Paul Wulff almost turned Washington State around. Just like he almost kept his job.
But the Cougars going 4-8 this year after winning just five games the previous three years wasn't, in the end, enough to convince athletic director Bill Moos to retain Wulff for the final year of his contract.
“Paul and I met at length Sunday, and then spoke again this morning, after which I determined the best path for Cougar football moving forward is to have a change of leadership,” Moos said in a statement. “I appreciate all that Paul has done for Washington State football. He was hired with the objective of rebuilding this program and establishing a solid foundation. For that I thank him.”
Whoever replaces Wulff has a good chance to push the needle forward substantially next fall, starting with there being two talented quarterbacks on the roster in junior Jeff Tuel, the promising 2009 and 2010 starter who was hurt this year, and redshirt freshman Connor Halliday, who put up big numbers late in the season before getting hurt himself.
The Seattle Times reported over the weekend that Wulff would be fired and that former Texas Tech coach Mike Leach was the top target. The first part of that has come true. The question now is the second. Leach's name has been attached to a number of jobs, but he would seem to be a good fit for Washington State, even with his well-known baggage.
For one, he'd have two good options to get his high-flying passing attack off the ground. Second, he'd be working for a strong athletic director who wouldn't get nervous over a controversial comment or two. (Moos, in fact, is the sort to recognize the publicity might be more of a good thing than a bad thing.) And Pullman is the Pac-12's Lubbock, only with better bars.
Of course, to hire Leach or any other name candidate, the Cougars are going to have to pay more than the $600,000 Wulff was making (and will be paid for the last year remaining on his contract).
In fact, you might have noticed that the four Pac-12 coaches who have been fired this season rank from the middle down in annual salary in the conference, which means they were paid below market rate for AQ conferences. Wulff was the conference's lowest-paid coach.
It's hard to imagine Leach not expecting at least $1.5-$2 million. Leach's last contract with Texas Tech was a five-year, $12.7 million deal.
As for Wulff, he paid for the deliberateness of the program's progress under his watch. He went 3-22 his first two seasons with one Pac-10 victory -- over winless Washington in 2008 -- and coached what might have been the worst AQ conference team both years.
In 2010, the Cougars were far more competitive but finished only 2-10, with a lone conference win at Oregon State. This year, they started 3-1, lost five in a row, posted a shocking upset of Arizona State, then saw their bowl hopes end in overtime against Utah. A 17-point loss to Washington in the Apple Cup, however, likely sealed Wulff's fate.
There were a lot of what-ifs, and Wulff fought passionately for another year throughout the season, sometimes even bothering Coug fans with the frequency with which he called the program he inherited the "worst in BCS football." Wulff was probably right, but fans get tired of hearing that, both from an emotional perspective and from the perspective of it sounding like an excuse after four years.
Wulff didn't immediately return a message requesting comment.
This is an emotional day, and not just for him. While Cougars fans were mostly split on Wulff, few view his falling short with any bitterness. He was a former Coug player. It was clear he always got what Washington State football is about. If he had succeeded, he didn't seem like the sort who would have quickly bolted for a bigger paycheck and a bigger spotlight.
That was part of the appeal when he was hired. It just didn't produce enough winning.
One of Wulff's problems was loyalty. He brought most of his staff over from Eastern Washington when he could have used more coaches with Pac-12 experience. He made numerous changes over the past two years, bringing in veteran coaches, and that paid off on the field. Just, again, not enough.
It will be interesting to see where Wulff lands. He seems like a guy who might have learned some hard lessons he might apply when he gets his next gig.
As for the Cougars, the program has won before and will win again. While some folks with short memories try to cast it aside as an AQ backwater, Washington State has played in two Rose Bowls since 1997. It beat Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl. It won 30 games and finished ranked in the final top 10 three consecutive seasons from 2001-2003. A good coach who knows how to evaluate and develop talent can win there.
And the cupboard Wulff leaves behind is hardly bare. It's not farfetched to imagine a bowl game in 2012. For real.
But to get the right coach, Moos is going to have to do one of two things: 1. Get some money to pay a guy like Leach; 2. Have a really good eye for an up-and-comer who might not create much buzz but can coach like heck.
Of course, that's what Moos and others thought Wulff was in 2008.