At the risk of spending too much time talking about the Huskies, I think it's worth exploring what the heck went wrong at Washington and what lessons might be learned for Paul Wulff and his staff.
It's probably going to sound incredibly simplistic, but it all comes down to talent. Ten years ago, 20 years ago, the Huskies had it. Now they don't.
Think back to that run in the early '90s (if, like me, you're old enough). After visiting Miami and Florida State to figure out what they were doing differently to be so successful, Don James completely changed his philosophy, choosing to focus on speed. It absolutely transformed the UW program, as the Huskies just overwhelmed people with their athletes on both sides of the ball. While other teams were still trying to play student body left and right, James was revolutionizing west coast football.
Now? Washington is on the cutting edge of nothing. They're the ones getting overwhelmed, virtually every Saturday. Jim Lambright was on KJR one day talking about how he'd try to beat teams with attack, attack, attack on defense. Well, that just won't work if your guys are smaller and slower than everyone else, and that's where the Huskies (and Cougars) find themselves -- particularly in relation to an elite team such as USC.
So how did it happen? The biggest factor, in my mind, is that the Southern California pipeline to Seattle more or less dried up. Think back to some of those Husky stars of the past. Most of them weren't from Washington.
I don't think it's an accident that USC's rise to prominence and UW's fall from grace have coincided. Most of those transcendent athletes that made such a difference for UW 10-20 years ago came from Southern California, as James realized you couldn't build an elite program with Washington players. Willingham, either unwilling or unable to recruit California, cast his lot with Washington's best. Bad move. While all the Husky fans talked with pride early on about Willingham setting up a "fence" around the state of Washington, he proved that you just can't be an elite Pac-10 program by mostly relying on the top talent in Washington state.
So it sounds simple, right? Get a coach that will walk into players' living rooms and convince those Southern California that Washington is the place to be. Sell the tradition. But think back to the last time the Huskies really were successful at doing that. It was at a time when USC and UCLA were down. Cal also was terrible. That certainly is not the case anymore. It also was at a time when only one or two conference games a week were on TV, and UW was typically the focus. That certainly is not the case anymore, either.
Nowadays, kids in SoCal dream about wanting to play at USC. They don't just want to be the next great football player; they want to be the next celebrity, like Matt Leinart or O.J. Mayo. And they certainly don't want to move 1,200 miles from home to a university that hardly has been relevant in their lifetime, in a city where it rains all the time. Not when they can get everything they need at home.
The problem, though, is that Husky fans just refuse to accept that different world. They're living on past glory, remembering a time when schools like Oregon State and Washington State couldn't even think about competing for bowl games, let alone Pac-10 championships. We all know the high esteem with which UW fans hold their program. They believe there's no reason they shouldn't return to the dominance they had in the '90s. But the odds of it happening again are not good.
For a program to be elite, you need those trascendent athletes, but it's so much harder to get them. The next coach will live or die on his ability to convince kids who have no ties to Seattle and no recollection of when Washington was a premier Pac-10 program that it is, in fact, a premier program ... without premier facilities. It's going to be a tougher sell than their fans think.
(By the way, that's why I expect them to either go big with a huge name or get a young energetic type who will outwork everyone. They will not go with another middling, middle-aged coach. Sorry, Pat Hill.)
So what can we learn from this at WSU? I think it's things we already know. Focus as much as you can on getting the top athletes in Washington -- which Wulff is already doing, thanks to the uncertaintly surrounding Willingham -- and then find those gems from other places. Wulff was a master at unearthing talent while at Eastern, and I have no doubt he'll continue to do the same here.