Today I opened my hotmail account and found the latest Cougar Sports Weekly awaiting me. I have to give it up to Nuss as I have found his latest project to be a pretty good read so far. If you haven't subscribed to it yet I would seriously encourage you to do so. This week he addressed a simple question "Is it time to revise our expectations for this football team?" Any of you who follow me on twitter or that have read my stuff here or on the cougfan boards know that my expectations have been considerably higher this year than most. After the jump I'll get into why that is and what it means moving forward.
Nuss in his newsletter highlighted the process by which this years Cougars have earned their sizable victories. It's impressive to have the numbers in front of you and realize that this team is doing things it simply has not done since 2003. The reason for the numbers is to ignore results based analysis and to get into the root cause of the on-field growth. I prefer to go beyond the numbers.
If you want to understand why this team is playing like it is it starts with Coach Paul Wulff. Since 2008 he has made his case time and again for anyone that would listen. Unfortunately for him, he might be guilty of the most brutal honesty of any head coach in the NCAA. He laid it on the line from day 1 that the talent simply did not exist in Pullman to compete at a consistent high level. It angered a lot of people. As fans we are conditioned to coach speak, numb to it even, but when a guy steps outside of those comfortable bounds he’s liable to be labeled an excuse maker, terrible coach, or worse. Unfortunately for those of us that have been lucky enough to be around Coach Wulff and to speak with him it has been a nearly unwinnable battle pointing out what else he was saying.
Coach Wulff gave us his plan on day 1. Clean up the off-field problems, get guys into class and doing well, recruit quality talent that wants to play in Pullman, get guys that can be redshirted to grow, and maintain teams that are mature enough and experienced enough to be at or near the top of the Pac 12 with consistent runs at the title. It is a seemingly simple idea with a lot of moving parts behind it that complicate it. We saw Coach Wulff come in and make changes immediately. Coach Levenseller survived the change, but everyone else was cut loose, including our long time strength coach. Training table was made a priority and the new strength coach was made an integral part of the staff, held just as accountable as the coordinators for the performance and growth of the team, both on and off the field.
Those changes, and the new accountability for coaches and their players alienated a lot of players and a lot of fans. Coach Wulff didn’t care. Lucky as I am to live in Pullman, I’m even luckier to get to the coach’s show during the season. Coach Wulff has consistently answered questions put to him both on and off the air as candidly as possible, including those critical of some of his choices. He has owned up to being too loyal and has done what he can to rectify it. Despite his self inflicted setbacks his belief in his plan and what it could lead to has been unflappable.
Last year the players started to show some flashes of what was to come. The talent was young, and still is, and accordingly raw. However, as the season progressed so did the players, and so did their belief in themselves to be able to win. Nuss said today that he doesn’t like results based analysis because by that measure the Oregon State game last season could lead to the “WOOO! We’ve turned the corner” kind of things. That is certainly true, but Nuss also said that the Cougars won that game because Jeff Tuel was Superman that day. While Tuel was superb that day that argument ignores a defense that did a hell of a job in stifling the rush from the first minute and that harassed receivers and Ryan Katz all day. Not only was Jeff Tuel superb, but Oregon State was made to look disorganized and even foolish at times by a team that was running on little more than pride at that point.
When I posted my 8-4 or 9-3 prediction for this team on twitter a couple of weeks ago cougcenter author Kyle Rancourt responded that he simply couldn’t understand how I could believe a team could jump from 2 to 8 or 9 wins in a season. To put it simply I put a lot of stock in things like belief, conviction, and determination. It’s not because I’ve watched Rocky, Bad News Bears, or The Mighty Ducks one too many times, it’s because those are the very things that have pulled me through the times of trial and doubt in my life. Alone, they are not enough. The person using them has to possess a certain amount of talent be that on the football field in the class room or in whatever facet of life it is called for.
We saw the talent come on late last year. It was raw as all hell, but it was finally on the field for the first time in years. They got an important win and they fought like hell in an Apple Cup which a year before they had been on the bad end of a 30-0 shutout. After the debacle at ASU last year it could have fallen apart and Wulff could have been shown the door. It didn’t because the team knew that it was a blip, whether from fatigue or a lack of focus or both. The point is that the coaches and the players owned it, grew from it, and put it behind them.
The reason my expectations are so high, and might get to be higher this year is because of that growth. Recognizing problems, addressing them, and being accountable to themselves and their teammates is a hallmark of teams that play well. Coach Wulff’s philosophy has become this team’s philosophy, and the acceptance of that alongside the physical and mental development required to play football at this level is why this team has already and will continue to surprise people. These Cougars likely won’t go undefeated, but there is no reason they shouldn’t finish in the top half to top third of the Pac 12 this year. They have taken their shots, earned their shoulder stripes, and grown into a team that can and will put the Pac 12 on notice for even bigger things next year and beyond.