Article originally published in Athlon's 2008 Pac-10 College Football magazine.
Paul Wulff Comes Home at Washington State
You’ve probably never heard of Paul Wulff. He’s the new head coach at Washington State, arriving via Eastern Washington, up the road about 80 miles in Cheney where he built a solid Division I-AA program.
Cougar fans like him, partly because he’s an alum, partly because he’s just like them, an average guy who skis and hunts and drinks beer and can’t stand Washington, the cross-state rival.
But in most ways, he’s not like anyone. Wulff, 41, has experienced two tragedies — his mother was murdered when he was 12, and his first wife died of brain cancer six years ago. Even worse, Wulff and other family members believe that their alcoholic dad killed their mom.
Dolores Wulff was a beautiful woman, and of all the sons, the WSU coach looks the most like her. She died at the age of 45, disappearing from her Yolo County (Calif.) home on July 31, 1979.
Wulff will discuss the mysterious circumstances about his mom’s death, but it’s hard to bring them up again.
“Even at that age, I knew something was not right,” he says.
According to a story in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, investigators found traces of Dolores Wulff’s blood, an earring, a strand of her hair and a palm print in the trunk of Carl Wulff’s car. Looking for her body, family members dug around their home and in other remote areas. But her remains were never found. One investigator said he believed her body ended up under I-505, a freeway that was under construction at the time.
In 1985, a murder charge against Carl Wulff was dismissed, and no one has a logical explanation for that.
So there has been no closure for Wulff. His father died of heart failure three years ago.
After his mom vanished, Wulff was raised through his teenage years by an uncle and supported by his brothers and cousins.
“Everyone bonded together and stayed together,” Wulff says. “They kept me on track and didn’t allow me to stray.”
There was something else that prevented him from going the wrong way in life.
“My mom was such a good person,” Wulff says. “I remember that I didn’t want to upset her. I didn’t want to do anything I know she wouldn’t have liked.”
He got his aggression out on the football field and turned himself into such a good offensive lineman that Washington State recruited him and brought him to Pullman, just where he wanted to be.
“My background was in agriculture, and they were the only school in the Pac-10 that had that, and I didn’t want to be in a big city,” Wulff says.
He also admits that he needed to get away — from Davis, Calif., and the memories from his past.
“I had to separate myself from that,” he says. “I had to make it on my own.”
As a center, Wulff anchored the Cougars’ offensive line in the late 1980s, leading a rushing attack that shocked Troy Aikman and No. 1 UCLA in ’88, a game that still ranks as one of the best in Washington State history.
Wulff signed a free agent contract with the Jets, but that didn’t work out, nor did a couple of dalliances with the World League of American Football. That led to a volunteer assistant’s job at Eastern Washington and a climb to the head coach’s office in 2000.
Wulff and his first wife, Tammy, arrived in Cheney in ’93 in an ’84 Volkswagen Rabbit. They lived in a trailer in the country and heard the coyotes howl at night. While Wulff was the offensive line coach in ’97, his wife was diagnosed with brain cancer. For the next five years, she was in and out of treatment. She died in Wulff’s arms on March 12, 2002, at the age of 39.
He’s had his “why-me” moments. But don’t ask him if he feels that way now.
“My wife would say, ‘Why not me?’” Wulff says. “If she can say that, I can’t remotely have self-pity.”
Wulff has since remarried and in addition to his wife’s 12-year-old daughter, they have two sons, Max and Sam.
“I see my 1-year-old and 4-year-old and think, ‘Wow, where did this come from?’ It seems like such a gift,” Wulff says. “At the age of 35, this was not in my world of possibility.”
Nor was this job, this opportunity. He can’t believe that either. Wulff was just a cog here, and now he’s the head of the whole darn thing. Which is also amazing, because he wasn’t the leading candidate until he interviewed with athletic director Jim Sterk.
“With this hire, I feel we’ve come full circle,” Sterk says. “Coach Wulff is the epitome of the values we’re looking for in our head football coach. Some people who do not know coach Wulff will be surprised by this hire. Those who know him believe it is the best hire I could ever make.”
Washington State means a lot to Wulff. Ask him if he loves this school, and he’ll say: “Absolutely.”
“It was such a refuge for me,” Wulff says. “I have such a respect for the people here and this whole university. It allowed me to move forward. It has a big imprint on who I am.”
He is so emotionally invested that it projects well for the future. Wulff wants this to work and knows that it will. He has implemented an all-the-time no-huddle offense and has reworked the defense, looking for athletic linemen in particular.
At spring practice, Wulff noticed that the Cougars were lacking in basics and moxie, which surprised him. That led to longer practices in an attempt to develop a new culture.
“From a fundamental standpoint, we’re at ground zero,” Wulff says. “And we do have some savvy veterans, but we need to have more. What’s emerging is so much room for growth.”
Whoever you are wherever you are, rebuilding takes time. Wulff’s offense will be led by a fifth-year senior quarterback, which sounds good until you find out that Gary Rogers rarely played as Alex Brink’s backup.
Wulff will shore up the problem areas with stronger recruiting in a more pronounced challenge to Washington for in-state stars. He thinks Pullman is a much better place than Seattle and what he calls “external (big-) city issues that can seep into a kid’s life.”
When Wulff meets recruits, he can tell them his story, how it worked out for him, how WSU changed his life. He can tell them what it was like while he was here and after he graduated, living in a trailer in nearby Albi with mice as his roommates.
He’s much better off now, and that’s where he wants the Cougars to be. “I’m going to give it everything I’ve got,” Wulff says. “This isn’t a stepping stone. I truly care about this place. I want to get this place to where people are proud of the football program.”