In the last moments of Pac-10 football media day back in 2008, I buttonholed Stanford football coach Jim Harbaugh as he was heading out of the lobby of the host hotel near the Los Angeles airport.
Harbaugh was only a year into his gig as Stanford head coach, and he had earned the job on the basis of what he had done at FCS (Division 1-AA) San Diego. So I thought it worthwhile to hear what sort of challenges he might foresee for another guy making the same jump, Paul Wulff, who was moving from Eastern Washington to Washington State.
“Oh yeah, the thin resume,” Harbaugh said, parroting the criticism he had heard when he came from USD.
Then he took the path of least resistance when I steered him toward a discussion of Wulff.
“A lot of people wanted that [Washington State] job, and he got it,” Harbaugh said deftly. “That tells me he’s ready for it.”
Well, as the coaching carousel spins, we now have Harbaugh and Wulff in different jobs — working with each other. The San Francisco 49ers will announce later this week that Harbaugh, the head coach, is adding Wulff as a “senior offensive assistant.”
Funny how two different 1-AA coaches’ careers took such dramatically different arcs.
Notwithstanding Pete Carroll and the dynasty he built at USC, I regard Harbaugh’s work at Stanford to be the most superlative in the conference in some time — among the best coaching jobs in the history of the league. He took a sagging program, completely changed the image from finesse to power, won a BCS bowl and built the foundation for another BCS appearance, and even tagged Carroll with two losses in three years when Carroll’s regime was at or near its apex.
With Wulff, not so much. He also inherited a dilapidated program, but went 9-40 with it. The challenges at WSU are much different than at Stanford, of course. And despite the win-loss record, I think it’s safe to conclude Wulff left the WSU program better, probably significantly better, than he found it. The fact most WSU partisans are eagerly anticipating what successor Mike Leach can accomplish isn’t due solely to Leach’s coaching acumen, it’s also very much about having a lot of skill on the roster, all of which was accumulated by Wulff and his staff.
I know it chaps Wulff not to be able to coach the talent the program had acquired, to see the rebuild to its fruition. But that’s water under the bridge now.
Have to admit, when he was dismissed, I was skeptical about what kind of job he might be able to land. When Harbaugh referenced “thin resume” four years ago, you could say that fits Wulff’s portfolio. Not that, as a middle-aged (45) coach, he hasn’t had significant experience. It’s just that it’s not varied experience; he coached at Eastern Washington from 1993-2007, and four years at WSU. And with the scant nine wins in Pullman, that doesn’t exactly cause broken hinges on doors swinging open.
I thought the Big Sky openings at Montana and Weber State might have been logical for Wulff, but given his Eastern Washington background, that might have been too much of a case of wash-rinse-repeat. And in fact, Montana has enough of a history of winning at the FCS level, that it could have looked askance at Wulff.
Now, Harbaugh has beckoned Wulff. Perhaps it will be a springboard for a coach who had some successes at WSU, even if they’re beneath the surface.