PULLMAN, Wash. -- When a coach wins just one Pac-10 game in his first two seasons, it's natural for observers to assume he's sitting on the proverbial coaching hot seat.
But Washington State coach Paul Wulff rejects the notion.
"For me, if people knew exactly what we've done and the progress we've made internally and they understood the situation, they wouldn't think I should be on the hot seat," he said. "I don't think I should. And I'm pretty realistic. If I thought I'd done a poor job in some area, and we went down in some areas, then I'd say, 'You're darn right.' But we haven't. And I'm here to fix it."
The Cougars were a mess Wulff's first season. Not only did they lack talent, there were numerous off-field problems. What's more, Wulff encountered a significant amount of resistance from veteran players who didn't buy into his new policies and demands.
"This was a complete rebuilding job in every facet," Wulff said.
Average margin of defeat in Year 1: 41 points.
"No question our first year we had a lot of veteran players who lay down and quit trying," he said.
In Year 2: 29 points.
"We fought, we just lost too much [with injuries]," he said.
But Wulff, who owns a 3-22 record, expects to measure improvement differently in Year 3. It won't be merely about more respectable margins of defeat, he said.
"I know we're going to be a lot better," he said. "And we're not anywhere close to where we're going to be in Year 4 and Year 5. Rebuilding programs don't get rebuilt in three years, especially where we were at."
Still, Wulff has plenty of critics. And it often isn't a good sign when a new athletic director is hired. The conventional wisdom is new ADs aren't patient with coaches of struggling programs and will want to hire their own guys.
But Bill Moos, the Cougars' incoming AD, is a former Cougars football player who was a part of the committee that recommended Wulff's hiring.
"He's always been in my corner," said Wulff, also a former Coug player.
There are plenty of coaching examples of it being darkest before the dawn of success. Ever heard of Mack Brown? He went 1-10 and 1-10 his first two seasons at North Carolina before righting the Tar Heels and punching his ticket to Texas.
Before Greg Schiano became a miracle worker at Rutgers he was considered barely competent. He went 2-9 and 1-11 his first two seasons and didn't post a winner record until year five.
The hot-seat talk will be a part of the preseason conversation, however, whether it's fair or unfair, real or imagined. If the Cougars aren't more competitive in 2010, Wulff's survival into year four will be decidedly questionable.
The players aren't insulated from the negative talk. They are aware that some fans doubt whether Wulff is the long-term answer. They also know there's a simple way to quiet those rumblings: start winning.
"I don't really think about it," defensive end Travis Long said. "He's my coach. I don't worry about him being on the hot seat because he's not winning games. I know what he's doing. I know where we're going. So, after next season, people aren't going to be thinking about him being on the hot seat anymore."
Wulff said the 2010 Cougars will be young but far more talented than his previous two teams. He said recruiting is much better. He noted that an improved strength and conditioning program is starting to have an impact. He pointed out that the program will climb into the 80s in terms of players on scholarship after being in the 70s the past two years.
"We'll have a much more skilled football team and we're going to have competition and it's going to force players to earn spots now versus just falling into starting positions," he said. "There is definitely some confidence with our football team, particularly the younger group. And I feel the class coming in this fall, albeit 18 years old, raw talent wise, is clearly the best we've had. There are some guys there who are special, special players. And they are coming here to turn the program around. They didn't settle on Washington State. They chose Washington State. There's a big difference, and we have those kinds of kids coming into the program."
Said sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel: "I'm here for a reason. We knew the program was down. We want to be the class to rebuild this thing back up and to turn this thing around."
Wulff said that, shortly after being hired, he was visited by former Cougars basketball coach Dick Bennett, who told him to resist looking for the quick fix when the critics started chirping.
Wulff's message to impatient fans? The slow fix is about to show positive results.
"We're not afraid to talk about winning the Pac-10 title and going back to the Rose Bowl," Wulff said. "In fact, it's something that is now talked about a lot."