; Lambright got Marques Tuiasosopo and the same for Neuheisel; Gilbertson got Stanback. Isaiah saved your butt last year, Tyrone. I'm sorry Mrs. Willingham, but it's true. And now you've got Master Jake Locker at your services."

“That's cool and, ahem, awesome,” Willingham replied sarcastically, uncomfortable with those two adjectives and not believing what he was hearing.

“Slang words won’t darken your graying hair,” the gaunt fellow replied matter-of-factly -- a quick study. “There will be more miracles to come along, although it will cost me some mana, what we call miracle energy. Sometimes it takes a million years to rebuild your energy or mana once it’s gone. That’s why there are so few miracles and signs from God’s messengers.”

Kim smiled at him. “I used to believe in miracles, Mr. Dobie. But the way the world is nowadays, with the war, the killings. Yet, it’s Christmas time and the time for miracles.”

She set the plate of Christmas cookies on the desk, so the two of them could help themselves. The old codger blew out a rainbow of unintended green-and-red cigar smoke that refused to snake out the doorway, and it set him to coughing. "My mana is running low," he said in a choked voice.

"Enjoy the cookies, you two."

Once into humbuggery, the ‘Ebenezer Scrooge’ stared into Kim’s earnest, dark eyes, and melted even more, momentarily hating what the spirit of Christmas was doing to him. He’d come to castigate Willingham, but Kim and her captivating home was turning him into something soft, warm and fuzzy. Even Tyrone’s sincerity had tugged at his heart, making him feel sympathy for his unfair plight, Tyrone's sarcasms notwithstanding.

After another round of cookies, the three of them left the den and stood by the darkened Christmas tree in the front room, preparing to say goodbye.

"All this smoke, Mr. Dobie," Kim said, wincing.     

Before he departed, the eerie old gent gave Kim a warm hug and a kiss on the cheek, an act that briefly confounded the three of them.

“Mr. Dobie, that was so sweet.” And she planted a quick kiss ‘goodbye’ on his stubbly cheek.

Dobie cringed at the word ‘sweet,’ as if he were a vampire staring at a cross, and as his image faded slowly from sight, the smoke-shrouded tree burst into an ever increasing chorus of light as the vapor slowly dissipated from the holiday room, and the throbbing pain in Willingham’s back eased, so much so, that he was able to make a practice golf swing with a full follow-through in front of his astonished wife, who then yelled "fore" as one of the tree ornaments painted with a Husky logo, the one resembling a weasel, fell to the hardwood floor and splintered apart with the sound and fury of the lightening that had introduced the uninvited visitor.

But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, "Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good-night."

The next day as the Willingham’s opened their presents, Kim said, “Ty, was that the real Gil Dobie we met last night, or just an old fool?”

“I must have forgotten to lock the front door. Older fans like him are nuts, having lived through too many disappointing seasons and one too many probationary periods. Anyway, he used the term ‘mana,’ which is right out of a mage’s manual in a computer game. I think he is a failed magician of some sort..."

Before he could finish, he was interrupted by his cell phone. It was a call from a five-star defensive lineman who committed to Washington on the spot. “What a Christmas present,” Ty howled, putting his phone down after chatting briefly. “He runs a 4.5 forty, stands six-feet-six, weighs 300 pounds, and benches 490 pounds. He has a 4.5 grade point average and scored 1600 on his SAT.”

Tears in his eyes, he looked up at the ceiling, uttering “maybe?”

“Oh, honey, was that the real Gil Dobie?” Kim asked, her voice breaking slightly, shivers running up and down her spine.

He turned to Kim, “Maybe…just maybe it was Dobie’s ghost.”

He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

Then Tyrone remembered the business card in his wastebasket, the one Dobie had tossed away, and walked briskly to his den.

“What the heck,” he muttered, after piecing the card together. "There is nothing printed on it; it's blank."

"Tyrone, I found this in the front room; it was inside the broken ornament," and she handed the note to her husband.

Here's my present for next season: A bowl game in 2008 (it cost me 35 mana).

Merry Christmas, Gilmour Dobie

Willingham thought about his father, Nathaniel -- and the name, "Daddy," To his wife's astonishment, Willingham tore up the note and tossed the pieces into his wastebasket. The old man had brought him to terms with himself. "I don't need Gil's mana to do my job at Washington. If I'm ever going to keep my job, honey, I'll have to do it on my own. He gave me Jake, and now the rest is up to me." (***)

"What about the lineman who just committed, dear?"

He looked at his wife with his trademark penetrating look, then smiled from ear to ear. "I'm not going to change his mind. He's decommitting from U$C."

There is much more than just Willingham's job at stake. It is hope for us all, given to us in the spirit of Christmas.


(*) The reference here is to Clarence Thomas and his brother Myers. Dobie attempts to draw a parallel between the two of their situations, as young brothers growing up in the south. However, Clarence and his brother were raised in a much poorer, impoverished environment than Tyrone and Jerome. No political statement is intended, or should it be inferred.

Kindred, David, "Gloom, doom and domination - college football coach Gilmour Dobie - Brief Article," The Sporting News, December 3, 2001.

Kristol, William, "My grandfather's son," October 15, 2007.

(**) Raley, Dan, "Cowboy Johnny and the Outlaws of Montlake," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 26, 2005. 

(***) Jeffers, Glen, "Tyrone Willingham: Notre Dame's first Black football coach: former Stanford leader inherits mantle of the legendary Leahy and Rockne," September 1, 2002.

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

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