Coping Bill Doba is fit, rested, relaxed

THE WEATHER OFFERED a fitting metaphor. A year ago the skies were dark, the golf course drenched. Bill Doba had the exhausted look of a first-time marathoner. Last week, the King County Cougar Classic was blue skies and 85 degrees. Bill Doba looked fit, rested, relaxed. The emptyness never leaves when your wife of nearly 45 years is claimed by cancer. But 13 months later, it's clearly easier.

Asked just before tee time at the Newcastle Country Club if he had a moment to chat, Doba was welcoming. "Have a seat," he said, gesturing to the spot next to him in the golf cart.

Probably expecting a question about the merits of the 3-4 defense or the health of Aaron Johnson's back, the Cougars' head man may have been caught off guard.

Coach, it's been over a year now since Judy died -- how are you doing?

He offered no bravado about keeping a stiff upper lip. There was no knee-jerk enthusiasm about embracing life's new chapter.

He paused, looking not at the questioner but out into the horizon. The expression alone told how much he misses her.

"I'm doing okay," he said softly. "It's not easy -- we were married 45 years. It never goes away, but it's better."

Extra hours at the office -- if that's possible for a college coach -- have helped. And chores around the house are welcome. "When you come home at night it's good to have something to do -- the laundry, cooking -- you don't want to be staring at the walls or parked in front of the TV watching Law & Order," he says.

His lean physique stems from eating his own cooking, he jokes. The menu is mostly grilled steak or spaghetti with mushrooms. "The sauce comes from a jar, but it's organic so I'm being healthy," he chuckles.

The three Doba children, all grown, call frequently -- the mere thought of which makes Doba smile. On weekends, when time allows, he likes to fish or golf.

Keeping busy is key to taking the edge off the heartache.

You get the sense he is touched to be asked about Judy while at the same time saddened with the reminder of his loss.

Asked if he wants to change topics, he is succinct: "Sure."

SO, COACH, HOW how about those Wisconsin Badgers on Sept. 2?

"If I had known a few years ago how good they were going to be, I never would have scheduled the game," he quips. "Actually, this will be good for our team. And our fans will love it back there -- it's a great venue.

"The band plays after the game and no one leaves the stadium. I think playing someone that tough makes you better. We have three non-conference games. Ideally, I'd like to play one Big Ten or SEC team every year."

The Badgers finished 12-1 last season, ranked fifth in the nation, and are widely considered to be a top 10 team again this year.

Doba talks as he walks to the tee box. Hoops coach Tony Bennett, playing in the group behind, hollers over that it's time for driving, not talking. Doba doesn't skip a beat, instantly moving on to how he had the pleasure of golfing with Tony's dad, Dick, the day before in Coeur d'Alene. He keeps talking as he tees up and takes a couple practice swings.

Even when he comes set, he's still talking. It's little wonder alums love getting paired with him at these events. He may not be Jim Walden, the viceroy of verbiage, but he's definitely an admiral of affable.

There's a brief pause and Doba drills his Cougar-logo Titlist long but a smidge right.

"OK, one of you young guys is going to have to get it done for us," he says to his three scramble partners, ranging in age from about 25 to 35. Two of them look young enough to be Cougar players. Doba calls them "limberbacks." Later, when one sinks a long putt, Doba's infectious praise and pat on the back offers insight to why his players stay in touch with him years after their playing days are done.

"My goodness, he's a competitor," Doba says, picking up on the Dick Bennett commentary that he was in the middle of before teeing off. "He doesn't say a word walking down the fairway, keeps his head down, like he's playing the Master's. I'm saying, geez Dick, lighten up."

WHEN AN ERRANT SHOT from the neighboring fairway sails into Doba's cart, head high, where he'd been sitting moments earlier, he is non-plused and finishes talking about why he's optimistic about the 2007 season.

"The positives are a quarterback with 28 career starts, three really good receivers and a stable of tough kids at running back," he says.

And the negatives?

Without hesitation, he responds: "We have to shore up the secondary."

Indeed, he must replace three starters from last season and the reviews out of spring ball -- especially at cornerback -- were mixed. He's looking for summer arrivals Devin Giles and Chima Nwachukwu to heat up the corner competition, which will include returnees B.T. Walker, Markus Dawes, Brian Williams and Ryan Kensok. At strong safety, JC All-American Terry Mixon will challenge fifth-year senior Christian Bass and third-year sophomore Xavier Hicks. Senior Husain Abdullah, at free safety, is the lone returning starter in the secondary.

And who will be coaching the cornerbacks, following Ken Greene's departure?

"We've got a couple of people we're looking at and will bring in for interviews," he said. He won't reveal names and suggests that the eventual hire may not -- as so many of his assistants have -- come from within the Cougar family.

As for Greene, around whom the grapevine has buzzed since the Spokesman-Review reported that he was dismissed for conduct, Doba offers up the company line and no more: Greene resigned to pursue other career opportunities and to be closer to his children in San Diego.

When the subject turns to his incoming recruiting class, Doba reiterates his long belief that this is the finest collection he's assembled since becoming head coach in 2003. Several on defense will be looked to for immediate contributions and two on offense -- the 300-pound Lesuma brothers, Vaughn and Reed -- figure to see plenty of PT. Academics, he said, may sidetrack two or three members of the class, but even with that attrition he thinks the group ranks at the top of his five hauls as head man.

AFTER THREE HOLES of drives, pitches and putts intermingled with questions, answers and plain old banter, it's time to turn the coach over to his playing partners. True to his profession, he's a competitor, focused keenly on club selection and the slopes of the greens. There's a time to talk about the pros and cons of text messaging and the health of the defensive line.

But right now, the sun's out and he's on a golf course surrounded by well wishers. It's the type of day that helps keep the heartache at arm's length.

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