PULLMAN – Paul Wulff, carrying the mantle as the former Washington State football coach, stepped into the hall and hugged his defensive coordinator, Chris Ball.
The two talked, patted each other on the back and broke apart. Their four-year run at WSU officially came to an end Tuesday when Wulff was fired as the Cougars’ 31st head coach, the first Washington State alum to hold the position in almost 50 years.
The person making the decision was athletic director Bill Moos, who, like Wulff, played offensive line for the Cougars, albeit 10 years earlier.
“The great thing about Washington State University, and being a Coug,” Wulff said, “is that we don’t do it like everybody else. We stick together and we don’t eat our own.
“I believe the innocence of Wazzu has been lost today.”
The reaction to Wulff’s firing around the Bohler Athletic Complex wasn’t one of surprise, especially considering the 9-40 record in his four years at his alma mater.
It was more of disappointment that Wulff, hired by former athletic director Jim Sterk, couldn’t turn WSU into a winning program.
“It’s tough to see someone who I was recruited by, and who got me to where I am today and brought me to this program, leave,” junior quarterback Jeff Tuel said. “It was such a rebuilding process and a lot of us understand that and Coach Wulff has done a tremendous amount for this program. But it’s kind of how the chips fell, you could say.
“I’m a Cougar until the end and whatever happens, happens. I’m going to support whoever comes in.”
It was players such as Tuel, a one-year starter at quarterback in high school, who Wulff and his staff sought out – overlooked, underappreciated, feisty kids willing to deal with defeat so they could turn a program around.
In fact, the process of attracting those type of players is what Wulff said he’ll remember with the most fondness.
“Having the parents and players in my home on Sunday mornings after getting our butts whipped the first couple years,” he said. “And telling them, ‘This is why you’re here. We’re changing that.’
“Having them trusting our mission moving forward. The memory of the trust they got in myself and the staff and growing this program.”
The players knew what they were getting into.
“We kind of understand that something like this could happen if we didn’t start winning games,” said freshman defensive lineman Logan Mayes, whose father, Rueben, is the Cougars’ all-time leading rusher. “But it was one of those things where you just kind of assume the risks. Washington State was a good fit for me.”
And they knew how they could have helped.
“If we would have won more games, he would still have his job,” junior defensive end Travis Long said.
All three players answered the same way when asked what they would tell Wulff when they next talked.
“Thank you for what you’ve done for this program,” Long said, “and all the hard work you put into it. And a big thank you for bringing me into Washington State.”
This year, with a team Wulff said was capable of winning six or seven games, the Cougars finished 4-8, including a 38-21 Apple Cup defeat to Washington to end the season.
Injuries played a part in that record, most notably Tuel’s fractured clavicle, suffered in the season opener.
“It makes it hurt more,” Tuel said. “That’s a lot to put on my shoulders, and it’s unfair in a sense, but I understand completely that I could have changed their future if I were to play.
“But Coach (Todd) Sturdy and Coach Wulff told me from the beginning that’s not the case, to not put that pressure on myself and they were 100 percent honest and loyal to me and my health and never put pressure on me.”
Wulff said Tuesday he felt the Cougars were getting to a place where such injuries won’t be as catastrophic – Connor Halliday, the third-string quarterback when the season began, threw for a freshman-record 494 yards against Arizona State, then suffered a lacerated liver the next week – and a big part of that was letting the program grow.
“When people start getting into that boat,” Wulff said of changing coaches every three or four years, “they never get over the hump. … They’re in the same spot. Look at UCLA, some other schools, they just keep cycling people (in), they never just draw a line and grow. … I don’t want that for my school.”
Although he said he believes it was the right thing for him to answer when his alma mater called, Wulff hesitated when asked if, given the chance, he would do the same thing.
“Hmm,” he said. “Not unless I was guaranteed X amount of years coaching. Like, you know, five.”