Don't be surprised if... Washington State

July, 14, 2009
7/14/09
6:41
PM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

Fifteenth in a series of Pac-10 thoughts that might come from unusual angles.

Don't be surprised if ... Washington State athletic director Jim Sterk, no matter what happens this season, remains optimistic that coach Paul Wulff is going to turn things around. 

You review the depth chart. You look at the newcomers. And it's hard to project much success for Washington State's season.

In fact, it's likely the Cougars will be the unanimous pick to finished last in the conference at Pac-10 media day.

So let's say the Cougars win one, two or three games and end up in the conference basement. Does that mean fans should start calling for Wulff's head?

No.

It's impossible to judge a coach on two seasons. And Sterk, who strikes me as a measured decision-maker, knows that and isn't going to panic.

Wulff inherited a program that had lost its direction. Or, to be more direct: He inherited a program devoid of talent and leadership.

That was fairly obvious last year when the Cougars lost games 66-3, 63-14, 66-13, 69-0 and 58-0. It was so bad a 31-0 defeat didn't make the list.

But you know what? Washington was a lot more talented than WSU last year, yet the Cougars showed more character in a comeback, overtime victory in the Apple Cup.  

The team didn't quit. There was a glimmer of hope at season's end and recruiting went fairly well.

It's going to take a while for Wulff to get his players into school and establish his culture and schemes.

If Coug fans need something more than that: Recall the charmed 1997 Rose Bowl season.

What happened next?

WSU won three conference games over the next three seasons. The Cougs lost eight in a row in 1998. They lost to Utah and Idaho -- Idaho! -- at home in 1999. They lost again to Idaho -- Idaho! -- in 2000 and dropped the Apple Cup 51-3.

51-3! (I was at that game. One word: Cold). 

Lots of folks were thinking it was time to kick Mike Price to the curb.

What happened next?

Three consecutive 10-win seasons that ended with top-10 rankings happened next.

Part of the present malaise is due to the program becoming drunk with that success. Former coach Bill Doba admitted as much. After beating Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl, he decide to up the ante in recruiting and go after bigger names.

Didn't work. And those scrappy diamonds in the rough that built those 10-win team went elsewhere (Oregon State perhaps).

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say recruiting just fell apart.

Wulff is a Coug through-and-through. He knows the program. He knows Pullman. While he's had more than his share of muddles during the early-going, the guess here is he's going to figure things out.

It ain't going to happen in 2009, though WSU fans have a right to expect more competitive games.

And it probably ain't going to happen in 2010, though WSU fans have a right to expect an obvious uptick.

But by year four it will be on Wulff.

It will take patience to get there. My guess is Sterk owns that quality.

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