Did this all really happen?
It has been a stunning several weeks for Washington State football. A rollercoaster of emotions for a program that has now completely changed its national perception.
There's a principle of advertising that Mad Men's Don Draper holds dear: If you don't like what's being said about you, change the conversation.
Consider it changed.
Mike Leach was my guy. I tried to be as toned down about celebrating this as I could, because I - like so many other Coug fans - truly wanted Wulff to succeed. A winning Wulff was Plan A, a coaching change was Plan B. Still, when my faith was tested, Leach was the number one replacement in my mind if - and only if - Wulff was relieved of his duties. There were times when I felt things might not work out for Wulff: after the Oklahoma State blowout last season, the nail-biter win over Montana State and the crushing defeat to Oregon State in Seattle this year. Publicly I never wanted to be a guy flat out calling for Wulff's head. Privately I had my doubts. Mike Leach was my answer, without hesitation, when my friends and family would ask who might replace Coach Wulff if he was shown the door. In my back pocket was a campaign to get Mike Leach as our next head coach if and when the real expert - Bill Moos - decided it was time to move on.
And so I felt guilty when Paul Wulff was let go, even though my own personal feelings had nothing to do with the change. Maybe somehow I had mentally willed this to happen, like a be-careful-what-you-wish-for sort of thing. Not that I was wishing for Wulff's demise, but wishing for Leach to someday find his way to Pullman. Of course, for the latter to happen, the former had to, and a genuinely good guy would be forced out of the job. That was the problem with the whole scenario, and it's why I felt guilty. I many ways I still do. Maybe we were truly a year away from Paul Wulff succeeding on the field and becoming the head coach we always dreamed of. But the problem is in this business that there's only so many years where you can be one year away.
Wulff played to that guilt in his farewell press conference:
"The great thing about WSU and being a Coug is that we don't do it like everybody else. We stick together and we don't eat our own. I believe the innocence of Wazzu has been lost today"
I really believe Wulff was blindsided by the firing. His comments about Moos "having his back" after the football luncheon the Monday after the Apple Cup seem to point to that being the case. Moos presumably gave him no indication, no warning, when they had met the Sunday night after the Apple Cup. Stories swirled of a disconnect between Moos and President Elson Floyd with respect to whether to keep Wulff or move on. Moos was considered to be backing Wulff even though he had already flown down to Key West to secure a back-up plan and meet with Wulff's eventual successor. It was a weird 48 hours after the loss to Washington, and I can only speculate what was actually going on. Was Moos still 100 percent, or even 75 percent behind Wulff? Was Floyd driving the bus that would take a Cougar alumnus out of town? Were they working out the final arrangements of a verbal agreement with Leach? Was Wulff just Plan B if Leach wasn't willing to travel the 2,000 miles from Key West to Pullman? Was Moos willing to take a leap of faith and fire a coach when he only had one replacement on his mind? I'm betting people better connected than I have their own knowledge of what was going on inside the athletic department's walls, but those were the questions swirling through my head some 300 miles away.
And so Wulff sat beside his betrayer for an excruciating press conference and punched us Cougars right where it hurt: in our identity. We don't eat our own. We stick together. We defend each other. He's right about all those things, but the problem was that just like his coaching, ideals and reality didn't always line up.
Washington State athletics didn't lose its innocence on that day. WSU lost it in March of 2009, when Tony Bennett got on a plane at Pullman-Moscow Regional Airport bound for Virginia. That's when the school finally realized the harsh reality of the business of college sports. If someone was going to stick around, it was Tony, right? He had presumably refused offers for much greener pastures like Michigan or LSU the year before, he got his first head coaching job with in Pullman, with no previous experience required. He had a loyal fanbase and a blank check to coach for at least the next several years after the 2007 and 2008 tournament teams. He had a pay raise that made him WSU's first million-dollar man.
There are competing assumptions about Mike Leach and Paul Wulff that make no sense to me: Paul Wulff would never leave Pullman, and Mike Leach will hop the first plane out of here when given the chance. Sure, Wulff is more likely to stick around town being an alumnus... but that doesn't mean he was going to. What if the NFL came calling? What if someone like Ohio State came around and offered him ten million a year? What if he got tired of WSU? Tired of the cold, tired of the administration, yearning for a new challenge. What if he pulled an Urban Meyer and wanted to spend time with his family (or, failing that, ESPN)? Wulff had as much obligation to stay at WSU as the athletic department had to keep him there. In fact, Wulff's status as a Cougar grad gave him much more job security than your average coach. Do you really think anyone outside of one of our own would have been kept after the disappointing 2010 season? I tend to think even Wulff would've been shown the door had it not been for the Oregon State triumph last November.
With Leach, I understand the arguments that he may not be a lifer at Wazzu. He's a warm weather guy (although his hometown is in Wyoming). He has no prior connections to the University. He's ultra competitive and not always a media darling. But here's the thing: despite many opportunities to do so, he never left Texas Tech. Ten years, ten bowls, all in the (formerly) toughest conference division in America: the Big 12 South. He had the college football world on a string until the combination of Craig James, Adam James, hysteria over player treatment and an administration that didn't want to pay him an $800,000 retention bonus cost him his job. Make no mistake: the current stability of Washington State's administration was one of the big selling points for Leach. Bill Moos offered something few other Universities could: stability and comfort. As long as those two things are in place, you can't guarantee that Leach will jump at the first big offer.
Back to Bennett: Almost everything WSU has done since 2009 has been in direct response to that coaching change. Jim Sterk may have been forced to walk the plank (feel free to groan at the pirate reference) and move to San Diego. Bill Moos was brought in to rejuvenate the fanbase. And then there were the words that made us all fall in love with our new Athletic Director:
"The coach at the University of Virginia ought to want to be the coach at Washington State."
All it took was one sentence to get us excited about what Bill Moos was selling. And it's indicative of what Bill Moos is trying to create as his legacy at Washington State. It used to be that good enough was good enough. Work hard, do things the right way, dream small and aim for a Bowl game every now and then. Thinking inside the proverbial box had been normal for Cougar fans. We're too small to hire a big name coach, much less keep a guy we make a big name coach. We don't have the money, the resources and we're 70 miles from a minor metropolitan area and about 250 from a major one. You can't win big in Pullman, so why not be happy with a glimpse of success now and again?
Mike Leach was the hire of a new WSU. Bill Moos' vision is a University that competes in the top half of the Pac-12 consistently in all sports. To do that involves blowing up the box, not just thinking outside of it. Think of all the disadvantages Washington State has relative to the rest of the conference. Location. Cash. Prestige. History (yes, we know how many Rose Bowls we've been to in the last 20 years, but don't assume an outsider does). Now throw those things right out the window and imagine WSU as a big time college football school. Imagine a WSU where the Cougs spend over $2 million a year on a coach. Imagine a WSU where missing a bowl game becomes a disappointment. Imagine a WSU offense that could regularly score in the forties. A WSU with world-class facilities. A stadium just as beautiful as Husky Stadium but without all the pesky rain.
We don't have to imagine most of those things anymore.
Paul Wulff might have been good enough. What ultimately cost him his job, in my opinion, was the lack of imagination. I saw far too often during the Wulff era a team that threw in the towel too early. The most famous example is the punt on fourth down with 3 minutes to play in the fourth quarter of the Apple Cup. The Cougs were down 17 at the time. Improbable? Yes. Impossible? No. So you have to try.
Jim Moore pointed out on Twitter that at one point in the 2008 season there was a run where the Cougs were outscored 169-0. 42-0 in the second half against OSU, 69-0 at home against USC and 58-0 versus Stanford. The USC game in particular was significant in that it ended the Cougars' 280 game streak of scoring at least a point in every game (a meaningless stat, but fun nonetheless).
That October, the Cougars had a story that brought them some positive PR. Not just locally, but nationally. Due to the Cougars' injury problems at quarterback, WSU held open tryouts for a quarterback. Peter Roberts was the winner. ESPN loved the story, talking about it on College Football Live. In what may have been the sorriest season in WSU history, this was a good thing to talk about. A 'Rudy'-type story, but in crimson and gray.
During that 169-0 streak, at Oregon State (a game in which the Beavers would set a school record for points), Marshall Lobbestael got hurt. The Cougs were absolutely blasted the next two weeks with a somewhat recovered Kevin Lopina at QB. But the only backup signal caller to throw a pass in any of those three games was J.T. Levenseller. Not Roberts, not even emergency QB slash punter Dan Wagner (who actually took snaps in the OSU game).
Now, I'm not saying putting Peter Roberts on the field would've helped the team win, or been smart, or any of that. What I'm suggesting is: why the hell not play him? Best case scenario, he completes a pass, gets a huge cheer from the crowd and the papers have a nice story. Worse case scenario? Well, since you were already being drubbed one-hundred-and-sixty-nine to nothing - even with backup defenders in the game - how much worse could it get? Dan Wagner did see the field in Corvallis... but he never threw a pass. Wulff decided to play the football equivalent of Bennett ball: run the ball every play. The only problem with that is you can't run much clock when you go three-and-out every possession. It was a style of play that was the equivalent of punting on fourth down when you're behind 17. It was throwing in the towel. It was a choice to lose 69-0 rather than 84-17.
You might be saying that doesn't really matter, and you'd be right. But it's indicative of the lack of imagination that made the Wulff era struggle and ultimately come to an end. One thing I've learned from the last four years is that coaches - like players - have a certain talent level. It's nearly impossible to claim that Wulff didn't do things the right way. He cleaned house and brought in players with a good work ethic. He (for the most part) recruited players that stayed out of trouble and were good representatives of the University. Players that ultimately made the school competitive again. But he didn't win, and that's true no matter how you slice it: 9-40 overall. 4-32 (!) against the Pac-10/12. A winning percentage that - through the first three seasons - was lower than Chone Figgins' batting average.
Part of Bill Moos' mission at Washington State is changing the attitude of the University. Throughout history, arrogant as it may seem, the teams that win the most are the ones who tolerate losing the least. There's a fundamental difference between the LA Lakers and the LA Clippers. Between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets. Annoying as those dynasties were to watch for a Seattle fan, they were the result of franchises not just interested in winning (everybody wants to win), but obsessed with winning. Paul Wulff wanted to win, too. But one of those things that frustrates me to this day is how rarely he acts like the losing seasons were unacceptable. I feel like 2008 and 2009 were seasons he shouldn't have just written off as rebuilding years due to bad recruiting by Doba... they were years he should have been downright furious about. If WSU is to become a Rose Bowl caliber football program again we have to take the attitude that years like '08 and '09 are unacceptable... regardless of the circumstances.
Life is a constant struggle between who we are and who we want to be. If Paul Wulff was who were are right now, Mike Leach is who we want to be. Unorthodox. Unique. Innovative. Consistently a winner. Leach might not work out, in the same way any other coach might not work out. But, for the first time I can remember since Mike Price, WSU has a coach now that allows us to dream of winning a National Championship without getting laughed out of the room. The "aw, shucks", moral victory, six-wins-is-okay WSU is really what died on the day Paul Wulff was fired.
Wulff was a sacrificial lamb to the victory Gods. WSU had to do something difficult, something heart-wrenching, but ultimately something necessary if they wanted to succeed.
Sometimes innocence is a reasonable price to pay for changing the conversation.