RYAN LEAF: Bring Paul Wulff back!

THERE'S NOTHING like ACL reconstructive surgery to get caught up with old friends. It's also great if you like to watch football. And after two weeks of doing just that while my right knee was wrapped in ice, I came away with a few observations about Cougar football.

I also came away with the word "irony" ringing in my ears. I played football for more than 20 years and never blew a knee. Yet it took just one month out in the fields farming for a friend to see my ACL go up in smoke. And I mean that literally. Not to bore you with details, but suffice to say a very large Ford tractor isn't as easy to elude as a 300-pound defensive lineman.

The good news is that the knee is recovering well and I've watched a ton of football, including every snap the Cougars have taken, and listened to just about every talking head in the nation.

Two of those talking heads were debating Boise State the other day and whether the Broncos belong in the national title discussion.

Think about that for a moment. Boise State. In the national title discussion!

When I think of Boise State, two sets of numbers come to mind -- 4-0 and 58-0. And both are a long way from New Year's Day.

That first pair of digits is WSU's career record against Boise State. And the second pair represents the shellacking our '97 Cougar team put on the Broncs one glorious September day in Pullman.

Flash forward from then to now and Boise State is the toast of the national media while the Cougars are fighting to get a single Division I-A victory. That is what you call a major league reversal of fortune.

Trying to pinpoint where things went wrong after the Cougs' three consecutive 10-win seasons from 2001-03 is not only a very hard thing to do, but also a task that tends to promote pessimism.

When you're struggling, it is sometimes hard to look at the situation from a different perspective and even harder sometimes to look at it without going negative. All you can do is try to improve week in and week out.

And I can tell you flat out that the Cougs are improving on a weekly basis – something that has been very clear in the final scores of the last two games. I'm not trying to put a false spit shine on what is a disappointing start to the 2010 season. If not for a late game fourth quarter rally vs. Montana State the Cougars would be winless right now. And according to Sagarin, the rest of the schedule is about as tough as anybody's in the nation.

As a fan, it's tough to sit back and not want a quick fix. As a player, you just ache because you want to win so bad.

So last week, in between games on TV and ice wraps on my knee, I called some old Cougars who know what it's like to be in the building stages of a program. What was most important, I asked each of them, in their ability to stay positive and stay focused?

I talked with Torey Hunter, one of the cornerstones of WSU's incomparable Palouse Posse defense of the early 90s and a long-time college coach. I talked with Chris Jackson, one of the legendary Fab Five receivers on our 1998 Rose Bowl team and a perennial Arena League all star. And I talked with Kearney Adams, a Cougar receiver from 1994-95 who has one of the keenest minds I know.

All three know frustration. All three also know what it's like to win and go bowling.

The thing that surprised me in talking with these guys is that their comments were so similar. When you are losing, they said, the only thing you can truly embrace is the idea of continual improvement. Getting better every day, step by step, is critical. Improvement doesn't come overnight. It comes from hard work day after day. It comes from paying attention to the little details and striving to perfect yourself in every way.

Coaches all have different ways of motivating their players when the chips are down. Talk to any great coach and he'll tell you that some of his finest work was done in years when the team didn't win much. Those years were a coaching success because real teaching was underway. And it was teaching with a purpose, with a very clear path and very clear goal in mind.

You talk to our 1997 Pac-10 championship team and to a man they'll tell you the foundation was poured in 1995 and 1996. Talk to Torey about the 1992 Copper Bowl and 1994 Alamo Bowl teams and he'll tell you the iron was forged in the dog days of 1990 and ‘91. Talk to Paul Sorensen about the great 1981 team and the first thing he wants to do is reflect on the underpinnings from 1980.

Many times a struggling team will pack it in and not commit to what is the ultimate goal: Winning!! I go back to my own experience and in my first season at Washington State we went 3-8. The best job the coaches did each week was getting us focused on that week's opponent and not necessarily about the broader record. They had us extremely focused at practice and prepared each week for that one opponent.

It was very difficult to lose, but Coach Price kept us thinking about the important things, the fundamentals, the week's routine. The best piece of advice was this: "It's a marathon, not a sprint." Climbing that mountain toward a championship is a long haul and a road that doesn't necessarily have a lot of wins to show for it.

So where am I going with all this, you ask?

To my point. Paul Wulff and this Cougar team have and are doing all the right things. The coaches have recruited well, the players have bought in to what is needed to be winners and they haven't given up on one another despite the losses.

I am reminded of a quote that I really like. I have no idea who said it, but it goes like this: Failure is something we all have to live with, but it's how you overcome it that defines you."

When I watch young Jeff Tuel and even younger Marquess Wilson operating like veterans, it's testament to the progress, to the quest to overcome. When I see the offensive linemen fighting till the whistle blows, it's an endorsement of where we're headed. When I see Sekope Kaufusi jumping out of his skin when the D makes a third-down stop, it's tangible evidence that these guys believe. I see the confidence that Jared Karstetter carries onto the field. He knows – KNOWS – that no one is going to outjump or outfight him for the ball. Daniel Simmons is the same way on the other defensive side.

That's progress.

There isn't a quick fix. There isn't a way to magically turn these losses into victories. But there is a way to look at it all: With perspective. The Cougs are young and haven't been able to put together a full, 60-minute game as of yet. We have seen flashes of the potential this team is capable of, as well as the lack of it at the most inopportune times. Yet the improvement is there. I see it on a week-to-week basis. The plan is in place and needs time to mature.

I'm confident the dedication and improvement I'm seeing will not go unrewarded. Regardless of the win-loss record, when this season ends this team will have stayed the course and set the groundwork for that climb upward. Coach Wulff deserves the opportunity to coach for a fourth season after the work he has done keeping this program together and getting them competitive again in this conference. The University of Arizona presents a great opportunity for the Cougars to build on their improvement. The Wildcats are coming off a disappointing and emotional showing at home to Oregon State after cracking the top 10. Hopefully Martin Stadium will be rocking and our ever-climbing Cougars take another big step back to where we belong.

ON A FINAL NOTE, some of you have no doubt read the Sports Illustrated article regarding agent Josh Luchs and his dealings with college athletes over the years. I was talked about at some length in that story. As I noted on the CF.C message boards the other day, I did indeed associate with Josh back in the 1990s and I freely let him pick up the tab for some nights on the town. In retrospect of course, it wasn't very smart. I never at any time felt I was jeopardizing my eligibility or ever perceived him to be an agent. Be that as it may, I shouldn't have been hanging out with the guy and I'm so sorry that this has portrayed our beloved alma mater in a negative light this week. All of your comments and thoughts have been greatly appreciated. Being a Cougar will be the greatest thing that I ever do and it means the world to me, so thank you again. Until next time my fellow Cougars.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ryan Leaf is a Washington State graduate who quarterbacked the 1997 Cougars to the Pac-10 title, a top 10 national finish and a berth in the 1998 Rose Bowl. He shattered records, earned first-team All-America honors, and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. He later spent four seasons in the NFL, and three seasons as the quarterbacks coach at West Texas A&M. Today, Ryan still keeps many balls in the air. He works in sales and marketing for West Coast Resorts, has become a passionate advocate for those trying to overcome addiction to prescription painkillers, is pursuing varied business interests, and writing a periodic column for CF.C. He can be contacted at rdl16@aol.com.

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