PULLMAN – Bowl berths are doled out like bailouts anymore, but that’s how the system has been corrupted and the football player’s job is not to reform it but leverage it.
Which the Washington Huskies did on Saturday evening, and since it has been so long since this once-proud program has done even that much – all the way back to 2002 – the players celebrated on the turf of Martin Stadium not once but twice.
Few enough of their football relations from Washington State bothered to take in the scene. Perhaps they should have.
Because replicating it is their mandate for next year.
No matter who’s the head coach.
Today or the next, there figures to be a thumbs up or down on the future of WSU coach Paul Wulff. The likelihood is up, thanks to the steady – if incremental, and sometimes plodding – gains over the last two months of the season, the near miss of Saturday’s 35-28 loss to the Huskies and the circumstance that the athletic department foreman hasn’t come up with any wow-factor alternatives.
No shame in that – and no little honor in allowing Wulff to pursue his task in the painstaking way that was tacitly approved by his hiring.
Still, his retention for a fourth year really does only one thing: start the clock ticking on Wulff’s assurances that the Cougars will be in a bowl game in 2011.
Which is how it ought to be. After all, the Huskies just demonstrated how ordinary a team can be and still play in one.
This is not to disparage either the effort or the theatre of this 103rd meeting of UW and WSU, a game of scattered sensational moments and end-of-game drama played by two teams which trust that better times are ahead.
Maybe they can even muster a full house again sometime – though even the smallest Apple Cup crowd in 36 years, 30,157, made some atmospheric contributions.
“It was cool,” came the assessment from Cougar quarterback Jeff Tuel. “We love them to death and they love us and we’re going to bring them bright things in the future.”
They came close enough Saturday, though as has been the case through most of tease of October and November, true brightness becomes unbearable for the Cougars.
Even when they pull off the bold strokes and game-changing plays necessary to win, they cannot prevent their opponents from seizing the moment right back.
This was never so evident than in the game’s denouement, when Tuel engineered two swift drives to erase a 28-14 deficit, then watched the Huskies trump it with Chris Polk’s feet, Jake Locker’s arm and Jermaine Kearse’s hands and presence.
Whatever the Cougars intend to accomplish in 2011, it will be as much about preventing disasters as it will be about the ubiquitous “making plays.”
How much better the Huskies were at this is dubious. Their 6-6 record meets the bowl system’s ridiculous minimum, but there are five other Pac-10 teams that can’t say the same. And there should be no begrudging Locker this modest reward, though he has never been nearly as special a player as his geeked-out heralds insist.
And now that Locker’s gone – after the bowl, of course – UW coach Steve Sarkisian will get an even fuller appreciation of the rebuilder’s ethic.
For Wulff, meanwhile, the work continues – presumably – including the work on himself. His arm-pumping demeanor on Saturday to energize the crowd was hardly Stoopsian, but finally gave his critics a glimpse of passion they’ve doubted he possessed.
“The last two or three weeks, we finally got ourselves back to playing Pac-10 football,” he sighed. “It’s not championship football yet, but we made that step.”
His only real acknowledgement of his situation and status with athletic director Bill Moos on Saturday was saying that, “I feel very good where we’re at and what we’ve done and all the information I’ve received.
“I don’t know that it’s a moment of ‘decision,’ ” he concluded.
But surely he knows that the next step must be a giant one up, or a gentle shove out. Next year’s early schedule – Idaho State, UNLV, San Diego State, Colorado and UCLA, the last three on the road – should give him some cover.
“It’ll give us a chance to grow and even make some mistakes and still have a legitimate chance to win,” he said. “This team will still only have three or four senior starters, but it will have veterans – and it can win six games or more.”
That will be one more than Wulff’s teams have won his first three seasons. It will be the least they can do.
In fact, it will be the least that will be accepted.