A Rise to Power

I KEEP HEARING the same thing. Everywhere I go. At <I>The Home Depot</I>. On the golf course. From the ‘experts'. From the ‘gurus'. From the security guards pulling me out of the crawl space above the Head Coach's office at the UW as I tried to eavesdrop on phone conversations, (hell, it worked for that <I>PI</I> writer.) They all say the same thing: History proves Washington State cannot consistently win in college football.

It doesn't bother me so much they think that way.  But I'm surprised they don't realize the landscape has changed.  Drastically.  They're reasonably smart people, after all.  Well, most of them anyway.  Yet they just.. don't.. get it. 


There are different formulas for success that simply did not exist in years past.  The best Washington State used to be able to count on was pulling off a good season once in a while surrounded by a few so-so years.  That is no longer the case.  Not anymore.  And any attempt to prove otherwise is futile ‘cause it just ain't true. 



The last thing other schools could point to where Washington State was lacking was an indoor practice facility.  Those days are over. 


You can't tell from television, but the field inside the $9.7 million IPF is actually longer than a regulation football field and is 7 stories high in the center.  And its okay with me if some find it looks less than perfect from outside.  Heck, paint the Stay-Puf marshmallow logo on the top if you want - I'll still feel the same way about the 87,000 square foot facility.  (Although get some revenue from those confection people, ‘kay?  Thankyouverymuch.) 


Eventually, the IPF's surrounding structure will be completed per the original plans or an updated spec and it'll look more impressive from the outside.  If funds become available over the next 12 months, great.  If those funds are better used elsewhere for awhile, that's fine with me as well.  What matters most is that it's a first class indoor facility.  When elements get fierce on the Palouse during the season AND that players can now run football drills all winter long during the off-season in a true football facility instead of in the gyms, that's what really counts.


Throw in a world-class weight room and a FieldTurf outdoor practice field and you have exceptional facilities that match or surpass other football programs.  About the only thing we don't have is a bathroom in the head coach's office. 


Incidentally, if you're knocked out by the fact you have a bathroom in your office, we'd love to play your football team because your priorities are out of whack, my friend. 



Increased television exposure brought Cougar football into the limelight in recent years.  It wasn't that long ago that you saw one, maybe two games plus the Apple Cup.  Indeed, go back a little further to 1984; the last year the NCAA controlled the TV rights.  The MOST a team could appear on television was twice a year.  Exposure was, to say the least, limited.


Last year, seven regular season games were televised live on cable and network television, including the last five in a row as the Cougs marched towards the Pac-10 title.  The television revenue is substantial – and it provides critical funds for the athletic department.  But along with the additional monies, the publicity might be just as vital. 


High school athletes around the country sit up and take notice when they see Washington State's offensive attack.  They leap to their feet the same way you and I do when our defense flattens a running back for a two yard loss.  And they are very aware of back-to-back 10 win seasons, a trio of Top 10 finishes in 6 seasons, and a pair of Rose Bowl appearances over that same period. 


And its not just athletes, and their parents, that are noticing the Cougs.  It's the high school football coaches as well.  The exposure helps open doors that were previously closed.  Which leads to recruiting.



The internet, 24 hour sports networks, recruiting services, the amount of video available, early signings, football camps - recruiting is more public than ever before.  Its not impossible to find and sign that sleeper pick, but its more and more difficult to find that diamond in the rough.


Ultimately, successful teams establish strong, long term relationships within their state.  Look at the Tacoma connection the Washington State staff has forged over the last decade.  Given that their in-state rival is about 250 miles closer to the greater Tacoma area, that Cougar coaches have established the better tie to that hotbed of talent is impressive.  And Washington State has also made significant inroads in the greater Seattle area over the last few years.  Bonus. 


But you can't just ignore talent that falls beyond your back yard.  California athletes are now a staple on Washington State's roster.  But perhaps the most intriguing trends of late are Hawaii and Canada.  Both pipelines bear watching over the next few years as potential superstars from The Islands and Up North are just beginning their Cougar football careers.


Everyone agrees recruiting is crucial.  But there are a growing number of voices that contend it receives far more than its fair share of credit for wins and losses.  They believe evaluation and recruitment is only the base - - a first step.  How you develop talent is at least as crucial and probably more so.  It's about coaching.  Or perhaps more accurately, it's about teaching.


The Coaches

At Washington State, the coaching staff has a thorough command of the X's and O's of the game. 


Robb Akey enters his first season as Defensive Coordinator armed with an impressive list of defensive ends he's developed at Washington State.  Akey's knowledge of defense is vast - - he studied under a pretty damn good defensive coordinator the last few years.  On the other side of the ball, Mike Levenseller enters his third year as Offensive Coordinator, although this will be the first season we really see Levy's offense.  All indications point to a more balanced, more physical and ultimately more effective offensive attack.


Assistant Head Coach Robin Pflugrad was instrumental in the reemergence of the tight end last season.  This year he has even more weapons at his disposal - - the position is absolutely loaded with both talent and depth.


Mike Walker has coached some of the best defensive tackles Washington State has ever produced during his 6 years - - and he's one of the best recruiters in the game.  Leon Burtnett has just about done it all in college football, and on both sides of the ball.  The linebackers could be an unstoppable force this season under his direction.


Kelly Skipper coached seven backs at Fresno State who earned all-conference honors and three FSU teams ranked in the top 20 nationally in rushing yards per game during his tenure.  All Ken Greene did at Purdue was coach a secondary that allowed less than 200 yards passing a game during his two years.


But there's another advantage here.  These coaches are also phenomenal teachers.  Surprisingly, many coaching staffs are not - - even those that experience success from time to time.  Put another way, look at some of the better teams around the nation when they're forced to go away from their strength.  Take a top passing team: When a defense shuts down their air attack, what happens?  They shift emphasis to the run in order to compensate  - - and the linemen look absolutely lost.  While they've been taught how to provide good pass protection, their run blocking technique is poor.  The coaches didn't stress enough the proper fundamentals. By the way, does that example remind you of anybody?  Oh never mind.


The teaching aspect of coaching in college football remains one of the most valuable yet unheralded skills.  Listen to Coach Bill Doba and you begin to understand. When he talks about his assistants, he mentions not just their ability to coach, but also their ability to teach.


"I think I was most impressed by...the way he teaches players.  When he (coached) here earlier George Yarno was a player and a coach.  Now he is a coach and a teacher," Doba said.


Coach Doba planned on talking to other QB coach candidates after Timm Rosenbach but it was unnecessary.  "We interviewed him and were going to interview others, but decided there was no need to because of the way he taught, his expertise and his organizational skills," Doba said.


And what about Doba himself?  Coaches like coaching for him.  Players like playing for him.  Insiders always realized what a great DC he was but he mostly flew under the radar in other circles.  But now, he's the guy.  There will be much more attention paid to detail in all aspects of the game under Doba's watch.  That translates to wins on the field.  This guy can coach.  This guy can teach.  And this guy can and will win.


Scholarship Limits

Back in the day, Pittsburgh rebuilt their struggling football program with 86 freshmen recruits one year.  Eighty-six.  The following season, scholarship limits were introduced.  But Pitt reaped the rewards from that final unregulated class. Three years later they won the National Championship.


In ‘95, the scholarship limit was decreased further, to its current level of 85.  And this is huge.  Big time college football programs can no longer amass the staggering depth enjoyed in years past.  We're just now seeing the initial effect of that momentous decision eight years later.  And it will become more and more apparent over the next few seasons.


What it means is that every player counts more than ever before.  You need to be able to focus your knowledge, talent and skills in order to develop that recruit into a player that earns league honors, while a recruit with similar talent develops into an average player in another program. 



You need to be able to point to your school's facilities as exceptional.  You need to accurately evaluate talent.  You need to gauge a player's potential - - where he'll be two, three, four years down the road.  You need to use all the tools at your disposal to recruit the student-athletes that have both strong character and mad skillz.  You need a coaching staff that can not only coach, but that can teach. 


Can you still field an average or below average football team year after year?  Of course.  Its not suddenly easy to field a consistent winner.  But the opportunity is there like never before.  If you have smart people running your program and savvy coaching staffs who recognize the new and different ways to excel in college football, its right there for the taking.


Kansas State and Virginia Tech have done just that -- two programs that came from virtually nowhere to achieve astounding success.  There are an awful lot of similarities to Washington State.  Eerily so.  The head coaches' attention to detail, an upgrade in facilities, strong in-state recruiting ties, a commitment to student-athletes of both talent AND strong character, coaches who are also great teachers, increased television exposure -- the list goes on.   


Get ready to hold on.  It's going to be a great ride.


Now if you'll excuse me, I have a crawl space in Montlake to re-investigate.  Wanted to see if that guy has a bathroom in his office and if so, thought I'd jot down a few Support-Hotline phone numbers for him on the wall.  Think he's going to need them.  I'm nothing if not helpful.

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