And with that, it's over. Paul Wulff has been fired as head coach of the Washington State Cougars (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Just about four years ago, on the Monday following the Washington State Cougars' thrilling Apple Cup win in Seattle on Brandon Gibson's last-minute catch, I received a text message from a friend in the athletic department telling me head coach Bill Doba was out. I remember the day, the press conference, the standing ovation and the tears in the room from players and staffers as Doba said goodbye. That Monday was my introduction to the other side of the business.
Over the course of Doba's tenure at the helm, I interacted with him a few times, mostly during fundraisers for cancer and a few other events. I knew his story and the story of his wife Judy, who passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer about 18 months before Doba resigned or retired, or whatever you want to call it. It's why I always bristled when blame was piled on Doba for the state of the program.
I bring up Doba because he was my introduction to the human side of coaching. I remember the moment I learned he was done as the Washington State head coach well, not just because I watched it all unfold on that Monday, but because it made me realize head coaches are more than just faces on the sideline. Doba was the grandpa of the athletic department and at his farewell press conference I realized he had more of an impact than what we saw on Saturday.
It's fitting that a story about Paul Wulff being fired as head coach of the Washington State Cougars begins with Bill Doba. In many ways, the two were connected: Wulff talked of cleaning up the program, rebuilding its core and inheriting a lack of talent. The perceived excuses wore thin and many resented Wulff for what seemed like a woe is me attitude. The vitriol and anger always surprised me, but then again poor results always bring out the worst.
Over the last two years, I've gotten to know Wulff, his staff and many others that work in a supporting role but are rarely seen. So as I was driving home from CenturyLink Field on Saturday night, reading Bud Withers' report about Wulff's demise, I was sad. I've wanted so desperately to see Wulff succeed and carry out his plan, and the realization that it was all over stung.
Every week, I'd see Wulff's wife and kids pile into the interview room, waiting in the back patiently as he faced the media. Every week, his eyes would light up as he greeted his wife and hugged his kids. Even after the Apple Cup, in what was Wulff's last stand, the routine was the same. A large swarm of reporters piled into a small hallway and just behind the crush of people, Wulff's family waited.
As I realized this was the end, I thought of the families and people affected by a coaching change. It's not just Wulff heading out the door: behind him stood many assistants and a large support staff that was instrumental behind the scenes. They all face an uncertain future now.
I thought of Wulff himself, and the story we know all too well. To say his path to coaching at his alma mater, his dream job, was a rocky one would be grossly understating it. He worked his way up the coaching ladder and eventually fulfilled the dream of coaching at Washington State, but there was no storybook ending.
In the end, the 9-40 record will stand out, perhaps as the lasting memory of the Wulff tenure. The blowout losses, the ineffectiveness, the struggles will all linger.
I'll remember Paul Wulff for the job he did as the cleaner, for the work he put in off the field and, hopefully, for the foundation he laid. Whoever follows Wulff should have talent on the field and the recipe for winning football, both in the immediate and in the future. The program is so close to climbing over the hump, and it wouldn't surprise me to see the team take a big leap in the standings next season.
Despite a few slip-ups, which happen everywhere, the off-field issues have almost completely disappeared. It's a program you, the Washington State fan, can be proud of. Trying to explain away why an athlete was arrested for assault or what have you is never fun, and it seems those days are behind us.
I've been amazed at the attitude of those in the program over the last two years. Despite the losing and the struggles, the players and coaches have been accessible, candid and generally fun to talk to. There's no anger, yelling or insults, just kids with character grinding away, convinced it will all get better and the program will soar. The players on this team, from the seniors on down, are a direct reflection of their coach and the values he's instill within them.
Paul Wulff's legacy may be the losses and the abysmal record or the word "improvement," which often made an appearance in his interviews. But it should be a living legacy: the kids in the program now, from Jeff Tuel and Marquess Wilson to the graduating seniors who fought so hard and persevered.
I spent thousands of words writing about Wulff's plan, the foundation he built and his vision for the program earlier this season, and this is the end. His grade works out to an incomplete, but I have little doubt the work he put in to build the program his way will pay big dividends down the line. Hopefully, someday, that will be his legacy.
The series on Paul Wulff's rebuilding process comes in four parts. The first part, on Paul Wullf cleaning house, can be found here, the second part, on the foundation of the program, can be found here and the third piece, on a turning point, can be found here and a look at the process can be found here.