Note: I wrote this for a class during the middle of the season. Some things are not updated, but I hope you enjoy anyways
The year was 2004; Washington State reached the 10-win plateau for the third time in as man seasons with a 28-20 comeback victory over Texas in the Pacific Life Holiday Bowl. This was the greatest stretch of football in Cougar football history. USC was the only other team in Pac 10 history to achieve this feat up to that point which was way back in the 40’s. Everyone associated with Washington State University was infatuated with the hire of coach Bill Doba. Former Cougar head coach and current Cougar football radio color commentator Jim Walden alluded to this by stating that hiring Bill Doba was a stroke of genius. Just 3 years later, after the 2007 season, he was fired and replaced with Eastern Washington University coach and former WSU football player Paul Wulff. The Cougars now find themselves at the lowest point in Cougar football history. They have had 3 wins and 18 losses since Paul Wulff has taken over for Bill Doba. On the surface, one might want to blame coach Wulff for the current state of the program, after all, he is the current coach, however, one would have to be narrow-minded and arrogant to believe that most of the blame falls upon the shoulders of Bill Doba. That is why the current state of Washington State football is not Paul Wulff's fault, that Wulff was the right guy for the job, and that I believe that the Cougars will, in a relatively near future, achieve the successes of old under Paul Wulff.
When a coach has established a 3-18 record over 2 years (with only 1 win coming against a Pac 10 opponent) there is obviously going to be some people who believe that its Wulff’s fault. Doba had a much better record as a coach at Washington State, where there was obviously a huge drop off in record when Wulff took over. However, I would argue to that that the drop-off was due to a large drop-off in talent over the Doba years, which is a due to a lack of recruiting. The talent drop-off is evident when you look at the amount of NFL players from each team over the last few years. When Doba inherited the team, there were 11 future NFL players on the roster. When Wulff inherited the team, there was one future NFL player on the roster (Media guide 2009). When one looks at that, it seems pretty obvious that there was a lack of productive recruiting. One might then argue that Wulff should be able to do more with the players he got and turn them into NFL talent. First of all, the NFL drafts people on a potential basis so if any of the players that Wulff he had were NFL talents they would have been drafted. Also, there isn’t a lot one can do when one gets kids for only 1 or 2 years to develop them to NFL talents or to talents that can get you wins in the Pac 10. Like Walden said in his book, “it’s not about the x’s and o’s, it’s about the Jimmy’s and Joe’s” (106). What he meant by this is that coaches are not the people that are going to win football games. It comes down to players on the field. They will decide the game between the sidelines, not the coaches. People also might say that Doba had much more experience then Wulff and thus would be the better man for the job. To that I would say look at Bobby Bowden. Bobby Bowden is the Florida State head coach and he is one of the greatest and most experienced coaches in NCAA football history; He is second in the history of the sport in wins. However, he shows the flaws that old age can have on a man as a head coach. In an interview conducted after his recent game against Clemson, he forgot what the score was at points in the game and whether or not his team had the lead at specific points mentioned by the reporter. I know Bill Doba isn’t as old as Bowden is but the point is, as you get older you lose some awareness. Being old also puts you at a disadvantage as far as recruiting goes. A high school kid connects better and gets more fired up to play for a coach that is closer to his dads age then his grandpas. To illustrate this point, lets compare. On November 5th 2007, Doba picked up his first commit of the year in the form of a young player from Spokane, Washington named Jared Karstetter. This was Doba’s final year as head coach. Jared is a very fine football so the knock here is not on the player he got. However, if you fast forward to November 5th 2009, Paul Wulff had already received 17 verbal commitments from high school and junior college players. I will go more in depth into the recruiting later, but the point is that there is an obvious difference in the coaches’ ability to get a commit and that the experience factor is no help to this ability and, in reality, Doba’s age may have been hampering his ability to recruit.
Some people might also argue that Paul Wulff has never had any success at the division one level. They might say that he hasn’t had to tackle a challenge like this before. First of all, in a football sense, I disagree with this. He was the coach at Eastern Washington, a school not unlike our own. Rural Washington, small city, small budget compared to the teams that they compete against. He had a tremendous amount of success there; 3 out of his last 4 years, he made the playoffs and in 2 of those he made the FCS or division 1-AA quarterfinals. Eastern is a FCS team, which is one level lower then Washington State as a FBS team, but I believe this level of success will translate over to this level as well. Coaching is the same basic ideas no matter what level and if you are an excellent coach at one level, there is no reason to believe anything would change at the next if you understand how much hard work will be involved, and it seems as if he does. He knows how to deal with any challenges life throws at him. Along the lines of those who think he has never tackled a challenge like this before, you must know next to nothing about the Paul Wulff story. When he was 13, his mom was murdered and probably by his dad. His mom disappeared one night and his dad was the only one that had been home that night. The father even seemed to have maps that mapped out potential body hiding places. However, no body was ever found so it was difficult to convict him. More recently, his first wife succumbed to breast cancer and died. So in the grand scheme of things, do you really think that a bad football team is a large obstacle for this man to overcome?
Other naysayers may argue that this team hasn’t gotten that much better here in year 2. We still get blown out every game and the games are generally uncompetitive. That might be true, but to think there is no improvement is simply not correct. So far this year, we have played 7 teams that we played last year. Last year, the combined score against these 7 opponents, Stanford, Hawaii, USC, Oregon, Arizona State, California, and Arizona, was 370 to 55 with the opponents having the 370 and the Cougs having the 55. This year, while still lopsided, the combined score against those 7 opponents is 280 to 83 with the opponents on top. Those numbers point to an improved offense and an improved defense. The defense is giving up 12.8 points per game less then last year in those 7 games and the offense is scoring 3 more points per game. People might then argue that coaches are just taking it easy on us this year. That is a ridiculous statement. It is not like in the past year those 7 coaches have suddenly gotten a conscience that makes them not want to run up the score as much. Why would, one year, coaches run up the score at a much higher rate and then this year all of the sudden just take it easy? They wouldn’t.
More people who think that Wulff is not the right guy say we should have hired someone from outside of the area who had good coaching experience. However, it takes a certain person to be a Cougar coach. If we get a good coach that isn’t a Cougar, they will use Washington State as a pit stop along the way to some job that they consider to be “better.” In football, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price come to mind. Erickson was here for 2 years in 1988 and 89 and then went to Miami. Mike Price led the Cougars to a Rose Bowl in the 2002 season and then left for Alabama after that season. If you get a coach that isn’t a true Cougar, there will be no longevity with the program as they will leave for what in there eyes appears to be green pastures. Walden, who left WSU to coach at Iowa State, described being a Cougar best in his book when he said:
I can’t define it; I can’t tell somebody who isn’t a Cougar what it’s like. There’s something that happens at Washington State, you quietly and subtly become infected… I have to be honest, at no time in my eight years at Iowa State was I ever as much as a Cyclone. I never really was. I coached there, yes, I worked there. But that was a job. Washington State was a passion. Being a Cougar was a passion, (Walden 201).” Paul Wulff is a true Cougar. He played his college ball here and seems like he would never leave. He loves Washington State and he possesses that special quality that makes being Cougar so awesome.
One, thing for me that is encouraging as to why Wulff will get this turned around is how young our team is. There has only been one year where our line-up has been similarly young. That year was 2000. The year after that, the run of 3 straight 10-win seasons was started. That year, we had 4 seniors starting on offense and 4 starting on defense. The depth chart as of this week for this team has 3 on offense and 3 on defense. The amount of true freshman we have starting is another good indicator of how young these cougars are. Never has a cougar lineup had more then 2 true freshman in the starting lineup. This year, the young Cougs have started 5 different true freshmen in various games. This is not only a sign of good things to come, but also of great recruiting by Wulff. For any freshman to be able to come in and contribute is special but for so many of them really shows Coach Wulff ability as a recruiter. It not only show a tremendous ability to get people to come to Washington State but also shows that he is a very good talent evaluator. For an example of this, lets look at starting quarterback and true freshmen Jeff Tuel.
Jeff is from Clovis West High School in Fresno, California. He is the first quarterback since Drew Bledsoe to start a game as a true freshman. Bledsoe went on to have a successful NFL career after being picked first overall in the draft by the New England Patriots. So obviously, it is rare and special for a true freshman to come in and do what he is doing. You might think with that he was a highly touted recruit who everyone wanted. Not necessarily the case here. He didn’t play a single game at quarterback his junior year in high school and most colleges didn’t even know who he was. Coach Wulff saw him at a camp last year and offered him a scholarship to come play at Washington State before he even started a game in high school. That shows a very unique ability to find talent that many, or most, other coaches would not be able to find. That is not to say that he doesn’t know how to get those big time recruits either.
Jim Sterk, the athletic director here at Washington State University, wrote a letter to WSU alumni and athletic donors. In the letter, he reiterated to everyone that the rebuilding was being done correctly. While trying to convince the fan base, he brought forth some interesting statistics about recruiting. Wulff inherited a roster that only had 5 players that had scholarship offers to play football at other BCS schools. The BCS schools are the ones in the major conferences such as the Pac 10, SEC, Big 10, Big 12, Big East, and ACC. In just 2 recruiting classes, Wulff has brought that total up to 18 players and those 18 players had a combined 30 offers from BCS schools. This shows Wulff’s ability to not only evaluate talent but also to be able to go head to head with big boys and come out on top.
Another reason I am encouraged by the future of the program can be found just 8 miles away. Over in Moscow, the University of Idaho is having a renaissance in football. They are currently 7 and 3 and staring a bowl game straight in the face. This is coach Robb Akey’s third year as the Vandals head coach. His first 2 years seemed nearly identical to Paul Wulffs. He had a record of 3 and 21 his first 2 years. Right now Wulff stands with a 3 and 18 record. There are 3 games left in the year and the Cougars will not be favored in one of them. If everything goes the way it is projected, Wulffs record will stand at that same 3 and 21 mark after 2 years. Not only will the records be similar, but the tasks the coaches were given seem similar as well. Washington State and Idaho are both similar places to get recruits to go to obviously in that they are 8 miles away. If Akey can do it over there in Idaho, I think it is realistic to believe Wulff can do it here.
Furthermore, Wulff has a system that he believes in and has been proven to work. He has a plan and he is going to stick to it no matter what. His plan consists of building from the ground up. Many coaches, like Dennis Erickson, like to build programs up by recruiting junior college players. That however creates only a quick fix and ends up damaging the program in the long run. Many junior college players are in the junior college ranks because they do not have the grades to get into a 4-year college out of high school. That means any junior college player you bring is somewhat of a risk academically which would not be a good thing given Washington State’s current academic standings. They have lost 8 scholarships because of a poor academic performance rating (APR) during the Doba era. Junior college transfers would only but that APR at a bigger risk, potentially losing even more scholarships. Wulffs plan goes away from this quick fix plan that many coaches employ. He gets high school players with high character and builds them up through the system, most of the time for 5 years, as he prefers to redshirt freshmen as much as possible. The high character is important especially considering the off field trouble WSU has had recently. When Wulff took over in 2008, he acquired a team that in the previous 18 months had 25 different players arrested, some of them multiple times. Wulff always tells his players that before they can be good football players, they must be good citizens. The level of arrests has gone tremendously and seems almost non-existent with the players that are his and not Doba’s. Wulff has a system that he believes to work very well when dealing with off field issues. He forms a unity circle, filled with the teams most respected players, and then they decide what the best punishment should be.
I know many people are frustrated with the amount of losing that is taking place right now and are calling for his head. I understand the frustration, but they are asking for something that just cannot be done right now. Washington State as a school can’t afford to buy out Wulffs contract. As a country, we are facing a very difficult economic time and this University is not resistant to any of this. We have had to make budget cuts in virtually every aspect of the school. To fire a Wulff right now would be irresponsible given the predicament this economy has put us in. Cougar fans need to be patient and hope that this man can turn around our program. If not, at the end of the contract, we can get rid of him. But it is worth to at least see it out. We have nothing to lose if we just let him continue his plan. If he is successful, he will be one of those coaches that never will leave the school they are at and he will always be happy here in Pullman. He could potentially build us up to be a national powerhouse. If that doesn’t occur, the worst that will happen is he leaves the program in a better shape then Doba did. Cougar fans please exercise your patience and be supportive of this man. Continue to buy tickets, attend games, and donate because in 1 or 2 years when we are going back to bowl games, you will be extremely happy you were along for the ride. Chris Fowler said on ESPN’s College Gameday that, “The pride endures at Washington State University.” Lets show him that pride. Lets show the world that pride that makes our college so much different then others.