Should Wulff be fired after just two seasons?

Following yet another predictable drubbing at the hands of yet another Pac-10 foe, the question as to whether Paul Wulff deserves to hang onto his job for a third season is bubbling to the surface yet again.

It's been intimated at various times and in various spots around the site in comments that we at CougCenter are at best Wulff sympathizers and at worst staunchly in Wulff's corner, and aren't really interested in frank discussion about the coach and his staff. I don't want to speak for my fellow authors, but neither could be further than the truth when it comes to me (reference here and here), and I know Grady hasn't always been glowing in his assessments of Wulff, either. In general, we feel like we're critical when criticism is warranted, but we also try to be as fair and evenhanded in our evaluations as is possible.

Obviously, not everyone thinks that's the case.

So, in the interest of putting this "CougCenter loves Paul Wulff" rhetoric to rest, let's have a frank and honest discussion of the status of Wulff's job. I can't promise we'll reach a conclusion that makes everyone happy, as there certainly is room for reasonable minds to differ. But I can promise that I'm going to try and look at this from every conceivable angle, bringing in arguments on both sides.

Plausibility vs. possibility

To start with, I think any honest discussion about Wulff's job security needs to start with one critical question: Is it even plausible that he could lose his job? Sure, it's possible; but then again, it's possible that I could win Mega Millions this week.

The reality is that the WSU athletic department has taken a major hit in this economic climate (just like everyone else), and Athletic Director Jim Sterk has been forced to trim from the budget (just like everyone else). But unlike everyone else, WSU already operates at a substantial financial disadvantage -- it has the smallest budget in the conference and the fewest number of donors.

It's important to recognize the gravity of that, because with three years at approximately $600,000 per left on the original five-year deal, I can't imagine any plausible scenario where the WSU athletic department decides it's a good idea to pay someone $1.8 million not to coach while simultaneously paying a new guy approximately $700,000 to $800,000 (as the price of head coaches has gone up) to coach. That's just reality.

Is it possible that there's some sugar daddy donor out there so disillusioned with the state of the program that he's willing to pony up $2 million to make Wulff go away? As we said, anything's possible. But at a time when Sterk's openly working hard to raise the funds to renovate Martin Stadium -- and not exactly setting the world on fire doing it -- the plausibility of that person existing is slim.

I think even the most ardent "fire Wulff" supporter would have to acknowledge this reality. Still, in the interest of having an honest and earnest conversation, let's set this aside for the moment and assume that it is, in fact, plausible that Wulff could be dismissed at the end of the year. At that point, the question obviously becomes whether his performance actually warrants dismissal.

The talent question

We've heard the argument over and over again: Bill Doba left the cupboard bare. Wulff himself intimated as much (repeatedly) from the moment he took over, and it's an argument we've made. But really, we like things that we can measure around here. So, I tried to think of some way to measure the level of talent in a program. I considered looking at recruiting class rankings, but we all know how reliable those things are. They're great at the time, but often turn out to be inaccurate.

So, here's what I settled on. It's admittedly crude, but it's at least concrete, and I think it provides some perspective. Here are the number of future NFL players* on each WSU roster since 1997:

* With "future NFL player" being defined as a player who spent at least a day on an active NFL roster. This table is the best I could come up with from my research, and it might not be complete -- with all the information available on the internet, you'd think it would be pretty easy to track this stuff down. Not the case.

Year Record NFL Players Players
1997 10-2 13 McKenzie (Sr.), McEndoo (Sr.), Withrow (Sr.), C. Jackson (Sr.), Boose (Sr.), Bender (Sr.), Leaf (Jr.), Lindell (So.), Gleason (So.), Riley (So.), Thompson (Fr.), Meier (Fr.), R. Smith (Fr.), 
1998 3-8 6 Meier (Sr.), Lindell (Jr.), Gleason (Jr.), Riley (Jr.), Thompson (So.), R. Smith (Fr.), 
1999 3-9 11 Lindell (Sr.), Meier (Sr.), Riley (Sr.), Gleason (Sr.), Thompson (Jr.), Wynn (Jr.), Holden (Jr.), M. Williams (Jr.), R. Smith (So.), Trufant (Fr.), Gesser (Fr.)
2000 4-7 12 Thompson (Sr.), Holden (Sr.), Wynn (Jr.), M. Williams (Sr.), R. Smith (Jr.), Trufant (So.), Gesser (So.), Coleman (Fr.), David (Fr.), Paymah (Fr.), Ha. Abdullah (Fr.), Long (Fr.)
2001 10-2 11 R. Smith (Sr.), Thompson (Sr.), Trufant (Jr.), Gesser (Jr.), Paymah (So.), Long (So.), Ha. Abdullah (So.), Coleman (So.), David (So.), Long (So.), Bienemann (Fr.)
2002 10-3 12 Trufant (Sr.), Gesser (Sr.), Ha. Abdullah (Jr.), Coleman (Jr.), David (Jr.), Long (Jr.), Paymah (Jr.), Darling (So.), Bienemann (So.), Mihlhauser (Fr.), Bruce (Fr.), Frampton (Fr.)
2003 10-3 11 Ha. Abdullah (Sr.), Coleman (Sr.), David (Sr.), Paymah (Sr.), Darling (Jr.), Bienemann (Jr.), Mihlhauser (So.), Bruce (So.), Frampton (So.), Hu. Abdullah (Fr.), Hill (Fr.)
2004 5-6 12 Ha. Abdullah (5Sr.), Paymah (5Sr.), Bienemann (Sr.), Bruce (Jr.), Frampton (Jr.), Harrison (Jr.), Mihlhauser (Jr.), Brackenridge (Jr.), Hu. Abdullah (So.), Hill (So.), Bumpus (Fr.), Collins (Fr.)
2005* 4-7 11 Bienemann (5Sr.), Bruce (Sr.), Frampton (Sr.), Harrison (Sr.), Mihlhauser (Sr.), Brackenridge (Sr.), Hill (Jr.), Hu. Abdullah (Jr.), Bumpus (So.), Collins (So.), Gibson (Fr.),
2006* 6-6 8 Brackenridge (5Sr.), Bruce (5Sr.), Frampton (5Sr.), Hu. Abdullah (Sr.), Hill (Sr.), Bumpus (Jr.), Collins (Jr.), Gibson (So.)
2007* 5-7 4 Hu. Abdullah (5Sr.), Bumpus (Sr.), Collins (Sr.), Gibson (Jr.) 
2008* 2-11 1 Gibson (Sr.)

The years with asterisks next to them are obviously not complete, but let me ask you a question: How many guys that started in 2005 or 2006 do you expect to be added to this list? Kenny Alfred, generally considered WSU's best pro prospect graduating this year, is a longshot at this point to make an NFL roster (although I certainly wouldn't bet against him). Andy Mattingly probably will get a camp invite, but he won't make a roster. Maybe Reid Forrest? But there are only 32 punting jobs in the world, and it's darn hard to crack one of them.

If you want to make a case for a player even being potentially NFL quality, you've got to reach all the way down to the freshman and sophomore classes. That's an enormous gap in developed talent, one that we simply have not seen in the last 12 to 15 years. Looking at that table, in most years at least half of those 11-12 players that would eventually end up in the NFL were upperclassmen. Any credible critique of the job Wulff and his staff are doing has to at least acknowledge that this team has less upper end talent to work with than any team in the last decade and a half, outside of maybe 1998.

It's impossible to make a reasonable argument that holds Wulff accountable for this, and again, people must acknowledge what a difference it is now from where we were even five years ago.

But what about "coaching up the guys you've got?"

This is an area where those disillusioned with Wulff potentially have a valid gripe. While talent can make even poor coaches look good and it clearly has an impact on what coaches feel like they can do with scheme, it does not necessarily limit creativity, and I've been consistently stunned by the lack thereof in that area this year. I understood it to a degree last year, when the team was just getting going in this system for the first time and Wulff admitted they just threw too much at the guys too fast.

But this year? They should be able to do some things designed to attack opponents' weak spots, especially on offense. Yet, we see very little beyond vanilla play calling in that regard. Mike Holmgren always used to say that he thought he could make a touchdown difference for his team simply through his schemes and gameplans, either at the beginning of the game before adjustments could be made or at the end of the game in play calling. I've never once -- not once in 22 games -- felt like we have gained an advantage by outcoaching the opponent.

Perhaps it just comes down to talent and execution. But it's equally plausible that it's not just talent and execution, which as led some to say that Wulff and his staff are in over their heads. And when they say that, they're really talking about three guys: Wulff, offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy and defensive co-coordinator Jody Sears. Between the three of them, had exactly six years (!) of FBS coaching experience before coming to Pullman -- all of it by Sears, who spent three years at Iowa State as a grad assistant and three years at West Point as an assistant.

Sturdy and Sears were Wulff's coordinators at Eastern, and he was insistent on bringing his guys with him to Pullman. He believed (and presumably still believes) in what they were doing at EWU, but whether that was the right move is clearly in question at this point. One has to wonder if Wulff let his loyalty get in the way of better judgment.

To wit: Sturdy had been head coach at NAIA St. Ambrose University for 12 years before joining Wulff for one year at Eastern; Sears had been Wulff's defensive coordinator for five years and was named defensive co-coordinator at WSU because Wulff felt like he "earned" the opportunity with his work at EWU , even as he was hiring Chris Ball -- whose experience as an FBS coach is unparalleled on this staff -- to be his assistant head coach and other defensive co-coordinator. Neither had the pedigree to suggest that they were ready for the jump to coordinating at an FBS school.

Building a family atmosphere is important. But when you have no experience coaching at the FBS level and you choose to put people who also have essentially zero FBS coaching experience in two of your most prominent coaching positions, it's naturally going to bring your decision making into question -- especially when they've done very little to distinguish themselves over the better part of the two years following, at least to the naked eye.

Additionally, assistants are the ones most closely working with players on their individual development. Again, you can't evaluate development in a vacuum, but I can't think of a player that I've seen who I've thought, "Wow! That guy has gotten so much better!" Yes, they've gotten stronger, but they don't seem to be a lot better. I realize there are subtleties to that sort of thing that might be invisible to my untrained eye, but it seems like it would be at least a little bit obvious if a guy is really growing.

This doesn't even take into account the number of undisciplined plays many of the players make on a weekly basis. Youth can be blamed for a lot of things, but many of the mistakes that are consistently being made are of the cerebral variety. Coaches -- particularly the assistants -- have to bear some of the responsibility.

At this point, one could make the argument that many players seem to actually be regressing.

There is one thing, however, the coaching staff does need to get credit for: These players clearly believe in what their coaches are doing. They showed a commitment to the offseason program that had been missing for years, and they have yet to quit on this season, or any game in it. When you're getting your face kicked in week after week, that's no small feat.

On recruiting

Of course, those who defend Wulff point to the guys who are actually making plays on the field: The guys who were brought in by Wulff and his staff. Louis Bland, Travis Long, Gino Simone, Bernard Wolfgramm, Johnny Forzani, Jeff Tuel, Zack Williams, Jeffrey Solomon, Myron Beck ... the list goes on. Wulff's first stub of a recruiting class produced some of the guys on that list, and the rest came from last year's recruiting class, which was the highest rated for WSU in years. Wulff and his staff are already raving about this year's class as being better than last year's (although recruiting services don't necessarily concur with that opinion).

That they're able to do this with an on-field product that is among the worst in all of college football is pretty darn remarkable.

This is where things really get a little dicey if you want to consider changing coaches at the end of this year. As shown earlier, this is already a program virtually devoid of developed, upper-tier talent, thanks to a couple of poor recruiting classes at the end of the Bill Doba regime and a "half" recruiting class in Wulff's first year. What happens if you change coaches now? How many of those players back out of their verbal commitments, since signing day isn't until February? (If you listen to Wulff, there already are a number of WSU's verbals still being recruited by other Pac-10 foes.) And what does that do for the overall talent level in the program once again?

If you fire Wulff this year, whoever takes over this program would have the unenviable task of trying to convince a bunch of kids who were sold on the family atmosphere that they should still come to Pullman. (With many of them presumably heading elsewhere.) In essence, that coach would be inheriting a program with one solid recruiting class in five years after cutting yet another one off at the knees. That's a pretty steep price to pay to make a change.

Final thoughts

When you take all of these things on balance, I just don't see how this administration can let Wulff go at the end of this season. Nobody is happy with the performance on the field, and you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who thinks Paul Wulff is going a fantastic job. Athletic Director Jim Sterk, who has been publicly supportive of his coach, might very well have made a colossal mistake in hiring Wulff in the first place. But you have to acknowledge the following:

  • There is a very real talent gap -- not just between us and the rest of the Pac-10, but also between where we are now and where we used to be when we were competing in this conference.
  • The talent gap is the biggest reason why this team is not competitive right now, no matter what you think of the coaching job.
  • Firing this coaching staff this year would only make that talent gap worse.
  • The probability that the school has the financial wherewithal to make such a move is minimal, anyway.

However, it should be noted that you can certainly change some of the rest of the coaching staff without necessarily adversely affecting the positive things this staff is doing overall. Breathe some new life into the offense with another coordinator -- perhaps one who already has had substantial success at the FBS level. Make Ball the only guy calling the shots on defense. Reassign Steve Broussard and get a new special teams coach.

I'm normally not one for appeasement, but at a time when the athletic department is trying to raise funds for an upgrade to the stadium, a (relatively) low cost maneuver such as replacing some assistants will send the subtle but firm message to the fanbase that they're not satisfied with where they are at while at the same time endorsing the overall direction of the program, which both recruits and players are buying into. These are very doable moves, and if you hire the right guys, they could have a real -- and immediate -- impact on the field.

After those changes, it has to be made clear to Wulff and his staff that tangible progress in the form of wins has to come next year. If it doesn't, you run the risk of killing off whatever it is that still has these players playing hard and still has recruits wanting to come here. You can sell them on a rebuilding job for a couple of years, but when that thing starts dragging into year three with no sign of real progress, a losing culture sets in that can be incredibly difficult to break.

If you are forced to make a change at that point -- year four, post Doba -- the new coach would have two solid recruiting classes as his foundation, with many of those players having developed into experienced sophomores and juniors. While it might not be fair to keep Wulff and his staff from sticking around to see the fruits of their labor, it's the reality of the business, and probably the best chance for the program to take its next step forward.

For now, though? The optimum way to keep the program making positive progress is to make sure that Paul Wulff sees year three -- not for the benefit of Wulff, but for the benefit of the program.

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