All along, the WSU coaching staff has preached family. It serves as a cornerstone of the program.
Hang around a college program long enough and the key principles and philosophies that guide everything the players and coaches do, both on and off the field, become clear. A college football program is, in many ways, a living, breathing thing. It's 105 players and a coaching staff working together towards some kind of goal.
But the goal has to be defined, and the core principles that guide the program need to be constantly reinforced. It's not as simple as setting a goal of winning a National Championship each spring and going to work, especially for a program in full-on rebuild mode. There has to be intermediate steps along the way and an overall philosophy that can be drawn upon.
When we left Paul Wulff, he was standing in the middle of a pile of rubble with a maniacal look on his face. This wasn't the look of a man who had burnt down his parents house while home alone for the weekend. It was the face of a man who had purposely morphed into an arsonist, burning the program to the ground with a goal in mind.
The fire was out and Wulff went to work pouring a foundation. In his mind, the long-term success of the program would be determined by the strength of the foundation and the principles he instilled in the players. And everyone, from the scholarship players and walk-ons to the rest of the coaching staff, had to buy-in.
The guiding principles are far from ground-breaking, and you'll likely find programs around the country using some variation of the same ideals. But just having a basic set of covenants helps define what the program is about and what it strives to be. And after using a blowtorch to essentially start fresh, Wulff set about creating his rules of the road.
"You develop that trust. You develop that family. You develop the intensity and attitude. Those are our four covenants," Wulff said following the Cougars' 59-7 win over UNLV on Saturday. "That is what we've been grilling with these players and the ones we recruit. This is who we are. It's the foundation of our program."
We hear the family mantra all the time, and have for the last couple years. Family is a big part of the recruiting pitch, with the Washington State coaches selling potential student athletes on the family aspect of the program and the town it resides in. The family atmosphere and trust became the most important piece of the foundation, especially as the Cougars attempted to rebuild.
From the start, the coaching staff made it clear to recruits that their time in Pullman would be part of a process. Wins were going to be hard to come by, and the team was about to endure a rocky ride. There were no false sales pitches or smoke and mirrors; just the honest, if unflattering, truth.
"There's been motivation for them work hard, to come together and grow together," Wulff said. "All along I've talked to them about developing this, growing, recruiting them and letting them know they're going to get beat up."
In a way, flushing the program to start anew created a situation where the players had to come together and grow closer as a group. It was "us against the world," with few outside of the locker room believing the Cougars would be able to turn the program around. So the players leaned on each other, closed ranks and operated like a family.
It takes a certain mentality to endure loss after painful loss while blocking out the white noise and focusing on the overall goal, despite how far away the end-game appears. And along with the mentality of the individual, it takes a support system -- a group all focused on the same goal -- to lean on.
By no means was this a situation where seasons were purposely tanked to somehow create the bond that comes with going through a difficult, shared experience. No, the product was simply that poor, and the program galvanizing was a side effect of the constant beatings it endured. Some three years after Wulff took over, the players within the program have become family, not just a group of guys that shows up on a practice field throughout the week and in a stadium on Saturday.
"The number one thing is these players like each other -- they love each other -- and that's what makes us different," Wulff said. "When you have great programs, you have that continuity."
Being around the Cougars, it's been hard not to notice the family atmosphere and the character of the players. Despite the losses continuing to pile up, the players continued to grab a hard hat and go to work. There have been setbacks along the way, but the players and coaches continue to follow the same mantra while sticking to the core principles of the program.
Trust, family, intensity and attitude. Four simple core values that serve as the foundation of the program. Trust and family deal with the off-field aspect, while attitude and intensity are the on-field piece of the equation. But the core values are moot if the players don't buy-in.
And thus far, the players have taken the leap of faith and bought-in to what the coaching staff has been selling, which is half the battle in the rebuilding process. Whether it translates to sustained, future success, though, remains to be seen.
This is the second in a series of posts about the rebuilding process at Washington State. The first, on Paul Wulff cleaning house, can be found here. Next up: A moment that stands out as a turning point, and perhaps a defining moment, within the process. And it has nothing to do with a game.