MOORE: A talk with Wulff, and hope returns

BELLEVUE -- I've been paying close attention to Cougar football since 1974 when I came to the WSU campus as a freshman from Redmond and moved into Gannon Hall. So what's that, 36 years?

I am actually laughing at the thought of that -- have I really been watching Cougar football and agonizing over it for 36 years? Guess so. When I left school in '78, I became a sportswriter, and one thing about being a sportswriter, it can take the fan out of you once you find out what goes on behind the curtain.

For instance, I was a big Sonics' fan until I started covering the team and had to deal with Gary Payton on a daily basis. Once that happened, I didn't care if the team won or lost, and in fact, I sometimes preferred it when they lost because that meant Payton was unhappy – the guy was a handful for defenders and reporters.

And I ended up becoming a crusty old scribe who doesn't really root for the Seattle teams anymore, all the teams I used to root for – the Mariners, the Seahawks, I mean, I still hope they win but I don't actively root for that to happen. And believe it or not, as a kid, I loved the Huskies, but I really hope they don't win anymore.

The point is this, I told myself a long time ago that being a sportswriter might take the fan out of me, but I will NEVER stop rooting for my alma mater's football team. And make no mistake about it, I watch our basketball team and pull for them too, but I'm a lot more interested in our football team.

SO THE LAST two years have been particularly hard. Let's be honest here. To repeat, I've been watching Cougar football for 36 years so I've seen some bad football, some really bad football, but nothing that came close to the last two seasons.

Until last year, I had never sat in Martin Stadium and heard fans cheer an incomplete pass. Why would they cheer when the ball hit the turf? That meant we didn't lose any yards on the play. That was the game in which our QBs were sacked 12 times by Arizona State.

BUT EVERY TIME I talk to coach Paul Wulff, I get more and more hopeful. And I talked to him again at the Golf Club at Newcastle during the Cougar Golf Classic on Thursday.

He said we'll be better, a lot better.

He talked about the offensive and defensive lines, the team speed, the special teams, everything.

"There's no reason why all of it won't be much improved," he said.

I ASKED WULFF what it will be like to finally be a coach again and not a fix-it man. Honestly, how can we judge him as a coach with what he's been working with, subpar talent across the board in his first two seasons? Now he has some players who can compete in the Pac-10.

"I'm fortunate I've had the support in the (athletic) department," he said. "It's been very painful. It's been tough on my family and (assistant) coaches' families. We're working as hard as we can to bring Washington State back to the level we all want it to be.

"I don't blame people for being upset. If I weren't the head coach, as a former player, I'd be upset that this team is poor."

IT'S PRETTY MUCH the prevailing thought that we'll be better this year. But what does that mean? It might not show in the record again – looking at the schedule, who will be favored to beat besides Montana State?

"Wouldn't you be happy with four wins?" Matt Bryan asked his buddy, Curran Hagstrom, on the same putting green where I spoke to Wulff.

"I'd be ecstatic," Hagstrom said, "but we're not gonna win four games."

"If all things come together, it'll work," Bryan said. "If it doesn't, it's gonna be another colossal disaster."

Though he thinks a 4-8 record is out of the question, Hagstrom is otherwise optimistic, saying: "I'm pumped. I've been calling this the NPWE – the New Paul Wulff Era. All my Husky friends think it's impossible to have a new era after two years, but we've finally gotten rid of that JV high-school Doba team."

Added Bryan: "I think Paul Wulff does have a handle on what he wants to do with the program as opposed to the last staff that was just throwing darts."

WULFF MAINTAINS THAT the way he's building the program, Washington State will have the potential to win seven games or more on a consistent basis. He could have taken short-cut, quick fixes, but that wasn't part of the plan that he laid out during his interviews when he got the job. He wants long-term success for Cougar football. (For reference, USC in the modern era has averaged 7.8 wins/season while Michigan, the all-time winningest CFB program in history, has averaged 7.76 over that same span.)

"I've followed through with that exact plan," Wulff said. "I have 100 percent confidence that it's going to work."

For two years he's been questioned and criticized.

"I have to admit it's gotten to the point where I'm tired of defending myself. I'm done trying to defend myself," he said.

And how will he feel when Cougar football is truly back? If I were him, I'd have a hard time resisting the urge to flip the bird to those who doubted me. Wulff laughed and said: "You find out who your true friends are, who the true Cougars are."

I'M LOOKING FORWARD to the day when the Cougs get back at the teams that ran up the score on them the last two years. I'm thinking of the on-side kick that USC used against us in the second quarter of last year's game. I will root against Pete Carroll as Seahawks coach just for that alone.

But then again, I must remember, too, that Carroll told his QB to take a knee on our 10-yard line before the end of the first half two years ago. That, I believe, is an unprecedented show of mercy in college football – taking a knee in the first half when you could score again but why do that when you're already beating the crap out of your opponent?

But the team I'm hoping the Cougs lay it on the most is Oregon State.

Was it last year or the year before – I forget, there have been so many poundings – when the Beavers were ahead of us 24-13 at the half. Then in the second half, they outscored us 42-0, and I'll never forget the woman behind me shouting for the Beavs to score 70 when they were already at 66. I wanted to strangle her then and still want to strangle her now.

Two years from now, I want to see the look on her face when Jeff Tuel throws six touchdown passes against her Beavers and we sing the fight song with the team at Reser Stadium.

"Payback will be coming," Wulff said. "(Those defeats) aren't in the back of my mind, sometimes they're in the front of my mind. Do we have chips on our shoulders? No question. If you're a Cougar football player, you better have a chip on your shoulder."

But overall, I've lowered my expectations of Cougar football. I always wanted to go to a Rose Bowl once in my lifetime, and I've been there twice. Now I just want a Las Vegas Bowl. That's it, one measly Las Vegas Bowl, with Cougars frolicking on the strip in Sin City, drinking and gambling and having a festive holiday after we beat New Mexico or somebody like that.

"Is there a better bowl for a Cougar fan?" Wulff asked.

THAT's DOWN THE road, maybe next year or the year after. I'll be patient. In the meantime, I'll still be going to games, or watching them on TV, or listening to Bob Robertson and Jim Walden on the radio – God I love those guys.

"I think we'll win some ballgames and be very competitive," Wulff said. "If we lose games, I want ‘em to be close losses. And I don't care if we win by 1 or 30.

"There's light. We see light. And there's a lot of it."

A 1978 WSU alum, Jim Moore also writes for seattlepi.com and jimmoorethego2guy.com. You can listen to him weekdays from 3 to 6 p.m. on "The Kevin Calabro Show" on 710 ESPN Seattle or online at mynorthwest.com.


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