Washington State guard B.J. Guerra says some Cougars players weren't totally on board when Paul Wulff replaced Bill Doba as the team's coach.

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By now, Washington State football partisans have had such a snootful of losing, there’s only one other topic that wears them down as much: Whether their three-year malaise is more the fault of Bill Doba or Paul Wulff.

Tired debate, that. In fact, the sooner it gets suspended, the better. That was then, this is now, and however he got here, Wulff needs to win this year. Win some, at least, starting Saturday against Idaho State.

Still, it’s instructive to retrace the transition from Doba to Wulff, if for no other reason than to stand, slack-jawed, at the depths to which the Cougars sank — and how far they had to climb just to get where they think they’re going today. No blame game here, just facts that ought to chill WSU fans.

Few are better at describing it than B.J. Guerra, a fifth-year senior guard from Moses Lake, probably the Cougars’ best lineman and one of only five holdovers from the Doba days.

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“Everyone had a lot of respect for Doba,” says Guerra, a 24-game starter. “As soon as Wulff got here” — he pauses, then chooses a verb repetitively — “it was rebel, rebel, rebel.

“It seems like guys were like, ‘Oh man, we got a new coach, he’s going to come in here and try to change everything.’ Guys didn’t like that.”

It begins to make sense. Doba was highly respected, and ran a looser ship. Wulff wanted things a lot tighter. And where were his chops? He had come from Division I-AA.

“Guys would go out to practice, and (say), ‘I’m going to show coach Wulff,’ ” says Guerra.

Show him how? “By not giving full effort,” Guerra says. “Simple things like that. That’s exactly why we had the seasons that we had.”

Most coaches are happy to lose guys like that, and indeed, that’s what almost happened to Guerra, whom the old staff had recruited as a defensive lineman. In the edgy winter months of the coaching transition in 2007-08, Wulff told Guerra, “You’re moving over.”

“I didn’t like the thought of that at all,” says Guerra. “I called my mom and told her, ‘I want to transfer; I don’t want to play offensive line.’

“I think it started in high school. I hated offensive linemen. I just despised them.”

His mom talked him off the ledge.

“We’re Christians,” he explains. “She said, ‘Maybe God is opening a door for you.’ “

Wulff wasn’t merely grasping at straws. When he was coaching Eastern Washington, the school was first to offer a scholarship to Guerra, and Wulff had always projected him on the offensive line.

“There was obviously some hesitation, but he did it,” Wulff says today. “We told him, ‘If you can run with this, you’ve got a legitimate chance to be a four-year starter and not look back.’

“Looking back, he’d be nowhere near the player he is today if he’d stayed on defense. He’s really been a quality leader in the offseason, and he’s very capable of being a dominant football player.”

Says Guerra: “I’m so glad I stayed.”

He and his most veteran teammates have seen one of the most tumultuous eras in WSU football. Sometimes, their charge has been to lead when some players don’t want to be led. As teammate Travis Long put it recently:

“When you’re losing, you’re not going to be as much of a team, because (some players) are going to find someone to blame for losing the games. The hardest part is coming back in the next day, knowing you’ve got to go out and work, to try to get the stragglers behind to come with you.”

Guerra knows the feeling, saying, “Not having successful seasons is really hard.”

Now the line has four seniors, and Guerra talks of its emphasis on cutting back on an untenable 51 sacks in 2010, of getting 4 yards per rush and of the need for the big guys to take it personally when they don’t. He says the maturity up front has prompted assistant coach Steve Morton to give the line more leeway to change pass protections even if the quarterback doesn’t.

And Guerra says the Cougars practice hard. Apparently, that hasn’t always been a given.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or bwithers@seattletimes.com

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