Washington State football coach Paul Wulff inherited a struggling program four years ago. Cougars athletic director Bill Moos must decide if Wulff has made enough progress to keep his job.

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The latest referendum on Paul Wulff happened the other day in the snow and cold of Pullman in front of a crowd so small, it was better for Washington State that it was seen only on a backwater cable outlet.

With a few seconds left and no timeouts, the Cougars were perhaps half a yard from the end zone and a rousing, come-from-behind victory over Utah.

Wulff, the WSU coach, opted to tie the score and send the game to overtime with a field goal. He made the decision Don James probably would have made. Except this isn’t the era of Don James, this is the age of the Internet — so many fans heaped scorn on Wulff when the Cougars went on to lose in overtime, falling to 4-7.

To me, that’s the fulcrum of the Wulff debate in a nutshell: Is there a point at which a large segment of a fan base is so disgruntled that — almost regardless of the arguments for staying the course — a coaching change becomes advisable?

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The case against Wulff

So much of Wulff’s regime has been about a growth process, a learning curve from his days at Eastern Washington. His original staff had precious little big-school experience, and the additions of assistants like Steve Morton, Chris Tormey and Todd Howard, while upgrades, only fueled the perception that when he started at WSU, Wulff was in over his head.

Wulff has also been prone to saying some silly things. In pointing out that it took Mike Stoops five seasons to get Arizona to a bowl game, he neglected to mention that Stoops, in his third year, won six games.

Recently, after a 30-7 loss at California, Wulff said, “When we kicked off, we weren’t there (mentally). Their performance today was not acceptable.” Twenty-four hours later, he backtracked, saying, “I go back and look at the game and our guys played hard. I thought Cal played a hell of a ballgame.”

When I asked him, “Which is it?” three days after the game, Wulff said, “You know, after I had a chance to watch the film, things changed a little bit.”

But his most grievous public-relations shortfall is the flogging, by extension, of his predecessor, Bill Doba. Yes, Doba handed Wulff a dead coyote of a football program back in 2007, and for a while, it wasn’t inappropriate to say so.

Deep into his fourth season, though, Wulff, answering a question on progress, said he inherited “the worst BCS program in the country, by a long, long ways.”

Give it a rest.

By itself, Wulff’s record, 9-39, is enough to make Babe Hollingbery shudder in his grave. That’s among the worst four-year totals in the history of the Pac-12 and its antecedents.

Wulff’s personality differs from an old template for successful WSU coaches. The place has a tradition of characters — charismatic yet cagey guys who could make third-and-13 sound like a good thing, from Jim Sweeney to Jim Walden to Mike Price.

Back when the NCAA rules were a little more sketchy, Sweeney used to introduce football recruits over the P.A. at halftime of basketball games, fling off his sports coat and lead a wildly cheering crowd in a rendition of the Cougars fight song.

I’ll bet one of those recruits was Bill Moos, the former all-league lineman and now the WSU athletic director. He’ll be making the call on Wulff.

The case for Wulff

This is what Wulff took over after the 2007 season: a program that had had a succession of poor recruiting classes. One that was starting over at quarterback after four years of Alex Brink.

A few months into his tenure, it would be whacked with an eight-scholarship penalty for prior shortcomings in the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate standards. This came concurrent to the 25 players spanning the Doba and Wulff regimes that were arrested in an 18-month period.

Partly because of a leftover weight-room ethic, an undersized team lost more starts to injuries in 2009 than any other BCS program.

But, somebody pointed out, Doba won five games in 2007. Yes, he did, with Brink as a fifth-year senior. That year, he also lost five games by an average of 32 points each. This was a program on the verge of bottoming out, and it did.

So 9-39 is an illusory number. What matters is whether years three and four reflect enough success to retain Wulff, and indeed, Moos says that’s what he’ll be examining.

With little more than a promise, Wulff’s staff has done an impressive job recruiting the skill positions, especially quarterback. With Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, the Cougars project to be as deep in quality quarterbacking for 2012 as any team in the Pac-12.

This season, the loss of Tuel in the opener clearly had some effect on wins and losses — though Wulff will have to answer for inserting him into that game with a virus, shortly before he broke his collarbone.

The 2011 schedule provided an opportunity early with winnable games. But it also dealt the Cougars a nine-week stretch in which they played one game in Pullman (against Stanford). How does that usually work out? If you remove Oregon, Stanford and USC — the three elite teams in the Pac-12 — from the equation, the combined road record in games involving the other nine is 8-20.

Dicey decision

When Wulff was hired, it was Moos, ironically, a consultant at the time working his cattle ranch outside Spokane, who pushed a search committee to take a look at WSU alums. Somebody phoned Wulff, asked him if he could be in Salt Lake City to meet the next morning at 9 o’clock, and it developed from there.

Now Moos has a thorny issue on his hands. It doesn’t figure to be enough merely to decide Wulff’s time is up; he must know — sense, at least — who the replacement is.

Of all things, it comes at a time when the case could be made that the Wulff’s Cougars are playing their best football in four years, upsetting 12-point favorite Arizona State and losing the hairline decision to Utah. Clearly, they haven’t quit on him. Halliday played part of that game with a lacerated liver.

Friday, WSU regents approved a sale of bonds to help finance an $80 million upgrade to Martin Stadium. Some serious fundraising is ahead of the Cougars.

In reference to the WSU president, one informed source says of Moos, “He has to have a coach to do for him what he’s doing for Elson Floyd.”

Maybe that coach is already in place, maybe not. It’s the administrative equivalent of that goal-line choice against Utah. Tough call, Bill Moos.

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

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