Doba puts Washington State's win in perspective

The fans stormed the field and Washington State coach Bill Doba soaked in the celebration. With a 34-23 victory over No. 16 Oregon, the Cougars had posted their first victory over a ranked team since whipping fifth-ranked Texas in the 2003 Holiday Bowl, and the postgame frenzy invigorated a program that is pushing itself back into the top half of the Pac-10.

It was a special moment, redemptive after two mostly dreary seasons, one that Doba wanted to savor with Judy, his wife of 43 years.

But Judy Doba wasn't at Martin Stadium, nor was she waiting for her husband at home. Judy Doba died last April after a four-year struggle with ovarian cancer.

When the subject is broached, Doba lets out of a sigh. His response is barely audible, and even before the words form it's clear that winning football games -- even big football games -- doesn't make coming home to a dark, quiet house any easier.

"It always helps to have good things happen," Doba said. "But I'd like to have shared it with her."

Doba may be the nation's most likable college football coach. He's folksy, honest, unpretentious and affable, whether he's dealing with his players, the media, WSU students or fans on the street who want to talk football for a moment.

"Coach Doba is a different breed of head coach," said quarterback Alex Brink, a member of Doba's first recruiting class after he took over for Mike Price in 2003. "He legitimately knows and cares about his players."

Last year couldn't have been more difficult. At home, Judy's health was declining. Doba told a handful of reporters about her situation, but only on the condition they wouldn't write about it. Neither wanted the publicity, particularly Judy, and Doba made sure that was the way it was going to be.

But that also meant fans didn't know of any reason to curb their rage as a second-consecutive losing season spun fecklessly along. Since the Cougars piled up 30 victories and three top-10 finishes from 2001-03, fans had become accustomed to success and forgot that the team had won just three conference games from 1998-2000.

It would be hard to imagine a more painful route to a 4-7 finish last season. After a 3-0 start, the Cougars lost seven in a row, including four games by three points and another by four. In nearly all of those defeats, the players watched fourth-quarter leads disappear.

Some fans wanted Doba fired. Others wanted him to resign. Meanwhile, Doba was pulling his hair out trying to buck up his team's sagging confidence while going home at night to see the love of his life bravely fight a losing battle.

"I knew Judy was sick, but I didn't understand the extent of it," Brink said. "When it all happened, you're not really sure what to do. … We just wanted him to know that we were his family, too."

Doba admits that football has become an escape, though the 40-14 loss at Auburn to open the season didn't offer much shelter. Even during a three-game winning streak after the opening loss, a vocal minority of fans were grousing, with some wanting backup quarterback Gary Rogers to replace Brink.

"It's hard not to hear, but it's a different thing to believe," Brink said. "I knew I had the confidence of my coaches and teammates. But I also wasn't playing like I should have been playing."

Brink and his teammates stuck it out, building confidence with each game and nearly beating USC.

The Cougars' three losses all came to top-10 teams, but none of their wins came against ranked foes, so it was hard to gauge where they stood. Until last weekend. Beating Oregon provided their biggest validation since 2003.

In that game, Brink completed 20 of 23 passes for 179 yards with two touchdowns, while backup tailback Dwight Tardy rumbled for 114 of his 145 yards in the fourth quarter. Meanwhile, the Cougars' overachieving defense held the high-powered Ducks to three points through the first three quarters.

Last year, they would have watched in terror as the screws tightened and they became victims of a stunning Oregon comeback. Not in 2006.

"We've preached all year an attitude to finish ball games and to expect to win," Doba said.

While the final third of the schedule is far more forgiving than what preceded it, the Cougars are not out of the woods yet. For one, injuries have piled up. They're missing their top three defensive tackles, which necessitated a transition from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 scheme, and six starters are either out or listed as questionable for Saturday's game at UCLA.

This team, however, has seemingly developed good karma, and that should be enough to get it to a bowl game.

In the weight room, a rope hangs symbolically from the ceiling. It represents trust. A year after repeatedly wilting under pressure, the Cougars have learned to believe in each other -- to believe a teammate is on the other end of the rope, willing to makes sure they don't fall.

"It's hard to put into words how hungry we are," Brink said.

Football isn't life. Doba knows that better than most these days. But winning is a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.