Paul Wulff recently returned with his family from a week’s vacation in Hawaii where, among the other highlights, was sleep.
“It was amazing,” said Washington State’s football coach. “I haven’t slept like that in four years.”
The easy joke would be something along the lines of: Now he knows how the customers feel.
But, of course, Wulff’s nights during the 5-32 slog of his first three seasons have been shorter and more restless than anyone attached to Cougar football, intimately or tangentially. This was true even in the days before his island getaway when he A) put the finishing touches on what needs to be a sneaky-good recruiting class and, B) turned over his staff of assistants by not quite 25 percent for the second year in a row.
That’s not excessive churn in the transitory world of college coaching, but it’s significant.
“It’s never been my personality to make a lot of changes like that – I’ve never been one to do that,” he said. “But I do know, there are times where maybe things aren’t going right and change has to come. There’s been enough feedback over a long period of time and we’ve tried to help the situation, but maybe it’s not progressing like it could and should.”
So, out are defensive line coach Malik Roberson and linebackers coach Travis Niekamp – the latter to a newly created position of coordinator of football development. In are Todd Howard – himself a recent casualty from the staff at UCLA – and an old reliable, Chris Tormey, whose roots hereabouts are deep and his resume impeccable.
And in an adjustment that Wulff suggested was more cosmetic than anything else, defensive coordinator is no longer a shared title but will be handled by Chris Ball alone – “he’s pretty much been calling all the defenses the last few years” – with Jody Sears coaching cornerbacks.
The easy joke would be something along the lines of: Titanic deck chairs, rearrangement of.
But, of course, it’s a serious deal – for the coaches replaced, for the new guys, for Wulff and for players who expect to satisfy fan demand, and their own, for at least a Kia of a bowl game if not a Cadillac.
And if nothing else, the four staff changes of the past 13 months have resulted in some interesting math:
The four assistants who departed had a total of 17 years full-time experience at Football Championship Subdivision schools; the four replacements have 79 years in the FCS or the National Football League.
If this is ammunition for the many critics who derided Wulff’s first WSU staff as too heavy with come-withs from his days at Eastern Washington, well, so be it. Wulff himself prefers to frame it in that-was-then-this-is- now terms.
“I just felt we needed to bring in some veteran coaches to help our development,” he said. “Particularly, we feel like we have some quality young talent at the linebacker and defensive line positions, but there’s maturity that needs to grow there, too – dramatically. We finally have some raw talent to work with, but we need to grow up.”
Wulff’s perspective on maturity is rooted in any number of things, not the least of which is the eyeball test.
During last year’s loss to Oregon, when the Ducks’ Kenjon Barner was lying on the Martin Stadium turf after a brutal hit, being attended to by medical personnel while players on both teams watched in silence.
“I was out there and remember talking to several Oregon players,” Wulff recalled, “and I thought I was talking to 30-year-olds. Turning back to our sidelines, it was like they were all 18. The difference in physical presence between the two was drastic.
“If you’re going to compete, you have to be a mature man. There’s no easy way for that to happen, but anything we can do with our coaching staff to accelerate that, we will.”
The easy joke would be: What took you so long?
But, of course, it’s not so much the length of Wulff’s building project that has agitated the dwindling Cougar masses, but the team’s lack of competitiveness until the latter stages of 2010. Athletic director Bill Moos treated Wulff’s retention for a fourth year rather matter-of-factly, but mostly it came across lukewarm. Whatever the case, everyone seems clear on what the stakes are for 2011.
“These changes were the very hardest thing I’ve had to do as a head coach,” Wulff insisted, “because these were quality coaches who’d proven themselves, and great people, and can coach on all levels. But I also know, in my situation, if I see a need or an area we can improve, it’s my responsibility to do address it. If I can’t do that, then I shouldn’t be in position.”
No matter what it does to his sleep habits.