Sunday's Seattle Times carries a fascinating story about U.W. football coach Gil Dobie, penned by Lynn Borland, author of a new book on the legendary coach, Pursuit of Perfection. Dobie was the perfectionist coach of the team, 1908-1916, during which time the Huskies went 59-0-3. Despite his unmatched success on the field, Coach Dobie was fired. There may be a lesson there.
Dobie was a hard-luck orphan with a driven side to him. He had a quick and terrible temper, but the man sure could coach football. (After being booted from U.W., he went on to coach at Navy, Cornell, and Boston College.) In 1916 he got crosswise with UW President Henry Suzzallo over a player strike in solidarity with a player who was suspended for cheating on a history exam. The equally strong-willed Suzzallo mistakenly blamed Dobie for the strike and sacked him — holding his ground after a near riot of support for the coach erupted.
One irony in this story is that Suzzallo himself, one of the great reform presidents in U.W. history, was himself to be ignominiously canned 10 years later. Henry Suzzallo (1875-1933) was a disciple of John Dewey at Columbia and an outspoken liberal with political ambitions. He ran afoul of Gov. Ronald Hartley, among the most conservative governors in the history of this state, when the president favored legislation for an eight-hour day, infuriating Hartley, an Everett lumberman, who probably also suspected Suzzallo of harboring gubernatorial ambitions. Hartley packed the U.W. Regents with loyalists, who fired the president in 1926. It took the university decades to recover its national reputation.
The Suzzallo and Dobie stories have another parallel from that era. This is the saga of Seattle Schools Supt. Frank B. Cooper, another Dewey-progressive, who utterly transformed Seattle Schools from 1900 to 1922. Cooper, I have argued in an earlier essay, greatly shaped Seattle's neighborhoods, its belief in excellent (and well-funded) public schools, and its progressive political character. He too paid the price by being sacked in 1922, a victim of Red Scare politics in Seattle and the hard times after World War I.
The common thread is the way Seattle tends to aspire to greatness, take the first steps, and then when the costs mount up of sustaining these dreams loses faith, allows the pendulum of reaction to swing wide, and goes back to the drawing boards. You can also admire the earlier period of very strong-minded individuals who aspired greatly — so much so that they triggered strong reactions. We do tend to punish success harshly, maybe because envy runs so deep in populist politics. And the pattern of stop-and-start politics eerily echoes the boom-and-bust economic swings of our formerly-colonial economy.
So read the Dobie story, and weep.