Looking back on Bill Doba's tenure at WSU, the first thing that came to mind was a waiter.
Yep, a waiter. More specifically, the one that approached my family at the Old Post Office in Pullman after the Cougars' 2006 win at UCLA.
"We're going bowling", he said as he swung his arm in the motion of throwing a bowling ball down the lane.
The win that evening gave the Cougars a 6-3 record and an a near guarantee of a bowl game. Doba's first after the Holiday Bowl triumph in 2003. Three games were remaining that season - home to Arizona, at ASU and home again for the Apple Cup. Even if we needed only one more win to seal the deal, we'd certainly get it in those three games. Right?
Wrong. Doba's squad collapsed in the final three games, losing by 10 on a rain-drenched afternoon to Arizona, getting blown out by ASU, and then coughing up an Apple Cup to a Washington team that had just been humiliated by Stanford in Seattle.
It was the Doba era summed up in one brief, disappointing series of games. The Cougs were always so close to a Bowl game, and yet so far from the 10-win season teams that had revitalized the Palouse.
Now, disappointment turns to hope. Enter Paul Wulff, a Cougar alumnus, former player and successful FCS subdivision coach rolled into one.
Gone are the excuses, gone is the Brink versus [insert quarterback here] debate, gone is wondering if the days where the Cougars were conference title contenders would return anytime soon.
Now I'm not saying Wulff will wave his magic wand and make things better overnight. But the signs of life are there. A new offense. A welcome return to the 4-3 defense. The possibility of never having to see a squib kick again in a crucial situation (please don't do it Paul). Even recruiting has picked up to the point where Wulff has more recruits now than Doba had at the end of last season. With all due respect to Bill Doba, Cougar football desperately needed a new beginning.
Bill Doba was a nice guy and a class act. However, the fire in the old ball coach was fading. Remember, he was reluctant to take the head coach job in the first place. Four losing seasons and the loss of his wife Judy took its toll to the point where Doba became somewhat indifferent about coaching. He'd return if WSU wanted him, and if not he would spend time with his grandchildren and go fishing. He certainly earned his retirement, and even though he wanted to stay for the players' sake, he eventually agreed with Sterk and Floyd that it was time to cash it in.
So with the recruiting cupboard empty and scholarship penalties looming, WSU turned to another born Cougar, someone with the passion and the talent to turn the program around. No one knows where we'll actually be four years from now. But one thing is for sure. WSU hasn't made a hiring this inspired since Dick Bennett came on board five years ago (OK, maybe June Daugherty as well, but that was an easy choice to make).
And while we don't know what to expect in 2008, we don't have to expect much. This is the foundation year. It hearkens back to 2003 when Dick Bennett took Tony and some recruits named Derrick, Kyle, Chris, Daven and Robbie to the site of the house they were building in Pullman. It wasn't about this year, Dick told them, it was about the foundation. The future. This year's Cougar footballers aren't here to win, nice as it would be if they do. Instead, they're here to set the stage for the future, and maybe turn some heads along the way.
It's a long journey and it won't be easy. There will be some bad losses. Maybe some awful ones. But there will be progress. And there will be some unsuspecting victims along the way.
Let's hope Oklahoma State is the first.