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Originally published Wednesday, December 12, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

WSU's natural selection

Paul Wulff. The name doesn't splash you in the face as it might if Washington State had gone out and hired Steve Spurrier of South Carolina...

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Paul Wulff. The name doesn't splash you in the face as it might if Washington State had gone out and hired Steve Spurrier of South Carolina or Greg Schiano of Rutgers.

Ha. The Cougars will always be the Cougars, groping for change that might have fallen down the heating ducts, fighting the good fight against impossible demographics.

They have to outsmart people because they're never going to outspend them.

Ergo: Paul Wulff, latest head football coach at Washington State.

"He hit a home run," said Jim Sterk, the athletic director, talking about Wulff's interview and vision for the program.

Down at the airport in Phoenix, where he was embarking on a recruiting trip, Dennis Erickson couldn't say enough about Wulff. Now at Arizona State, Erickson coached the 9-3 Cougars of 1988, who had an offensive line — with Wulff alternating at center — as good as anybody in the nation.

"Best I've ever had," Erickson said. "That offensive front was as good as I've ever seen. We ran the ball on just about everybody.

"Paul was a tremendous competitor. Smart. Obviously when you play center, you've got to understand what's going on.

"He does a tremendous job of evaluating players, and then turning them into really good players."

A debate of sorts has always surrounded Washington State football: Look inward — or nearby — for candidates, or be daring and set out into the great unknown. The embers of that argument smolder from three decades ago, when, in an infamous four-year run, the Cougars had Jim Sweeney, Jackie Sherrill, Warren Powers and Jim Walden.

Talk about your four seasons.

Sherrill and Powers came from time zones away. They hightailed it out at the first hint of an opening elsewhere.

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After that, there was often a scent of home cooking with WSU. Walden came off Powers' staff. Erickson's father, Pinky, had coached at WSU. Mike Price had gone to school there. Price begot Bill Doba, Wulff's predecessor. And when Doba took over, he had a staff that included five WSU graduates, most alumni on any Division I-A staff except Nebraska.

So the skeptics will say WSU did it again. But guess what? Wulff is the first grad of the school (Price got his degree at Puget Sound) to become coach since Phil Sarboe in the immediate post-World War II years.

Not being associated with WSU should never be a deal-breaker. But everything else being relatively equal, being an alum of the school counts for more than it does elsewhere, because winning there is such a challenge and the place has such a hold on many alums.

"He understands how it works," says Erickson. "He understands the university. When he goes into a home [recruiting], he can tell 'em how it is."

Couple that with Wulff's knack at Eastern Washington for turning modestly rated prospects into high achievers, and this is a natural. His standout quarterback this year at Eastern, sophomore Matt Nichols, came out of Northern California without much of a look even from nearby Sacramento State. He became Big Sky offensive player of the year.

Just five days ago in his office at WSU, Doba talked about a player who had washed out of the program with attitude and academic issues. The player was enough of an influence on several players that he dragged them down with him.

The Cougars absolutely can't afford that. They're counting on Wulff's instincts not to let it happen.

From Eastern, he apparently will bring five assistant coaches. Two ex-Cougars who are going to go hard after the position of quarterbacks coach are the two who led the program to its recent Rose Bowls, Jason Gesser and Ryan Leaf. Running-backs coach Steve Broussard likely will be retained, and Wulff ought to try to keep two others around, receivers coach Mike Levenseller and offensive line coach George Yarno.

If it hadn't been Wulff, then whom? It would have been intriguing to witness Mike Price, the sequel, but Price would have returned with baggage. Like Price, John L. Smith would have come with age questions.

A minority coach, maybe Kevin Sumlin, the Oklahoma assistant? His résumé doesn't match Wulff's. Fired UCLA coach Karl Dorrell was out there, but this simply didn't fit.

"When they offered the job," said Wulff, "it was a no-brainer."

In the final analysis, that cut both ways.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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About Bud Withers
Bud Withers gives his take on college sports, with the latest from the Huskies, Cougs, and the rest of the Pac-10.
bwithers@seattletimes.com | 206-464-8281

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