COMMENTARY: Hot seat talk doesn't add up

PAUL WULFF

THERE IT WAS, FOR the umpteenth time this football preseason: Paul Wulff placed on the "hot seat." This time it was Sports Illustrated. From the New York Times to ESPN, they've all lumped him into their hot-seat camp. And I just shake my head. Their conclusions are flawed. They're simply unaware of key facts and important background that don't make his seat any warmer than any third-year coach's.

Let's start with a few facts. First, Wulff inherited a program that was full of dry rot. Recruiting had evolved into one bust after another. The weight training program was casual, not intense. Character was a question, and pot smoking was shockingly commonplace.

CRIMSON COMMENTARY

Statistically speaking, no two numbers speak to the erosion of the program better than these.
  • In his first two years, Wulff inherited three players who were drafted or signed free deals in the NFL. Three players. Every other new coach at WSU going back 30 years has inherited 14 to 16 NFL-caliber players in his first two years.
  • The recruiting classes of 2005, 2006 and 2007 were all busts of towering proportion. A program can weather one of those, but three in a row is impossible to overcome. The net result? No fewer than 40 players from those three classes washed out. Forty. That is a death knell.

    And then there's this little nugget – WSU's APR, plus Wulff's trimming the program of poor character, meant that Wulff had only 72 scholarship athletes his first year, and then 73 in 2009. The competition meanwhile was playing with right about, or at, 85 scholarship athletes.

    Now let's talk about background a bit. The pundits in New York and L.A. and elsewhere see that the Cougs have three wins over the last two years and that a new athletic director is now in charge. That adds up to a clear-cut "hot seat" in their eyes.

    But you have to start by asking yourself who that new athletic director is before you jump to conclusions.

    For more than a few reasons, Bill Moos is no gunslinger with a six-shooter pointed at the football office.

    Moos, you see, chaired the search committee that Jim Sterk put together to find Bill Doba's replacement. Moos played a key role in bringing Wulff to Pullman. And in that process, Moos was looking for a specific guy -- a guy who had a concrete plan of action for the long-term future.

    Wulff originally was put on the interview list as a courtesy because he was a former WSU player. But when he arrived for his first interview with a comprehensive plan of action under his arm, everyone stood up and took notice.

    "It certainly takes a vision, a plan, a quality coach and staff," to build a football program, Moos recently told CF.C. "But at the end of the day, it's about players. Everywhere I've been, the focus has been on recruiting. And that was my mandate (to ensure recruiting was clicking on all cylinders as AD at Montana and Oregon)," Moos said.

    So how is Wulff and staff doing in that area?

    "I don't think there's any staff in this conference, and maybe in the country, that works as hard as ours do … Our coaches work very, very hard. And I like this group of (2010) freshmen that are coming in. They are indicative of the caliber of athlete we need to have here in order to compete," said Moos.

    And if the 2011 recruiting cycle ended now, WSU -- in the eyes of Scout.com -- would have one of the top 40 classes in the nation for the second straight year.

    That 2010 class, the one Moos likes so much, some close observers believe -- and that includes Mike Levenseller, who has been coaching in Pullman since 1992 -- it is WSU's best in the last 15-plus years.

    Yes, better than the classes that brought WSU three straight 10-win seasons from 2001-03.

    THERE IS ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND that suggests Wulff is far from being on the hot seat right now: Moos was in the trenches the last time WSU had to rebuild its football program from the ground up. And he knows the time it takes.

    In the 60s, after Bert Clark had left the place in ashes, Jim Sweeney arrived in 1968 to spearhead a massive renovation. A standout lineman from Olympia High School by way of Edwall, Wash., wanted to help him do it.

    The kid's name was Bill Moos.

    Sweeney's early teams were pounded unmercifully. WSU won five games between 1968-70. They gave up 49 points to Stanford one season, 63 the next. USC hung 70 on them. Cal shut ‘em out 45-0. Iowa piled up 61 points. Sound familiar?

    But behind the scenes, away from the sullen tally on the scoreboard lights, through all the losses, Sweeney was building something.

    And in 1971, when every pundit and their sister forecast a darkened year out on the Palouse, the Cougs shocked Stanford. And they beat Oregon. Total points increased dramatically. Points allowed decreased even more markedly. They won four games that season, lost five more by 10 points or less and a new hope was in the air. The tide had been turned.

    The next season, when Moos was a senior, WSU went 7-4 and finished the year ranked No. 17 in the nation. Think about that.

    From one win each in the '69 and '70 seasons, to No. 17 in the land in '72.

    There are, says Moos, common threads to then and now.

    "We did it the same way (as Wulff is doing), getting a better caliber of athlete … you look at the linebackers during that turnaround -- Tom Poe, Gary Larsen, Clyde Wareheim -- those were big-time players, and that's just one example," said Moos. "The other thing we needed, and I've talked to Paul about this -- we won one during the rebuild that we weren't supposed to win, when we beat Stanford in ‘71."

    Stanford was a perennial top 10 team in that era, and in 1971 they were en route to a second-straight Rose Bowl when the Cougs shocked and knocked ‘em off –- in Palo Alto -– 24-23 on a last-second Don Sweet field goal. (For more insight on the enormity of that win, click to the CF.C archives Upset for the ages triggered the turnaround.)

    "That win solidified in players' minds the system works, the plan is working. It was fabulous for our confidence and we really built off that victory, a launching pad into '72 and a good year." Moos said.

    SO WHERE DOES THE PROGRAM stand today? Looking at Wulff's recruiting classes from the '09 and '10 cycles, and what's going on in the 2011 class already, there's a lot to like.

    More specifically, there's a lot to like but it's still young and much of it is inexperienced. What I believe is going to happen is WSU is going to field a legitimate Pac-10 team this year. Not a title contender. Not a 7-win bowl participant.

    Keep in mind, WSU will be around 77-78 players on scholarship this year, something that will finally come to an end next year.

    But they're still going to be competitive this year, just like Wulff said, despite carrying 77-78. The Cougs are going to show significant improvement this season, also just like Wulff has said.

    And then the biggest step will be taken a year from now, when Wulff's recruits hit that sweet spot in terms of experience and he'll field 83-85 scholarship players in the program for the first time. And in 2011, WSU goes bowling.

    If I'm wrong, I'll be the first one to admit it. But all the facts, all the evidence, they point to the opposite of what's been foisted upon the masses this offseason. Even if the national pundits so quick to put Wulff on the hot seat remain blissfully unaware.

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