Washington State athletic director Bill Moos announced Tuesday morning that Paul Wulff will not return as the Cougars' football coach.

Washington State athletic director Bill Moos said he “had pretty much made my decision” to fire football coach Paul Wulff after the 38-21 Apple Cup loss Saturday night.

The Tuesday dismissal struck Wulff, an alum of the school, as a departure from the norm.

“I believe the innocence of Washington State has been lost today,” he said in a midafternoon news conference. “We don’t eat our own. I leave with a heavy heart.”

Wulff is right about one thing: Firings are uncommon at WSU. This might be the first since 1967, when Bert Clark was cashiered in favor of Jim Sweeney.

Four years ago, Bill Doba, Wulff’s predecessor, and then-WSU AD Jim Sterk maintained that Doba’s exit wasn’t forced. And Sterk, in an interview in September with The Times, said he approached Doba with the question of whether he had the energy “to build it back up again,” and when Doba declined, the resignation was announced.

In candor rare for job searches, Moos acknowledged that ex-Texas Tech coach Mike Leach is on his shortlist of “six or seven” prospects to replace Wulff. The Times reported Saturday night that Leach would top the WSU list if Wulff were fired.

Leach is thought to be a top target of Kansas, however, where athletic director Sheahon Zenger has an old association with Leach. Amid a career mostly in athletic administration, Zenger published a coaching magazine in the 1990s called American Football Quarterly, and visited with Leach more than once regarding his spread offense.

Moos also acknowledged Houston coach Kevin Sumlin to be on that list, but Sumlin is expected to be a hot property with his undefeated team.

Moos mentioned a two- to three-week time frame for a new hire, but there are indications it could be quicker.

Wulff, meanwhile, thanked a long list of WSU support people, but one prominent omission was president Elson Floyd, known to be a critic of his program.

“I have no bitter feelings regarding Washington State, this place, at all,” said Wulff. But as for whether he would have undertaken the rebuilding job again, he said, “Not unless I was guaranteed X amount of years coaching.”

Moos met with Wulff on Sunday, and said he wanted to have Wulff go through with a booster luncheon in Spokane on Monday — where he got a standing ovation — because “a lot of people like Paul Wulff. I felt that was important.

“In my 30 years in this business, I’ve met no finer man than Paul Wulff. Having said that, we’re at a juncture with Cougar football that I feel is critical … we’ve either got to run with the big dogs, or admit we’re doormats.”

Moos talked about apathy among many fans, referring cryptically to “no butts in the seats.” Attendance Nov. 19 for the snowy Utah game, hurt by students gone on Thanksgiving break, plummeted to 16,419.

Moos has been an athletic director since 1990, at Montana, Oregon and WSU, but has never named a football coach. Still, there’s no doubt who will make the hire.

“You’re looking at the search committee,” he said.

The Cougars have 34 of 44 players on the two-deep projected to return in 2012 — not counting quarterbacks Jeff Tuel and Connor Halliday, who were injured. They figure to have 16 starters back, although some are at positions that clearly need to improve.

Asked how he perceives the talent level, Moos said, “Better than when Paul got here, by a long shot. In some areas, we’re pretty doggone good. In other areas, we’re still lacking. And we’re lacking in depth.”

The Cougars owe Wulff for the final year of his contract. Assistant coaches are all on one-year deals ending in March. Moos said he would designate two assistants to monitor player attendance in class and workouts during the interim before a new staff is in place.

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