Book Review:
Gilmour Dobie: Pursuit of Perfection

  • Posted 9/01/2011
  • Essay 9919

By Lynn Borland
Paperback, 310 pages
Photographs, Sources
ISBN 978-0615400846

This book is a labor of love by a true football fan. As yet another football season draws near, fanatic Husky Fans might be surprised to be whisked back over a hundred years, to 1908 and the beginning of Washington football coming to the attention of the country at large. This was primarily due to their new coach, Gilmour Dobie, whose teams dominated Northwest football for the next nine years, with a still standing NCAA record of 64-0-4. Borland has written a biography of the football milieu of that era as much as he has of coach Dobie.

Gilmour Dobie was born in Minnesota in 1878 and by the age of 8 both of his natural parents were dead and his stepmother found it necessary to place him in a state home. Under the auspices of this home he spent much of his time as an indentured laborer for several farm families who did not treat him well and his education was given short shrift. Nevertheless, by the age of 17, with help from his sister and an influential citizen, he had gotten on track with his education and was declared emancipated. He returned to his hometown to finish high school and there took up football. He continued to the University of Minnesota, earning a law degree and starring on the football team. Despite the law degree, his calling seemed to be football and he immediately began coaching, shortly thereafter arriving at the University of Washington. Borland does not delve into what motivated Dobie to come out to the Northwest. His stated goal is to set the record firmly straight as to just how great a coach Gilmour Dobie was. 

In the service of that end the focus is entirely on the coach, his relationship with his teams and the games themselves. Borland believes that Dobie was a master of psychology and a superb motivator of his athletes. He draws on newspaper accounts and many testimonials as to the effect that Dobie had on his players. His emphasis as a coach was concentrating on the fundamentals and insistence that all his players, stars and regulars alike, master them. The press loved Dobie for frequent colorful outbursts (although one of these, in his first year, involving future Seattle Mayor Hiram Gill, almost led to his firing by UW President Kane) and his “Gloomy Gus” attitude that came from never taking any game for granted and often predicting defeat. A significant portion of the book consists of detailed descriptions of each season’s games -- nearly all of them, except the warm-up games that were often against non-school teams and even high school teams. Such is the concentration on football that the chapter on the 1909 season mentions the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exhibition -- a seminal event in University of Washington history -- in the first sentence and is done with it. After all, the coach considered that his greatest season. 

As noted, this is a book that will appeal most to the truly serious fan of Washington football. Dobie’s teams weren’t even known as the Huskies, just the Varsity. Still, the casual reader, with at least some interest in sports and regional history, will glean interesting tidbits. Dobie, while beloved by the student body, had clashes with two UW presidents, Kane and Suzzallo, who have buildings named for them and are better remembered. It was an era without media saturation, yet the excitement generated over two matches with California was so great that it resulted in the creation of what became the Pac-8 and later expansions. It was a time when student athlete wasn’t just a matter of lip service. Foreseeing the increasing specialization of the game, with the need for recruiting widely and the impact on the scholastic-athletic balance, were factors that led Dobie to finally leave the game he loved.

--By David Jensen, September 1, 2011

Submitted: 9/01/2011

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