Profiling the nation's most embattled coaches.
Washington State is not in a position to take anything for granted: The Cougars play in the least populous hometown of any school in the Pac-10 and in the conference's smallest stadium; they're ninth in the league in all-time winning percentage and have the fewest number of bowl invites; and they have fewer conference titles than all but Arizona and Arizona State, which didn't join the Pac-10 until 1978.
Still, any school whose fans are willing to FedEx a flag all over the country to make sure it's waving in the background on each and every installment of "College Gameday" still has its pride – enough pride, anyway, to begin sharpening the pitchforks after enjoying only three wins in two years. That's all current head coach Paul Wulff has been able to manage since taking over for Bill Doba in 2008, and it's a threadbare number even by Wazzu standards. If there's a light at the end of the tunnel, now would be a good time for it to appear.
Why he was hired. An All-Pac-10 center for the Cougars from 1986-89 (a stretch that included a rare nine-win season and a bowl victory), Wulff was a known quantity on the Palouse, having also coached nearby Eastern Washington University to three I-AA playoff appearances from 2000-07. The Eagles won a pair of Big Sky Conference titles in that span and advanced to the national quarterfinals twice, making Wulff a natural choice when Doba – who guided a 10-win season capped by a Holiday Bowl win over Texas in 2003, the year after Alabama-bound predecessor Mike Price took the Cougars to the Rose Bowl for the second time – was fired in '07 after his third losing season (5-7) in four years.
The "Uh-oh" Moment. Wulff opened his Wazzu career with a 39-13 loss to Oklahoma State on a neutral field in Seattle – disappointing, obviously, but hardly the stuff of nightmares. When the Cougs returned to Pullman to host California in their Pac-10 opener, though, things got ugly in a hurry
Cal scored the first 21 points, led 42-3 at the half, and kept pounding all the way to a 66-3 massacre, picking off Washington State quarterbacks four times and outgaining the Cougars 391 yards to 57 on the ground. It was, at the time, the worst blowout in WSU's history.That was fairly representative of the 2008 season as a whole:
WSU was blasted 63-14 by Oregon, 66-13 by Oregon State and took a 69-0 suckerpunch from USC in front of a horrified home crowd. The lone win over a I-A opponent came in overtime against rival Washington – which, you'll recall, was seeing off lame-duck coach Tyrone Willingham en route to finishing 0-12. When the dust cleared, the Cougars ranked 118th nationally (out of 119 teams) in scoring offense and scoring defense, good for an average margin of defeat of 31 points per game.
Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. If the start of Wulff's career in Pullman looked bad on the scoreboard, it was just as ugly on the injury report. Starting QB Kevin Lopina was knocked out of a home game against Portland State after being sacked late in the first half and backup Gary Rogers was driven away in an ambulance just seven minutes later, nursing what turned out to be a cervical spine injury. With only a pair of freshmen behind third-stringer Marshall Loebbestael – who tossed two picks in his first start, the humiliating home loss to Oregon – Wulff found himself holding an open casting call for a random student to take snaps with the scout team. The "winner" of said tryout, former high school QB Peter Roberts, never got to throw a pass in an actual game, although it's not certain anyone would have been able to tell the difference.
Can this marriage be saved? Wazzu fans respect Wulff as a person and recognize that he walked into an abysmal situation two years ago, says Sean Hawkins of WSU Football Blog, so they don't expect him to be a miracle worker. After the last two seasons, though, they'd definitely like some indication of progress:
[E]xpectations have become awfully realistic in the last couple of seasons. The days of highly competitive football, even winning football, have been gone since the turn of the century, when the Cougars rolled off three straight top-10 AP finishes (2001-2003). The problem was that the prior regime left Wulff with one of the worst situations any head coach could possibly walk into in their first season. The team had 25 arrests in an 18-month period prior to Wulff's arrival, as well as several players who washed out of the program due to poor academic performance. WSU was slapped with an NCAA-worst EIGHT scholarship losses from the dreaded APR, and the team has paid dearly for their past transgressions.
The hard part is that WSU fans generally like Paul Wulff. After all, he's one of our "own." He loves WSU, understands the culture in Pullman and knows what it takes to build the program the right way. He's overcome a lot of tough things in his life, things you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, and he is finally at his dream job. But now that we are headed into year three of Wulff's regime, it is time to see some positive steps.
With new athletic director Bill Moos in place, there will be an expectation of improvement on the field. This year won't be a season measured fully on wins and losses, but more so in terms of competitiveness. If they come out and, say, win three games, but are highly competitive in several losses while showing real promise, then Wulff should be secure for 2011. But if this season is a repeat performance of what we've seen in 2008 and 2009, then it would be an upset if Wulff makes it past December.
Approximate hotness of seat. Molten lava -- about 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, give or take. The Cougars are poised to be more competitive this year than last, but if that doesn't manifest itself in wins, it's unlikely to impress a new AD, who as a group are always looking for reasons to fire existing coaches so that they can put their own stamp on their programs. And with the Pac-10 getting more competitive with each passing year, even three wins may be hard to come by.