Wulff quickly putting his imprint on Washington State program

PULLMAN, Wash. -- What's the worst thing that could happen to a child? Both parents dying? That would be horrible. But Paul Wulff, Washington State's new football coach, endured something even more excruciating when he was 12 years old.

His mother disappeared on a July night in 1979. Significant evidence suggested she was murdered. And it pointed toward one suspect.

Wulff's alcoholic father.

The terrible story doesn't end there. Dolores Wulff's body was never found, and investigators never were able to build a strong enough case to put Carl Wulff before a jury.

Carl Wulff, alone and estranged from his children, took his secrets to the grave three years ago.

What's the worst thing that could happen to a husband? His young, vibrant wife dying? Paul Wulff also knows how that feels. His first wife, Tammy, his college sweetheart, died in his arms in 2002 after a five-year battle with brain cancer. She was 39.

Friedrich Nietzsche said, "What does not kill me makes me stronger," and if that's true then Wulff, a man who's borne burdens unfathomable to most, should be up to the task of leading Washington State out of the Pac-10 doldrums.

"He is and will be just exactly what the Cougars need," said former Washington State coach Jim Walden, who recruited Wulff out of Davis, Calif., to the Palouse.

"He understands Washington State. And he's not a hard guy to get behind because when he says things, it clicks."

Wulff, 41, was hired because of who he is -- a talented leader who built Eastern Washington into a I-AA contender and a former Cougars player who loves his alma mater and understands the challenges and benefits of being a rural school in the big-city Pac-10.

But his backstory gives him a certain heft, a gravitas even. A guy who's been through what Wulff has been through doesn't figure to believe he's the center of the universe. Spend a few minutes with him, and it's clear he's not going to obsess about the latest German sedan or magazine covers or his reflection in the mirror, like many college coaches.

Sure, he'll talk about his past -- he understands the curiosity -- but he resists being turned into a Dickens character. He continually redirects the discussion from himself to the extended family on his mother's side that raised him and how his older siblings and aunts and uncles made sure he stayed on track.

"It forces you to grow up and see things as an adult sooner than you should, but there were a lot of people who protected me," he said. "It was tough sometimes, but I never really got in trouble because people kept me on track. Where I used it was in football. When I got to about 15 and started playing, everything came out. I had a high level of anger, a high level of aggression. It was a great outlet for me."

That outlet attracted the attention of most of the Pac-10, but Wulff wanted out of California and out of the city. That's why he chose Washington State.

Walden said that, while he knew of Wulff's background from the first time he saw a recruiting profile, the two never talked about the tragedy. In fact, Wulff told few people what he'd been through, though it was hard to hide it when he left campus in December of his freshman year to attend his father's murder trial, which ended quickly when the judge dismissed the charges, in large part because of the six-year lapse between the crime and the indictment.

Wulff went on to start at center for four years (1986-89) under three coaches: Walden, Dennis Erickson and Mike Price. He became part of Cougars lore when he played in the Apple Cup against hated rival Washington his senior year less than three weeks after having his appendix removed, though Price's annual retelling tended to shorten the span to a week.

When a brief professional career ended, he and Tammy jumped into an '84 VW Rabbit and drove to Cheney, Wash., which is 70 miles from Pullman. They moved into a trailer, and Wulff began his climb at Eastern Washington -- from volunteer assistant to offensive line coach, to offensive coordinator and, in 2000, to head coach.

Tammy's cancer was first diagnosed in 1997. That became a five-year ordeal of draining treatments and dashed hopes. Less than 10 months before her death, an MRI exam showed her free of cancer.

"What was tough when she passed away was that the two closest women in my life had vanished from me -- my mom and my wife," Wulff said. "That was hard."

Yet he leaned on his faith and persevered. Three of his past four Eastern Washington teams reached the I-AA playoffs, including his 2007 squad that finished 9-4 and lost to eventual champion Appalachian State 38-35 in the quarterfinals.

He also remarried and he and his wife, Sherry, have three children.

After WSU coach Bill Doba resigned under pressure in November, Wulff's name didn't top many "hot" lists as a potential replacement. With Walden and other insiders pushing hard, however, Wulff moved ahead of the other two finalists, former Louisville and Michigan State head coach John L. Smith, and Kevin Sumlin, who was Oklahoma's co-offensive coordinator in 2007 and is now the head coach at Houston.

During his introductory news conference, Wulff immediately churned the stagnant waters of the rivalry with Washington, proclaiming his deep dislike of Husky purple and opining, "Dogs hunt and bark, but Cougars fight and kill."

A few humorless fussbudgets took offense, but Wulff still refuses to back down and appears, in fact, to enjoy the ruffled fur.

"You've got to be so politically correct about everything," he said. "I'm not here to stir anything up or attack individuals. I'd never do that. But to have fun with it? To have that intensity? There's nothing like it. That's my intent."

Wulff, a hands-on coach who's not afraid of mixing it up with his players, also quickly moved to put his imprint on the program. He's installing a no-huddle offense that put up big numbers at Eastern Washington and demanding increased accountability off the field, both in terms of conduct and academics, two areas that have been fairly gray for the Cougars in recent years.

He also said he intends to be available to his players if they need to talk about issues in their lives. His experiences might come up; they did at Eastern Washington. But he's not into grand speeches. Many of his new players apparently remain unaware of Wulff's life story.

"That's all new to me," said a slightly stunned Vaughn Lesuma, a senior offensive tackle.

"Things make a little more sense now. He's a great guy and you can tell he's learned from a lot of life experience. We can feel his leadership presence. You can tell he's there for you. You want to go to war with someone who cares about you. I'm sad to hear that but it shows how he's such a strong person. He's been through a lot, obviously. I'm grateful to know that."

The Cougars may struggle in 2008. There are holes on both sides of the ball and a decided lack of depth. While Wulff is far from waving a white flag over bowl hopes following a four-year drought, his biggest call to arms during spring practices is a culture change.

"The battle cry here on this football team is leadership," Wulff said. "But there are multiple definitions of leadership. The one we use here is service. How can you make people around you better. It's not, 'What's in it for me?' It's, 'How can I help you?'"

It's hard to imagine that Wulff didn't at times in his difficult life want to shake his fist at the heavens and demand, "What's in it for me?" But he resisted the bitterness and never allowed it to consume or define him.

Makes it hard to bet against him helping the Cougars.

Ted Miller is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ted at tedmillerespn@gmail.com.