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Paul Wulff’s Legacy at Washington State

Washington State athletic director Bill Moos was relatively unmoved by Paul Wulff’s comments earlier this week, when the program’s now-former coach said that “people who know football” knew that he should return for a fifth season. “Those people that don’t, don’t get it,” said Wulff, as recounted by Vince Grippi of The Spokesman-Review. This is a fair point: Wulff, who was relieved of his duties yesterday afternoon, provided more than just a paltry won-loss record for his alma mater; under his watch — as ugly as the results may have been — the program began rebuilding from scratch, on the field and off, and Wulff leaves Washington State on the verge of bowl play in 2012. But… he lost 40 games in 49 tries. Even those who don’t know football know that’s not good enough.

He leaves without much antipathy, at least publicly. “I appreciate all that Paul has done for Washington State football,” said Moss. “He was hired with the objective of rebuilding this program and establishing a solid foundation. For that I thank him.”

This foundation includes a fairly talented crop of skill players, led by quarterback Jeff Tuel, if healthy, and wide receiver Marquess Wilson. This fall, for the first time since 2007, the Cougars averaged more than 100 yards per game on the ground; for the first time since the same year, the Cougars didn’t finish last in the conference in rushing.

Washington State’s final two-deep spoke to the team’s youth: four senior starters on offense — one, quarterback Marshall Loebbestael, replaced an injured Tuel — and two senior starters, including leading tackler Alex Hoffman-Ellis, on defense.

The team Wulff leaves in place for his successor is his immediate memory. There’s enough talent here, on both sides of the ball, to expect Washington State’s next coach to hit the ground running. And the Cougars’ experience level will be better than it’s been in years, thanks to the painful lumps taken by a freshmen-heavy roster over the last two seasons. In terms of numbers, Wulff leaves the Cougars in a fine place.

But his lasting impact will be felt inside the program itself: inheriting a program racked by off-field disciplinary issues — this is putting it somewhat mildly — Wulff had to reverse a losing culture not merely on the field but also off, where the team was not fulfilling its end of the bargain. While the wins came rarely, and only with great difficulty, Wulff surely succeeded in cleaning up Washington State’s act.

I remember one moment of housecleaning in particular. It occurred before Wulff had even coached a game, way back in May of 2008, and it underlined his efforts to remake the program’s reputation. Even though the program was in dire need of a quarterback, Wulff withdrew Washington State’s scholarship offer to high school senior Calvin Schmidtke — one of the state’s best players — after he was arraigned on a laundry list of charges: driving under the influence and drug possession, for starters.

When it came to recruiting student-athletes to Pullman, Wulff weighed personality as heavily as he weighed productivity. Searching for the right fit in the community, Wulff steered far clear of the sort of prospects who might, given free rein, drag the program back into the mud.

It always seemed like cleaning house, winning off the field, was equally important to Wulff as winning on Saturday. This is a byproduct of Wulff’s relationship to the university: this was his alma mater, after all, and Wulff clearly felt the need to impact the program from Sunday to Friday, not merely on game day.

In a way, Wulff took one for the team. The big picture, for this former player, was not about wins and losses — though a few more wins wouldn’t have hurt, to be sure. It was about remaking the foundation of Washington State football from the bottom up, and it’s in that area that Wulff tasted his greatest, and perhaps only, degree of success.

The bottom line: the record may suggest otherwise, but Washington State’s in a far better place today than on the day Wulff was hired in December of 2007. There’s your lasting legacy.

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  1. Mendenhall4Pres says:

    I can’t argue with WSU for wanting to generate some excitement by bringing in a fresh face, but you have to feel bad for Wulff. Much like RichRod at Michigan, he rebuilt the program only to get fired before reaching being able to enjoy the benefits. WSU should be careful, though, because a program-building coach like Wulff is hard to get in Pullman.

  2. Bill Condon says:

    As usual, competing interests are at work here. You are right about Wulff–he really has built a terrific foundation here, and with or without him, WSU should win at least seven games next year, probably eight. So why not wait one more year–since WSU had to pay him a year’s severance anyway? New AD Bill Moos–who does know what he’s doing, let’s be clear–cited essentially PR reasons. He wants to create more excitement about the program sooner than that. In essence, he said that Wulff was gone, this year or next year, so why not show him the door this year and get a bump in publicity. That, imho, is a shame.

  3. taylor says:

    does Wulff get another D-1 head coaching job? everything i see says that he is extremely well-liked and respected. maybe at a non-BCS school. it would be nice to see how he could do when not walking in to such a touch situation.

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