With Sterk out, pressure turns up on Wulff

Washington State coach Paul Wulff lost a valuable supporter this past weekend with the surprise announcement that athletic director Jim Sterk is bolting Pullman for the same position at San Diego State.

While Cougars fans have been -- understandably -- frustrated with a pair of 11-loss seasons in the first two years of Wulff's tenure, Sterk has consistently stood by the man he hired to replace Bill Doba, who left a gaping talent void behind.

The general feeling was that if the Cougars took another step forward competitively in 2010 -- even if that only produced three or four wins -- that Wulff would have a decent shot to coach into his fourth season.

Now, it's hard to say.

New athletic directors often want their "own guy" as their head football coach. A new person might feel the athletic department, which is struggling financially, might benefit from a boost of energy that a new coach might bring.

It might help Wulff's cause if WSU decides to promote John Johnson from associate athletic director. Johnson was recently a finalist for the UNLV AD vacancy, and he's a Spokane native who was part of the group the interviewed and then hired Wulff. He also was athletic director from 1993-97 at Eastern Washington, where Wulff coached before he took over his alma mater, though Wulff was an assistant -- not the head coach -- during Johnson's tenure.

Still, Sterk was the person mostly likely to give Wulff the benefit of the doubt (not to mention that Sterk would note the expense of hiring and firing another coach).

Now he's gone.

After the Apple Cup, a humiliating 30-zip lost to rival Washington, Wulff said the Cougars have "a chance to make a huge step as a team next year. The pieces are there to make a big, big step."

Considering how deep the Pac-10 looks to be in 2010 -- the Cougars will be a consensus pick to finish 10th again -- not to mention a nonconference schedule that includes visits to Oklahoma State and rising SMU, it's hard to predict at this point whether that "big step" could be much better than, say, 3-9.

It would have been hard for Sterk to keep a coach whose three-year mark was 6-31. But he might have tried.

A new athletic director probably won't.