This is the face of a man ready to light a program on fire.
When a wildfire begins to burn out of control, there comes a point where throwing water on it to try and end the destruction becomes a futile effort. It's then that drastic measures are needed, and fire needs to be fought with fire. Blowtorches are removed from their holsters and the process of back-burning begins, leaving behind even more scorched earth, but snuffing out the fire by taking away its fuel.
The Washington State football program was on fire when Paul Wulff took the head coaching job. This wasn't a small fire that could easily be contained, either. The whole program was burning from the inside, despite an exterior that, at times, gave off the impression everything was stable and steady.
The problem with the Cougars didn't begin in 2008, despite a dismal year that resulted in two wins -- one over an FCS school that cost Washington State two quarterbacks and the other over a hapless Washington team about to fire its coach after a winless season. The problem began long before, with recruiting risks and misses resulting in a team with adequate talent,
Looking back, it feels as though the program was a house of cards, ready to fall over at any moment. Following the 10-win season and Holiday Bowl victory in 2003, Washington State quickly crumbled. Three 10-win seasons gave ways to years in which the Cougars won five, four and six games. And looking back, it feels like those seasons were smoke and mirrors.
After wins over Oregon and UCLA, the Washington State Cougars looked to be bowl-bound in 2006. What happened next was almost shocking: WSU, who vaulted into the rankings with three games remaining, lost each of its remaining games and stayed home for the holidays. The lightbulb should've flicked on.
Following an Apple Cup victory to cap a five-win season in 2007, Bill Doba rode off into the sunset. Wulff was hired away from Eastern Washington, where he'd seen success building the program and turning it into a contender in the lower division of college football. Nobody was quite sure who he was, but Wulff was our coach now.
And so Wulff, after surveying the landscape and selling the administration who hired him on a plan, grabbed his blowtorch and went to work. We watched in horror as the Washington State football program ignited, then burned to the ground right in front of our eyes. In reality, we had all been too distracted by Apple Cup victories and five-win seasons to realize the damage had already been done.
Beneath the surface lied players failing out of school and running into trouble off the field, and a program that's culture had been infected. The inmates were running the asylum and the Cougars were in serious trouble. The program was hit with sanctions resulting from an embarrassingly low APR score, putting Washington State in a hole for years to come. The academic sanctions alone should be a sign of just how bad it had gotten.
This isn't a post to blame Doba, nor give Wulff a pass. Someone had to be the guy to burn the program to the ground, and Wulff signed up to do the job knowing full-well what was ahead. The status quo was no longer acceptable, and without flushing everything to start anew, the problems that plagued the program from within would've persisted, creating a less than stable foundation for years to come.
The desperate times called for desperate measures and a complete, ground-up rebuild. A new foundation for long-term success had to be laid, through the types of players recruited and the values instilled in those within the program. Players that didn't buy-in were sent packing, depriving the program of talent on one hand, but aiding in the rebuild on the other.
As painful as it has been, a proper rebuilding job required a patience-testing short-term in hopes of creating a successful long-term outlook. It required a leap of faith by the players, the fans and the administration that hired Wulff. And some three years later, even with the program showing significant signs of life, questions remain and unknowns await.
This is the first of a series of posts look both back and forward. Next up: a look at the principles that comprise the foundation of the current program and the philosophy of the rebuilding process.