PULLMAN – Former president Ronald Reagan used to tell a story about a young child and a large pile of horse manure. The parable, which had the child digging through the muck because, “there has to be a pony in here somewhere,” was simple and to the point.
No matter how bad things get, keep looking for the pony.
For Paul Wulff and the Washington State football team, the past two years have been the horse manure. Next year is their pony.
And they hope to ride it all the way to respectability.
“We’re going to be better,” Wulff said this week. “We’re going to be a much improved football team.”
Yet it might take a Clydesdale to pull the Cougars out of their recent hole.
This week ESPN.com tried to quantify WSU’s 2-11 and 1-11 seasons just past, listing nine offensive statistical categories, ranging from most three-and-out possessions (104) to most negative plays (251). In all of them, WSU was last in the nation. The Cougars were also near the bottom in three defensive categories and one in special teams.
In the season just finished, WSU is among the bottom five among NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision teams in 10 categories, ranging from total defense to total offense to kickoff return defense. It was outscored by an average of 31 points a game in a 0-9 Pac-10 season.
“The record disappoints me, it disappoints all of us,” said Wulff, hired two years ago after eight seasons as Eastern Washington’s head coach.
But it wasn’t unexpected. Wulff knew even before he got to Pullman 2009 would be tough.
“When I took the job, we knew the first year was the great unknown,” Wulff said. “We knew there were some returnees on defense, we knew there wasn’t a quarterback in place with experience. We knew there were some holes.
“We also knew in year two, and in my interview Jim (Sterk, athletic director) clearly expressed to me, based on the number of players who would be leaving after our first year, the second year could be a very, very tough year.”
Sterk was right. The Cougars were young and they couldn’t stay healthy.
Of the 38 high school players who signed letters of intent in 2005 or 2006, the core of the upper classes, only six suited up against UW last Saturday. Four of the 2005 signees finished in four years. Three were members of this year’s team but missed the game with an injury or a suspension. The other 31 either never made it to Pullman or left early.
Then there were the injuries.
Of the 44 players on WSU’s two-deep going into fall camp, 21 missed at least two games with injuries. Of that number, 12 had their season end prematurely – and that doesn’t include quarterback Jeff Tuel, as incoming freshmen were not listed.
“The injuries depleted us on both sides of the ball and special teams,” Wulff said. “What was disappointing was they continued to shrink our ability to do what we would like to do on defense and offense and special teams.
“We had to become more vanilla. Because of the youth and inexperience, in defense of those guys, it’s hard for them to know everything we want to do.”
But that’s all in the rearview mirror. The 2010 season has, in a sense, already started.
Wulff met with every player earlier this week, as did, for their sides of the ball, offensive coordinator Todd Sturdy and co-defensive coordinator Chris Ball. The meetings review the season and look to the future. The goal is to get better. So just how will WSU fulfill Wulff’s pledge?
“The players are going to change,” Wulff said. “We’re returning a lot of players who have experience, they’re all going to be bigger and stronger. We’re bringing in new players as well.
“We’re finally going to get some bodies back that will fit into the schemes we want to run.”
Wulff mentioned a lot of players, including Tuel, receivers Gino Simone and Jared Karstetter, linebackers Louis Bland and Alex Hoffman-Ellis and defensive end Travis Long, as keys to running those schemes.
Improving the staff is also on Wulff’s mind.
“Right now we’re just still evaluating everything over the next few weeks,” he said of any possible changes. “If there is ever a change (to the staff), it will be made for the betterment of Cougar football. Whether its players or coaches, we will do what’s best for the program.”
A key element of that will be recruiting more thoroughbreds.
“Let’s not make any mistake about it,” Wulff said. “Talent is what you have to have to win ballgames.”
There are three key dates over the next two months: Dec. 16, when junior college players can begin signing letters of intent; Jan. 11, the first day of WSU’s spring semester; and Feb. 3, football signing day for high school seniors.
Wulff sees improving the offensive line as critical. To improve it, he said the Cougars are looking to sign two or three junior college players who can help right away – and spend spring on campus.
The other side of the ball should be bolstered in January as well, when two players who signed LOIs last February are expected to be in school. Junior college defensive end Brandon Rankin and prep defensive tackle Quayshawne Buckley have spent the fall fulfilling academic requirements and should enroll as scheduled, Wulff said.
Then there is Feb. 3.
“We believe it has a chance to be the very best recruiting class that’s come through here,” Wulff said.