It’s been water cooler talk for over a year and now seems to be the topic of every Cougar fan and local radio show’s conversation: Should Washington State fire coach Paul Wulff at the end of the season?
The Cougars have lost five straight games, and Saturday’s showdown with Arizona State at 7:30 p.m. in Martin Stadium could go a long way in answering the questions surrounding Wulff’s future.
Fair or unfair, that appears to be the reality.
While many around the program, including the players, are excited about the team’s future, some vocal fans have not been as patient with the rebuilding process.
“I’m not ashamed of that. I’m here to fix that issue,” Wulff said. “I know that everyone wants it done really quickly. Ain’t gonna happen, and it will never happen when the situation is what it was here.”
“The Locker Room,” a radio show on 1510 KGA in Spokane, conducted a poll this week for its listeners as to Wulff’s future and the result was astounding — “keep him” and “fire him” were separated by just one vote.
Wulff is 8-38 in nearly four seasons as the head coach and has produced a 3-30 conference record, including a current run of five-straight losses. That’s a record that screams, “Time to move on.”
But that’s a gut reaction. The Cougars were a mess when Wulff took over in December 2007, and it was clear that patience would be the key to turning Washington State into a contender once again.
Those who want Wulff out say it’s been long enough, while supporters point to a young, deep roster that is beginning to blossom with playmakers.
So, fire him or keep him?
The answer just isn’t that simple.
When Wulff took over the program, the Cougars were a disaster — both on and off the field. The NCAA had taken away eight scholarships in 2007-2008 and 25 players were arrested in less than two years. Not to mention the roster included several players who simply weren’t able to compete at the Pac-12 level, as evidenced by the fact that the roster currently holds just five fifth-year seniors and 11 fourth-year players — compared to 28 third and second-year, and 33 first-year, guys.
“When this football team went to bowl games, those fifth-year players had numbers in the 15-20’s, same thing with the fourth-year players,” Wulff said. “You didn’t have just five, and you didn’t just have 11. That’s the reality of where this program is at. It’s had to be rebuilt from the depth as far as it can be.”
This season, Washington State was dealt a blow when quarterback Jeff Tuel fractured his left clavicle in the season opener and has not rounded into form since.
“We lost our leader in the first game of the season and that’s had an impact, obviously, overall, in some of the games, but that’s something we can’t control,” Wulff said.
The Cougars leading rusher is a redshirt freshman (Rickey Galvin) and the leading receiver, Marquess Wilson, is just a sophomore, highlighting the potential the Cougar offense may have in the near future.
It hasn’t just been the youth of this team that has been an issue this season, however. The schedule has been overwhelming, with the Cougars having played just once at home — against Stanford — since their Sept. 10 clash with UNLV. It’s not the type of forgiving schedule that has a rebuilding team believing a bowl game is on the horizon.
“This is our home. Is it Martin Stadium? That’s what it’s called?” linebacker Alex-Hoffman Ellis joked. “I’ve said it before, I really love playing here — our fans, our student section, our stadium. It’s gonna be rocking, as it should be.”
When Wulff arrived, a 3-1 start may have left Washington State players feeling a sense of accomplishment that could carry them through the season, but now, the group is hungrier and works to accomplish larger goals.
“We’re not satisfied. We want to win games and go to bowl games,” Wulff said. “We’ve got all the ingredients. They’re just still a youthful group of players. Our off-the-field issues are better, our strength is better, our work ethic is greatly improved. We’ve got all the right ingredients, but like I said, we’ve got a youthful team. Our numbers don’t lie.”
No, they don’t.
If the Cougars lose their final three games this season, it will set the four-year record for most losses by a Pac-10/12 school — an 8-41 record for Wulff. While teams haven’t always played 12 games in a season — skewing the numbers — the epic accumulation of losses, which would include eight straight to the end the season, is not in Wulff’s favor.
Even more alarming is that Washington State players are aware of their coach’s potential dismissal — even if they don’t spend much time talking about it on-record — and have come out flat two of the last three weeks, in Seattle against Oregon State and at Cal. In fact, the team keeps making many of the same mistakes week in and week out.
The doubt about whether to keep or fire Wulff will permeate this program for the remainder of the season. If the Cougars end the year with an eight-game losing streak (and the worst four-year streak in conference history) it will be difficult not to make a change.
But the Cougars are close to a turnaround, and that’s thanks to Wulff.
In an era where coaches are hired and fired season-to-season, Wulff took a chance on the Washington State program, knowing he’d face criticism while he tried to repair a severely damaged program.
Will Washington State take one more chance on him?
Andrew Nemec can be reached at (208) 882-5561 ext. 230, via email at email@example.com, or on Twitter at AndrewNemec.