In the early-morning hours of Dec. 31, 2003, fans and boosters of Washington State figured they'd died and gone to heaven. Jubilantly, they partied at...

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In the early-morning hours of Dec. 31, 2003, fans and boosters of Washington State figured they’d died and gone to heaven. Jubilantly, they partied at the WSU team hotel in San Diego, joined by a handful of happy players, after the Cougars dispatched Texas in the Holiday Bowl.

All was right with the world. It was one of WSU’s most attention-grabbing victories in history, capping a season in which Bill Doba was named Pac-10 co-coach of the year. A 10-3 record meant 30 wins over three years.

For WSU faithful, that night probably seems like decades ago. The Cougars, 17-23 since then, have gradually receded to the realm of mediocrity, and in 2007 face an uphill battle to save their season — and possibly Doba’s job. They’re 2-4 with some of their most challenging games ahead.

What happened?

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The easy answer is, recruiting happened. Or didn’t.

Doba’s first class of signees in 2003 — following a Rose Bowl season and Mike Price’s departure for Alabama — included quarterback Alex Brink and wide receiver Jason Hill. But of 16 additions, only seven are still with the program.

That class established a pattern. Under Doba, the Cougars have had more attrition and more recruiting mistakes than a program can reasonably bear.

Immediately after the Holiday Bowl victory a year later, the Cougars had happen to them what seems to plague programs reaching their competitive peak: Illogically, they have a lukewarm recruiting class.

The 2004 class had its gems, people like All-American running back Jerome Harrison, receiver Michael Bumpus, tight end Jed Collins, future NFL cornerback Tyron Brackenridge.

But of 28 additions announced that February, including four JC transfers, only 13 are still in the program as fourth-year players. Of the class that should be the mainframe of the depth chart, there are just five starters.

In 2005 came a class of 21. Only 10 are still in the program. So of the 65 players added from 2003-05, only 30 remain. Of those who left, 12 were JC recruits who yielded mixed results, leaving 23 who simply washed out of the program.

Too often, the Cougars have guessed wrong or evaluated badly or taken academic risks that came back to bite them. Since the 2006 season ended, eight WSU players have been lopped from the roster for academic reasons. Partly because of that, the Cougars began this season in an almost unthinkable position — starting three players in the secondary who didn’t enroll at WSU until the fall.

Not that WSU fans would need reminding, but in Doba’s first year, the Cougars had 11 first- or second-team all-league players (including specialists), all signed on Price’s watch. Harrison is the only first-team all-leaguer signed in the Doba regime, and there are three who have made the second unit — Brink, Bumpus and Hill.

In 2004, Washington State decided to take a chance on safety Randy Estes of Los Alamitos High in Southern California. Estes, who would otherwise have been a top-level recruit, had been expelled after an arrest for allegedly selling marijuana, but the Cougars evaluated him and signed him.

Meanwhile, Estes’ high-school teammate, Antoine Cason, went relatively unnoticed.

The Cougars had Cason in for a visit, and after a heated debate, decided not to offer him a scholarship. The Cougars were hardly the only school to “miss” on Cason. But he went off to become an All-American at Arizona, and Estes never made it into school.

A year later, when WSU sought to add a quarterback, it knew about Tavita Pritchard of Clover Park High School — nephew of Cougars great Jack Thompson — but it made Arkelon Hall of Clovis, Calif., its top priority.

“My Uncle Jack was a huge influence in my life,” Pritchard told The Times last week. “I made numerous trips to Pullman growing up. I was very close to a lot of guys on the team. To answer that question simply, I would have been interested if they would have recruited me harder, or whatever.”

Pritchard was even more emphatic on KNBR radio in San Francisco on Monday morning, saying, “I would have gone there in a second if they had recruited me.”

Who knows whether Tavita Pritchard will develop into a big-time player? But he has already quarterbacked a team that beat USC. Hall, meanwhile, flunked out of school last year.

Especially shaky

Partly because of the diminished numbers, WSU has struggled consistently with most of its special teams.

Take Bumpus. As a freshman and sophomore, he was a big threat on punt returns, averaging 12.2 yards every time he touched the ball. That dropped to 5.5 yards last year, and now WSU is 117th of 119 teams in punt returns, at 25 yards for the season.

Three years in a row (2004-06), the Cougars were ninth in the Pac-10 in kickoff returns. Their continuing problems on the punt team have caused them to turn to unconventional “rugby” punts — low-flying boots designed to get a roll.

The Cougars don’t yet have a touchback on a kickoff in 2007. The rest of the Pac-10 has 34.

And WSU’s field-goal kicking has been a persistent headache since 2003, when Drew Dunning left. Post-Dunning, its kickers are 34 for 60.

What’s next?

There’s little doubt Doba faces his biggest professional challenge in trying to keep WSU’s skid from becoming a full-out rollover.

Is there promise down the road? There are some excellent young talents in the program, such as freshman wide receiver Jeshua Anderson (98 yards against Arizona State), sophomore linebacker Andy Mattingly (four sacks versus the Sun Devils), sophomore center Kenny Alfred, freshman corner Chima Nwachukwu and sophomore defensive end Kevin Kooyman (three sacks in 2007).

But if everything played to form, WSU would return 13 starters in 2008 — pretty much an average number. It also will have a new quarterback to replace Brink, who has broken most school passing records but appears likely to end his WSU career without playing in a bowl game.

As for recruiting, the Cougars don’t yet have a known verbal commitment for their signing class in February — not a fatal condition but hardly one that inspires confidence. Meanwhile, the renascent WSU basketball program has its 2008 class set, plus one recruit committed for 2009 and another for 2010.

There’s a lot at stake here. WSU is in the middle of a capital campaign for a major facelift of Martin Stadium.

Washington State is a school that hasn’t fired a football coach or had one resign under pressure since Bert Clark in 1967, longer than any other Pac-10 program. The Cougars have run the same offense for two decades, another mark of stability that could be in peril.

This is a place that has hired good football coaches, savored the good times and managed to ride out the bad ones. Against some tough odds, Doba hopes to sustain that history.

Bud Withers: 206-464-8281 or

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