Saturday night, Jim Sterk checks up on the Washington State football team, and whatever he finds, it will no doubt stir recollections of just how things came to be at WSU.
I caught up with Sterk Tuesday. He’s the athletic director now at San Diego State, where, in his first school year on the job, the Aztecs won nine games and the Poinsettia Bowl and were one of the stories of the year in college basketball, going undefeated for half a season before settling for a run to the Sweet 16.
“We’re building momentum,” he said. “There had been some apathy for over a decade in football. We’re building up. For this game, we should probably be in the mid-50s in attendance, maybe have a shot at the record. It’s 58 (thousand).”
Sterk, of course, was the AD at Washington State for the departure of Mike Price to Alabama, for the hiring and departure of Bill Doba, and the hire of Paul Wulff.
He thus had a front-row seat into WSU’s football fortunes over the first decade after 2000, and if Wulff’s team shows itself to be continuing its climb back from the ashes, Sterk will know better than anybody the distance it’s traveled.
You know the particulars: After Doba won Pac-10 coach-of-the-year honors in 2003, winning 10 games the season after Price left, things gradually backslid. The year 2004 began a series of non-winning seasons that hasn’t stopped.
Not that the Cougars weren’t close: They went 6-6 in 2006 – a record most of their fans would kill for this year – but didn’t get picked for a bowl. And 2005 was the maddening season in which Jerome Harrison darted for 1,900 yards but the Cougars lost five Pac-10 games by a total of 16 points in a 4-7 finish.
In the spring of 2006, Doba’s wife Judy died of ovarian cancer, and her illness has been seen as a factor in the inertia the program seemed to endure. Doba, the theory goes, was tending to his wife (as he should have been), and the assistant coaches weren’t doing enough to mind the store.
I’ve wondered what Sterk, and the Cougars, might have done better. In, say, 2005, during the final year of Judy Doba’s life, should he have appointed an interim coach – Robb Akey, maybe – let Doba cut back to being the defensive coordinator once more, and then sorted it out later?
“I think I’d make the same decision again,” Sterk told me. “I think Bill would do it differently.
“How was I to tell someone that no, you need to step aside when his wife was dying? That was a very difficult deal.”
But Sterk adds, “If I had known what I know now, I would probably have talked to Bill, but also maybe met with those assistant coaches on my own, and for them to take charge (without an official change of duties).”
Sterk, as he has indicated before, said he approached Doba “before she had passed away, and said, ‘Do you want to take a leave of absence?’ ”
Doba’s response, according to Sterk: “Judy’s kicking me out the door. She says, ‘You’re in this for the long term. I only have a short term to go.’ ”
There’s no doubt Sterk was in a tough spot. Doba was popular and the AD was dealing with a human tragedy.
If there’s a criticism, it’s that he didn’t recognize soon enough that recruiting was slipping, and the Cougars were now taking too many risks, both in academics and character.
The 2004 recruiting class was a washout (except for stars like Harrison and Michael Bumpus), and 2005 and 2006 continued the trend.
“The assistants were not doing a good job of evaluating the recruiting,” Sterk said. “We got into a couple of years of a bad cycle. It really crippled the program for a while.”
Should Sterk have recognized it earlier? I asked him if, say by 2005, he began to see signs the program was slipping.
“Not at that point,” he said. “The average person, you don’t see the kids that aren’t playing yet (because most are redshirting). They’ll be the ones coming on (next year). That class disappeared, and a lot of them the next year, he kicked off or they didn’t pan out.”
Meanwhile, there was probably just enough success on the field to persuade Sterk that things might be OK. The ’05 Harrison-led team was obviously close to a winning season, and the ’06 team was 6-3 at one point before collapsing down the stretch with injuries to Bumpus and Jason Hill.
Finally, by 2007, there were four huge blowouts at the hands of Pac-10 teams. Even with a stirring, last-minute win over Washington, it was apparent the program was sagging badly.
“By the time he beat the Huskies, I said, ‘Bill, we need to change, unless you feel you have the energy to take it back up again,’ ” Sterk said.
“No, it’s time,” Sterk says Doba told him.
So last winter, here was Sterk hiring another football coach. Brady Hoke had just left San Diego State for Michigan, and ironically, Sterk did much the same thing he had done when Price departed after the 2002 season – he named his defensive coordinator.
But Rocky Long had been a head coach at New Mexico previously, so Sterk feels more assured that this will go well.
“He’s somebody whose career I’ve watched for quite awhile,” said Sterk. “He feels we can compete at the top end of this league on a regular basis. That’s exciting.”