LIKE A BOY SCOUT, Paul Wulff is leaving the proverbial campsite in far better shape than he found it. Alas, the progress of Washington State's football program under his watch wasn’t swift enough to satisfy athletic director Bill Moos, President Elson Floyd or the growing throng of disgruntled Cougar fans. The decision wasn't easy to make and there is "no finer man" than Wulff, Moos said.
Moos isn't waxing eloquent when he says the decision to dismiss Wulff wasn't easy. According to my sources familiar with the situation, the move was far from a slam dunk.
Paul is believed to have made a strong case Sunday for the foundation he and his staff have put in place, but ultimately the pain of the last four years of rebuilding couldn't be overcome. With serious fundraising demands needed to underwrite new facilities, the enthusiasm gap was magnified.
In many ways, Paul took a bullet for the university, stepping into a sink hole that needed to be plugged but at a great professional cost. If he had known the true depth of the hole four years ago I can't imagine in his right mind he would have applied for the job.
But Paul is a true Cougar, a great Cougar. He persevered and fought and wasn't going to stop.
Whether it's Mike Leach or Kevin Sumlin or someone we don't know about yet, the next coach should be pleased when he arrives. When this team is in a bowl game next winter I hope people give Paul his due.
Paul had predicted a turnaround year for the Cougars this season after three years of building, but Jeff Tuel's broken collarbone in the season opener turned that quest into an uphill battle. Still, the Cougars won four games, came within a whisker of winning two others, let one get away at San Diego State, and hung tough for a half with powerhouses Stanford and Oregon.
Points allowed decreased over Wulff's tenure, while points for were showing a steady increase. But the wins didn't follow.
He leaves his successor a roster full of young athletes, plus an incoming recruiting class -- presuming it can be held together -- that is both promising and virtually full.
When Paul left Eastern Washington to became head coach at WSU in December 2007, the Cougars only had three verbal commitments in their forthcoming recruiting class and the three previous classes were massive meltdowns. In addition, the weight and nutrition program was found to be seriously lacking, marijuana use among a contingent of players had become commonplace, and academics had waned to the point that this coming year would have been the first in which Wulff was allowed a full roster of 85 scholarship players.
Shortly after arriving, Wulff started cleaning house and changing the character of the team. That was both good and bad. The dead wood was being eliminated but perhaps too fast and too forcefully. A number of remaining players were alienated. Their on-field effort -- and off-field leadership -- wasn't always there, making a daunting rebuild that much more challenging and lengthy.
Perhaps the biggest miscue Paul made when he came on board was bringing in almost his entire staff from Eastern Washington -- a staff short on BCS-conference experience. He retained Mike Levenseller as receivers coach, Steve Broussard as running backs coach and brought in Chris Ball as defensive coordinator, but they were the lone BCS vets in the bunch, and Broussard had just one BCS year (at WSU) under his belt. The later additions of Chris Tormey, Todd Howard, Dave Ungerer and Steve Morton to the staff were nice upgrades, but perhaps too little too late.
Paul concludes his WSU tenure with a 9-40 overall mark and 4-32 record in Pac-12/10 games.
While Paul is a long-time member of the Cougar family, having starred at center for WSU from 1986-89, fans never seemed to be on his side. Too quiet, too business-like, not entertaining like a Mike Price or Jim Walden, he enjoyed virtually no honeymoon.
Undaunted, he stuck to his plan for recruiting primarily high school players, rather than JC, to build long-term stability, and insisted on redshirting as many freshmen as possible, though that wasn't always easy. Patience, he preached.
The payoff was supposed to be this season, and these 2011 Cougars were far better than the 2010 team. The loss of Tuel, though, cannot be understated. It was a devastating blow. Marshall Lobbestael is a tremendous young man but he limited the offense with his lack of mobility, so-so arm strength and red zone foibles. Freshman Connor Halliday wasn't ready physically or mentally to step into the starting job when the season began. When he was ready late in the season, he shined against Arizona State, but then was lost with injury in the overtime game with Utah.
The loss of Tuel wasn't the only bad break for WSU this season. At cornerback, where lack of depth stood out, experienced senior Aire Justin was ruled ineligible after drinking what he thought was a protein powder but contained a banned substance. Starting right tackle Wade Jacobson was lost in the middle of the season, further exposing Lobbestael's lack of mobility.
Beyond that, the potentially two biggest playmakers from Wulff's first recruiting class -- Cory Mackay and LeAndre Daniels -- each suffered career-ending injuries; Mackay in a car accident before he took his first snap in a game and Daniels before the start of the 2010 season.
“Our program has come a long ways,” Paul said after Saturday’s loss to Washington. “I’m very proud of where we’re at. We’re right on the cusp of being really, really good.” Two weeks before, after a dramatic upset of Arizona State, he said there was "something special "brewin'" in Pullman.
I think There is, too, but another coach will be the one to enjoy the final product.
Cougars everywhere should be thankful and appreciative for what Paul has done for our university and this football program, Moos said on Tuesday.
The wins may not show it, but everything else about the condition of the program today versus four years ago says that he's right.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Paul Sorensen played safety for the Cougars from 1980-81, earning first-team All-American honors as a senior. He later played in the NFL and USFL. From 1985-98 he was the color commentator on radio broadcasts of Cougar football. He has held a similar role on Eastern Washington University broadcasts over the last several years. Also a long-time assistant coach in the Greater Spokane League, he’s been writing periodically for CF.C since 1999. His columns here are labeled SLAP! The acronym stands for Sorensen Looks At the Program. The word also aptly describes the way Paul played safety and the way he does color commentary: in-your-face, nothing held back.