Let's start with the disaster scenario: Fourth quarter on Saturday, Cougs up 28-21 against the FCS (formerly Div. 1-AA) division Portland State Vikings. The Cougs have the ball with 1:30 remaining, but fail to get a first down and punt the ball to Portland State. Poor coverage allows the Vikings to return it inside the Cougar 30. A few plays later PSU QB Drew Hubel finds Mario D'Ambrosio in the end zone to as time expires. But PSU coach Jerry Glanville doesn't want to settle for the tie: instead, he goes for two. A run right up the middle, and the Cougs lose. To Portland State. 29-28.
And at this point, you want Paul Wulff fired.
Stop right there, though. You know that's insane, right? You can't fire a coach without giving him a good chance to build a program. These aren't his players, they're Bill Doba's, with a sprinkling of late Wulff recruits mixed in from the Spring. Certainly the frustrations have run high for us Coug fans in the past few weeks: OK State went about as expected, but Cal and Baylor were total disasters. Disasters against teams that we are beginning to find out may not be anything special at all.
So where do you draw the line? At what point can you as a fan say definitively, without being labeled as crazy or impatient, that a coach has worn out his/her welcome?
You could start by looking at some examples of recent coach-hiring and coach-firing. First you have Tyrone Willingham, fired after three years and a 21-16 record at Notre Dame. Ty's tenure at Washington is certainly beginning to justify that decision, but at the time it was greeted by disdain from the national media. You have Ron Zook, fired at Florida but suddenly successful at Illinois. You also have Keith Gilbertson, fired for two seasons of awfulness at UW. Often you can never know if these decisions were truly mistakes, because the coach never got the extra year or two they wanted at their institutions.
Then you have the opposite. Keeping a coach around for too long when they've simply proven they cannot win. My favorite example comes not from college football, but college basketball: Jay John. John got five and a half seasons (although it felt longer) to maintain a once proud Oregon State program's place at the bottom of the conference. His best record: 13-15, in his first year. In football you often see the wrong hire kept around for far too long: for Nebraska, there was Frank Solich and Bill Callahan. Arizona's Mike Stoops and (again) the Huskies' Ty Willingham are dangerously close to that territory. Perhaps Bill Doba's name should be included in that conversation as well.
I can't claim to be an expert on coaching. So I defer to someone who is for the answer to our question: Dick Bennett.
Why the elder Bennett? Well, because college football and basketball, while different in some respects, have the exact same turnover rate (four to five years per class) and often the same challenges in recruiting (facilities, location, etc.). So when Dick Bennett, master of the turnaround, addressed the ZZU CRU to talk about rebuilding a college program during the 2004-05 season, you can bet I listened.
His answer: the third year. That's when, according to Bennett, you see the marked improvement from a team that a new coach has rebuilt. But hold on. The Cougs were awful in Dick Bennett's third year: 11-16, 4-14 in conference, and lost 13 of 15 to close out the year. So is Dick Bennett, the godfather of modern Cougar basketball, lying to us?
Of course not. Dick Bennett was hired in March of 2003, meaning his first real recruiting class came on board while he was coaching his first season at Washington State. It had some players you may have heard of: Derrick Low, Kyle Weaver, Robbie Cowgill, Daven Harmeling. The reality was that it was their third year, the first year under Tony Bennett, that the Cougars took off. It was the Bennett's fourth year overall that saw the Cougs go to the tournament with the magical run that kept going right through this past season.
That brings us back to Wulff. Since Paul wasn't hired until December last year, his recruiting class from this winter isn't really the class he intends to rebuild with. Yes, he picked up a few pieces, but for the most part he had little or no time to scout the talent from a class where most of the recruits had already signed with their universities of choice.
So, if Wulff is to pull a Bennettesque rebuilding job, we will see the results in his fourth season. Since a school like WSU can't afford to fire a coach and hire the next up-and-comer on a whim, Wulff deserves a year's margin of error. So he gets five years. Like Bill Doba, who had five years before being semi-forced to ride off into the sunset, five years gives you more than enough time to evaluate a coach and the direction a program is heading.
That's not always the standard, of course. If your coach disgraces the university (Kelvin Sampson) or is flat out terrible at a university with high expectations (Keith Gilbertson), in some circumstances it is O.K. to pull the plug on a coach a little early. Likewise, if your team has been down for four years under a coach but magically pulls in the #1 recruiting class in the nation, you may want to give an extra year or two to see what develops.
Considering WSU's financial resources (limited) and our expectations (reasonable), five years is a good standard for any Cougar head coach. We can't afford to fire a coach too early because of money. We also can't afford to wait forever, because we, as humans, are only alive for an average of roughly 75 years. And sometime in that period we need to see our school win a national championship. Furthermore, the longer our program circles the drain at the bottom of the conference, the longer we have to wait to see a turnaround, even with a brilliant coach at the helm.
Be patient. This is going to take time, especially now that we can't ride the coattails of our successes in the early 2000s. And don't give into the idea that Wulff should pull the plug on his system to better fit his current players. Dick Bennett said that he could've done that in 2006, but he cared too much about his kids to let them run-and-gun and forget everything they've learned. It certainly paid off the next season, when the Cougs made the tournament for the first time in over a decade. Of course we will not, and should not, have to wait forever. But we have to give Wulff a chance.
It starts with Portland State this Saturday. Cheer on the Cougs, and cheer on Wulff as he tries to get his first win as Cougar head coach. With some skill, some luck and some support, it could be the first of many.