Gil Dobie, the man and the myth
Rich Linde, 11 May 2011
Legendary coach Gilmour Dobie
came to the University of Washington in 1908 and coached nine years.
Because of his unbridled zeal for
winning, Dobie markedly
changed the perception of west coast football, along with the city of
He'd gone 8-0-0 in his first coaching stint at North Dakota
State, prior to his takeover season at UW.
In his first season at Washington, the "Sad
Scott," as he has been called, also went undefeated, winning the Pacific Northwest
Intercollegiate Conference championship, a six-team league consisting of Washington,
Washington State, Oregon, Oregon State, Idaho and Whitman.
When Dobie left Washington after the 1916 season, his coaching
prowess was likened to that of
Percy Haugton, 'Pop' Warner,
Amos Alonzo Stagg, Laurence Bankhart, Fielding Yost and all the other
great coaches of that time. Later, Knute Rockne and Howard Jones, among
others, joined this elite group.
The Dobie record at Washington is 'statuesque'
Dobie went undefeated in his 62 games at Washington, which is the
longest undefeated streak (59-0-3) for any coach at any one school in college football.
-- At North Dakota State, Washington and Navy, he coached 71 consecutive
games without a defeat -- also, an NCAA record.
-- At Washington, from 1908 to 1914, he compiled the second longest winning streak (no
losses/no ties) in the history of college football (40 games).
-- Washington's undefeated streak of 64 games, of which Gil Dobie
coached 97% of them, is an NCAA record.
-- Based on his coaching records at North Dakota State, Washington, Navy
and Cornell, it took Dobie fewer games (just 108) to reach 100 wins than
any other coach in the history of college football.
had no scholarships to offer highly-coveted recruits -- which really
didn't exist for the most part. His era lacked the corrupted
amateurs, sleazy sports agents, and NCAA rules' bending coaches of
today. He couldn't promise a recruit TV exposure, an indoor practice
facility or an elaborate training table to eat from. In his period of coaching, college football wasn't a minor-league
ticket to the professional ranks; it was a labor of love.
He drew his players, who were
purely amateurs, from the same talent pool as his rivals in the
Northwest Conference, and molded them into men of character.
one thing about that body of men I feel particularly proud of. They were
strictly amateur. They played because they liked to play and because
they wanted the distinction of making the Washington team. Their
victories were many and they were honest victories. They are justly
proud of their football achievements and need not take a back seat for
the generations to come." -- A quote taken from Gil Dobie's letter to
Wee Coyle, thanking him for arranging his reunion with former players at
Seattle's Olympic Hotel in 1940.
The Dobie difference: his coaching methods.
Dobie kept his playbook simple
and easy to learn. As a result, he insisted that each play be run to
perfection and practiced repeatedly until it was sure to gain yards.
Often times a practice session was devoted to practicing and
learning the intricacies of just one
Somewhat of a martinet, to put it
mildly, he emphasized defense
as much as offense, that is, blocking and tackling equally. His line
play, both offensively and defensively, functioned like a machine. Every
man knew his role and did it flawlessly with timing and dispatch. Finding a good kicker/punter was paramount because
maintaining field position on Denny Field's muddy track could be the
difference between winning and losing.
Before his game with Oregon in 1916,
which ended in a 0-0 tie on a quagmire of a field, Dobie complained of
not having a dropkicking specialist, saying that Ted Faulk, a rowing
specialist, was good for one out of every six dropkicks and that he'd
been tutoring him in the "art of how to kick."
He had no aversion to throwing the ball as long as he
had men comfortable in handling it.
As early as 1908, Dobie was
talking about the pass, according to this newspaper article. "Coach
Dobie believes football players, particularly the backs, will be
benefited by playing the game. His theory is that men who learn to
handle a basketball and shoot it accurately can utilize this knowledge
in football when the forward pass is used. Besides, says Dobie, the game
develops quick thinking and greater ability." (Centralia Daily
Chronicle, Centralia, Washington, Dec 15, 1908)
Egregious egos were held at bay,
with teamwork emphasized.
"He (Dobie) has seen so many
heroes fail and unheard of players rise to great heights, that he
considers the 'good boy pat on the back stuff' useless," the Oakland
His men were well-conditioned
physically and able to fourth-quarter their opponents. He emphasized
mom's home cooking and a sound night's sleep as a recipe for
staying healthy, this, in addition, to his rugged conditioning drills on the
The wily Dobie kept a hungry press fed
off stride -- with
his renowned for pessimism and one liners.
Off the field, especially with nosy
reporters and sycophantic alums, he was taciturn and
seldom talked football, his personality reduced to an unimpeachable
Simplicity is the product of good design.
His wicked off-tackle play and
its variations, like a tank from World War I, was feared by all of his
opposing coaches. As sure as tomorrow, they knew it was coming -- but
couldn't devise a plan to stop the rolling monster.
In his article "Gil Dobie talks
football" (Boys' Life, October 1932), Edwin B. Dooley, who
played quarterback for Dartmouth, describes
Dartmouth's game in 1923 with Cornell and the off-tackle play. Dobie
coached at Cornell from 1920-1935, compiling a record of 82-36-7, along
with three undefeated seasons.
"Finally, it was agreed we'd play
a 7-2-2 defense. That would allow our two fullbacks to back up a
seven-man line and stop the juggernaut. We kicked off. Cornell ran the
ball back to mid-field. On the first play (George) Pfann went off
tackle for thirteen yards. He ran slowly, allowing his interferers to
clean up in front of him. And clean up they did. The next play saw Pfann
go off the other tackle for ten yards. It was cruel. The play functioned
despite everything. There was no stopping it.
"It came at you like a thundering
herd, clearing everything out of its path. Five men ahead of the ball
carrier, and each man doing his job with finesse and gusto. If you dived
into the interferers to pile them up, the ball carrier would run up
their backs and keep right on going. If you waited, you were cut down as
though hit by a scythe. It was a play that bred fear and bewilderment
and always gained yardage. On first down with ten yards to go and our
team set for another smashing off-tackle play, Pfann stepped back and
shot a "bullet pass" right down the center alley for a touchdown.
"Gil Dobie talks football," Boys' Life, October 1932.
"The ease, the methodical coolness and the
precision with which the touchdown was attained worked
psychologically to our disadvantage. Cornell scored fast and
often that day and trounced us badly.
"When the Big Red team came out on the field,
the faces of the players were blackened with charcoal under the
eyes, to counter the effects of the strong sun. They looked
weird and imposing. Dobie never overlooked a single detail in
preparing for a game."
Dooley dispels some myths about Dobie
In his article, Dooley, who
drove to Dobie's house in Ithaca, New York, describes an interview with
him. Chatting with him in front of a warm fire in the fireplace, he
found Dobie far removed from the despondent, unfriendly recluse other
writers had characterized him as being.
"I do not remember a more
delightful session," Dooley wrote. He remarked that Dobie split his
sides with an endless stream of rich and pungent humor; that he
continued with witty, penetrating observations and analytical football
deductions that defied comparison.
"Never was a host more congenial
or entertaining," Dooley remarked.
"'Gloomy Gil' --
never was a nickname so inappropriate," he continued. "And, yet, as he discussed
(Cornell's) prospects for the season, I realized how that nom de guerre
came into existence. In talking with other coaches, I observed that
their youthful enthusiasm and intense desire for a successful season,
often blinded their judgment. They were likely to be overconfident and
self-assured. Not so with Dobie. He had not coached teams for
twenty-five years for nothing. His alert brain had absorbed a lot of
football in that time."
Something to think about ...
Edwin B, "Gil Dobie talks football," Boys' Life, October 1932.