PULLMAN – Paul Wulff hasn’t wavered.
Not even after last season’s 2-11 record, a record that might even have been better than it really was considering his Cougars lost those games by an average of nearly six touchdowns.
Going into his second year as Washington State University football coach, a season that starts Saturday when the Cougars host Stanford in Martin Stadium at 3 p.m., Wulff was asked a short but complicated question: How will he measure success?
Wulff’s answer, as it relates to his football team, was long and complicated.
It used terms like execution of assignments, consistency in performance, playing with passion and effort. It admitted those things were lacking last season. And it didn’t include a win total.
Not that winning isn’t important.
“I think it’s pretty evident there isn’t a year we don’t have a goal of making a bowl game,” Wulff said. “That’s always there for us. And it’s no different this year.”
But he’s not wavering. There are steps that have to be taken first if he wants to ensure winning seasons, bowl berths, perennial Pac-10 title contention. All those things will only come down the road if there is a foundation.
“We’re trying to teach these guys to be great young men as people first,” Wulff emphasized, “and to understand they have a huge responsibility. We want them to grow into leaders. All those traits that we can develop, as for maturity, to help them as people, will carry out on to the football field.”
There was very little positive that was carried to the field last year.
“There were so many things that were not right, it wasn’t just one thing,” Wulff admitted. “As the momentum of the injuries and the lack of confidence and getting beat up mounted, it really demoralized our team.”
And it showed.
“There’s no question there were several, several players that just refused to buy in to the hard work and the demands we were putting on them,” Wulff said. “It really wasn’t the players’ fault. It’s just our philosophy on how to run the program and expectations were different than what they were used to. It wasn’t their fault; it was a change in philosophy, a dramatic change in philosophy.”
But unlike last season, when it was obvious WSU laid down in some of their blowout losses, all outward appearances indicate, 19 months into the new regime, this team has bought into Wulff and his staff’s philosophy.
Ask the returning players how they measure success and they don’t waver either. Their answers come quickly and in depth, as if they’ve thought long and hard about last year’s failures. And again, the win/loss record doesn’t play a large role in the conversation.
“Success is competition,” said senior center Kenny Alfred. “Having guys go out, compete, doing the right things. That’s the first step.”
“Guys, every single play, giving it their all,” answered senior tight end Tony Thompson. “And me, myself, as well. Wins and losses will take care of themselves. If we give it the best effort every game, I can’t complain about that.”
Even Alfred and Thompson admit that wasn’t the case last season.
“That’s why I felt so bad for the seniors last year,” Thompson said. “I felt like we didn’t play to our ability.
“I feel way different about this team. I think what we’re doing in practice prepares us for it. Guys are learning how to overcome adverse situations. It’s definitely looking up.”
Some of that, according to Wulff, started to show after last season’s bye week.
“I thought the team took some big steps in the big picture,” said Wulff, adding that’s what he was most proud of from last year. “We lost to Stanford in the rain when it all went south, but after that we started playing pretty good football.
“We had our usual turnovers at Arizona State that cost us a game we were in, then we came back and won the Apple Cup. And the Hawaii game, we were playing well, then once again we had some big miscues that cost us.”
Which brings us to 2009.
“As I’ve told a lot of people,” Wulff said, “we’re better. We’re not where we want to be, but we’re better.”
Whether that will translate into more wins, no one will venture a guess. But Alfred knows one thing. The Cougars will bring a competitive nature to their games.
“We have to,” Alfred said, his glare unwavering.