November 25, 2011 in Sports

In his defense, Wulff has made progress

By Correspondent
 

The record invites choler, but you know what really infuriates the football faction that demands Washington State file for divorce from Paul Wulff?

He reminds them that they’re finally getting results commensurate with their level of support all these years.

Who needs that kind of reality?

That makes it ever more urgent to buy another round of group evasion and self-delusion by latching on to the next purported program doctor, whether it’s some faceless coordinator out there in BCSworld or a broadcast booth refugee with baggage and an itch.

Hey, just go get a guy. There’s all that TV money now. Won’t cost us a dime.

And whether he wins or loses with the troops already assembled matters not. Either way, it just goes to show that Wulff wasn’t the guy to get it done, right?

The verdict on the Cougars’ embattled coach will be in soon enough – Monday or Tuesday, according to the sitting judge, WSU athletic director Bill Moos. More so than a year ago, the outcome – or at least the tenor – of Saturday’s Apple Cup in Seattle at Phonebill Field will weigh significantly. If the Cougs make an omelet in the manner they did against, oh, Cal or Oregon State, keeping Wulff will be an ever more difficult sell for Moos, who has a stadium to upgrade and a football HQ to build and desperately needs to energize donors, customers and even strangers to the cause.

Problem is, few are particularly enthused about another year of Paul Wulff, and that’s true even among those who endorse his retention.

Yes, they see progress on the field and the recruiting gains, the uptick in physicality and fight and the ebb in police reports – and that fulfilling the final year on Wulff’s contract is the right thing to do. But the bowl game – even an Acme Jet-Powered Roller Skates Bowl – they were teased with remains a $5 bill taped to fishing line, tugged along beyond reach.

And then there’s that record: 9-39.

Remember in the dismal slog of 2008 and ’09, when Wulff dismissed the 69-0 lashings by insisting the scores didn’t matter – that a loss was a loss? Well, in the long run, he’s been right. That the Cougs no longer lose 69-0 matters less and less; the 39 losses matter a lot.

The case against Wulff is easy enough to make on those numbers alone, but his detractors have a long list. His lack of PR skill – welcome, in one sense, here in the Age of Slick – has been crippling. The frankness in expressing how low the program’s talent and accountability had dropped when he arrived was seen as bad form, and surely it’s gone on too long. And now when it’s time to be accountable for his team’s failures, too often it’s shrugged off as the opponent playing its greatest game ever against the Cougs.

Parsing press conferences, however, is trivial. More damning is the coaching staff churn that tacitly acknowledges Wulff underhired from the start, that he needed more proven, veteran assistants that could have helped with this heavy lifting, to speak truth to power and to better arbitrate what was an attitudinal mutiny among the upperclassmen he inherited.

But lack of investment is a Wazzu tradition. Recall that neither former AD Jim Sterk nor his bosses figured out even a single way to capitalize on the 10-win seasons of a decade ago – and, yes, some of that might be coaching. Maybe those of us who backed the hiring of both Bill Doba and Wulff because of their character, the dues they’d paid and their WSU pedigrees were stuck in an old, sentimental paradigm.

And yet, for all the misery, there is this: the program is coming around. The staff is better, the skill is better (but more linemen, please). There is depth. There is, well, a sense of mission. At Wazzu, you have to have a quarterback and the Cougars have two moving forward. Alas, neither is available for the Apple Cup.

Which is the root of the latest mindless uproar – that there’s something lacking in Wulff’s system, teaching or karma that gets quarterbacks killed, that Connor Halliday’s liver and Jeff Tuel’s collarbone and compartment syndrome fall directly on the coach.

Ay-yi-yi.

It is tempting to root for Wulff to be retained just to further aggravate the Anonymityville Horror out there, just as a change is tempting to see if lead a-Paulogist Jim Walden’s head explodes. As in contemporary politics, there is little fulfillment in being in the middle in this fight: you don’t get to nurse the outrage.

Nor does Moos get to deal in outrage, or old-news gripes. His only questions must be whether Wulff can sustain and further the modest gains he’s made, and whether a fire can be stoked in the constituency so that its financial and attendance support will ever climb from the equivalent of a 1-11 or 2-10 season – where they’ve been forever – to, oh, 4-8.

Whether he’s kept or kicked to the curb, Paul Wulff has – from an ugly ground zero – made Cougar football better. It hasn’t been fast or fun, but he’s made it better.

Can any of those who want him gone say the same?


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