Last year was tough on just about everyone -- that much is without question. But if you think it was tough on you to watch, imagine being the guys getting run off the field on a weekly basis in a fashion this program has never known.
I know. I've been there.
Anyone familiar with high school football in Western Washington is familiar with the futility that is Mountlake Terrace. For decades, the mighty Hawks have set the bar oh-so-low on the gridiron, and that was never truer than when I was in school from 1991-94. We won exactly three games in my four years (three of which I was on the team as an undersized and undertalented offensive lineman), and I distinctly remember a stretch in my junior year where we lost to Everett 69-0, Cascade 66-0 and Snohomish 77-7.*
* These scores might not be exact, but they're pretty close. And, yes, we scored a touchdown against the mighty Panthers. We ran a play called "Joker" to Sean Jones, which was a weird little fake reverse inside trap thing, usually good for one big gain a game. Then teams figured it out and proceeded to squish us like little bugs, because we really had nothing else. And it's not like these guys were running up the score against us; Terry Ennis and Dick Armstrong were emptying their benches by halftime. They were just that much better than us. Or maybe we were just that much worse than them. Whatever. I digress.
There's nothing quite like working your butt off in practice during the week, only to get whipped when it matters -- with everyone watching. Then, to compound matters, you've got to listen to the endless teasing and negativity from your fans and classmates, ranging from good-natured ribbing ("Try not to get shut out, OK?") to outright taunts ("You guys suck! Only losers would even play for the football team!").
Trust me -- being a part of a laughingstock is not a whole lot of fun.
I'd like to say that all of this losing and negativity motivated us to work harder, to really dedicate ourselves to proving all the doubters wrong. But in reality, we just turned ourselves into the joke that everyone else saw us as. We goofed off in practice. We didn't study hard outside of practice to learn our assignments. We rolled our eyes at our coaches, who we were pretty sure didn't know anything more about winning than we did, and only marginally more about football in general.
It would have been easy for the 2008 Cougars to follow the same path. After all, losing is just easier. But these guys, apparently, don't care much for losing rather -- than accept their lot or dismiss their overbearing coaches, the players who were left dedicated themselves in a way that hasn't been seen in Pullman in some time to getting fitter, faster and stronger in the offseason.
Normally, I don't place much stock in such reports. Players will routinely show up to camp proclaiming to be in "the best shape of their lives," only to be the same unproductive guys they were the season before. And while I had heard rumblings about this so-called commitment to the program from our players, I very much had an "I'll believe it when I see it" attitude.
I'm here to tell you -- I haven't yet seen it, but I'm pretty sure I believe it.
I've grown to respect and trust Vince Grippi as a reporter. He's someone who isn't given to hyperbole and can be counted on to speak the truth in his reporting. Remember, he was the guy last season who said the only chance the Cougs had to be competitive was if they made it through camp -- and the season -- healthy. They didn't, and they weren't.
This fall? Even Grippi has gone out on record and said he thinks the players look noticeably stronger and more physical. He also said there hasn't been a lot of dedicated running at the first couple of practices because the players are so well conditioned from their offseason workouts.
Does this newfound strength and conditioning mean we're suddenly going to be setting our sights on a bowl game this year? No. But that's not the point.
A lot of people spent a lot of time questioning whether Wulff was the right guy for this job after the debacle of last season. Personally, I never thought he should be fired, but it's no secret that I wasn't exactly happy with how some things went down. And Wulff may yet prove that he's just not a good enough football coach to see this rebuilding job through to fruition.
But do not, under any circumstances, minimize what Wulff and his staff were able to accomplish with the players this offseason. That he was able to get the players to not just buy in to the plan, but step up and lead the plan themselves in the wake of last season's debacle tells me all I need to know about Wulff's ability to motivate his guys. The strength and conditioning might not make a huge difference in the results on the field -- there's just too much of a lack of talent and depth at too many positions -- but getting the players to buy what he's selling is a major victory in and of itself. It will make a difference in the future as the program is restocked with Pac-10 talent.
That, my friends, is real, tangible progress. Even if this team can't win more than three or four games, I'm becoming more and more convinced that this team is going to surprise people with its competitiveness this season and be knocking on the door of a bowl game by 2010.