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Originally published November 29, 2011 at 10:00 PM | Page modified November 30, 2011 at 3:46 PM

Steve Kelley

All Washington State needs to win again is the right coach

The future is now in Pullman. Washington State is poised to start winning football games again. The potential has never been greater. All the Cougars need now is the right coach.

Seattle Times staff columnist

quotes Actually, Steve is right on. Wulff, for all his outstanding character and improvements... Read more
quotes You listed some interesting examples in your story. Nebraska has five national... Read more
quotes Agree with most of this...but the talent level at WSU four years ago was WAY worse than... Read more

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Bill Moos did what he had to do. Did, in fact, what he was hired to do.

He took the next step in rebuilding Washington State football Tuesday by firing coach Paul Wulff.

In his four years at WSU, Wulff lost 40 games. He won a mere four conference games. This year's team lost games to UCLA and Utah that it should have won. It lost games to Oregon State and California when it played with an alarming lack of intensity. It lost seven of its last eight games.

Wulff never found a way to excite the Cougars' fan base. Despite the snow, the crowd of 16,000 that attended the final home game against Utah was embarrassingly small.

Wulff deserves credit for restoring order at WSU, a huge accomplishment. But four years after he took over, he still was blaming too many of the Cougars' problems on his predecessor, Bill Doba, and still was throwing too many of his players under the bus.

He needed to be more like Washington coach Steve Sarkisian, who took over another woeful program, but didn't dwell on the negativity of the past. He never slammed the kids he inherited. He showed them what they could become.

Slowly, Sarkisian is changing the culture at Washington and letting his veteran players do the talking about the before and after of Husky football. His success can be a model for Wulff's successor.

The right coach could have the Cougars in a bowl game next season. He can win with Wulff's kids, then build on that success in the same way that Sarkisian has used his success with former coach Tyrone Willingham's players, to recruit freshmen like Kasen Williams, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Danny Shelton.

The new Cougars coach will have to change the attitude of his fan base. Frankly there's a negativity surrounding a large portion of Cougars boosters, a feeling that, "Gee whiz, we're buried in tiny Pullman, in the middle of nowhere, and recruiting against the Pac-12 Conference's giants is impossible."

"That kind of thinking makes me want to puke," said former All-American quarterback Jack Thompson, who has been a Cougar since 1974. "I hate those excuses people throw down."

There's this sense in Pullman that success can't be maintained, that seasons like Drew Bledsoe's nine-win Copper Bowl season, or Ryan Leaf's 10-win Rose Bowl season are anomalies.

It doesn't have to be that way. Why can't WSU be like Boise State? Why can't WSU recruit to Pullman the way Nebraska does to Lincoln, or Oklahoma State does to Stillwater, or Texas Tech has done in Lubbock?

The right coach can make a backwater bustle.

Let's remember that Eugene once was considered a desolate Far West pigskin outpost. The record of the four coaches who preceded Mike Bellotti at Oregon was 128-178-4. Corvallis was even more removed than Eugene. In the 25 years before Dennis Erickson arrived in Corvallis in 1999 and made the Beavers winners, OSU was 57-213.

With the right coach and a re-energized fan base, Washington State can become a consistently good program. There is a history there.

In the 21 seasons before Wulff's ascendancy, the three previous coaches — Erickson, Mike Price, Bill Doba — were a combined 125-117-1. In the early years of this century, Washington State had three consecutive 10-win seasons.

"We needed to capitalize on those three 10-win seasons, and we didn't," Thompson said.

Now it's Moos' job to hire a coach who can sustain winning at Washington State. He needs to find the next Bellotti.

Moos knows what he's doing. He understands how to build a program. All of the success at Oregon started when he was the athletic director there. It started with his vision, his ability to brand, his methodical attention to detail. It was Moos' blueprint that Nike founder Phil Knight followed at Oregon.

Slowly, Moos is laying the foundation at WSU. He is raising money and remodeling Martin Stadium. The program never has been wealthier, the potential never greater. It has enough Pac-12 TV money to hire a quality coach.

The future is now in Pullman. Washington State is poised to start winning again. It has the right athletic director. Now all it needs is the right coach.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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