PULLMAN — In a way, using the adjective “tough” to describe Paul Wulff, perhaps lends too much credo to the word itself.
To be sure, Wulff is tough. Few people that know him or have met him would question that.
But he’s something more than tough, something beyond the simple definition of being strong, durable and hardened.
How can you characterize the fact that Wulff lived through the murder of his mother as a child with his father, who was never prosecuted but believed to be her killer, as being tough?
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How do you use the word tough to describe Wulff living through the heart-breaking process of watching his first wife, Tammy, lose an unwinnable fight with brain cancer?
Still that’s what Coug fans associate with him, particularly as a player for WSU back in the late 1980s. Wulff = tough. It’s the stuff of legend on the Palouse. During his senior season in 1989, he was stricken with appendicitis and was forced to have his appendix removed in midseason. Less than three weeks after the surgery (over the years it’s whittled down to a week), Wulff was back on the field playing the Apple Cup. He wouldn’t miss a series.
Still, even though Wulff is something beyond tough, it doesn’t mean that the players on his new team share the same quality.
In Wulff’s eyes, lacking toughness is the greatest sin a football player commit. Just look at this quote from the Eastern Washington media guide, where Wulff first became a head coach.
“We're looking for tough players and ones that want to work hard,” he said. “They need a certain element of perseverance as well as commitment and pride. They don't always have to be the biggest, strongest and fastest, because we're going to try to get them to be big, strong and fast.”
It’s a small-school, chip-on-your-shoulder mentality of being tough. So imagine the dismay when Wulff returned to his alma mater to find it somewhat lacking.
Realistically, in terms of playing in the Pac-10, WSU should have, and needs to have, that mentality, for success. But do the presently assembled Cougs have it?
Wulff has at times this fall hinted that some of his players might lack enough toughness. The belief would become particularly hardened when he would look over during fall camp and see upwards of 20 of players not participating because of an assortment of injuries.
“Some of those guys should be out there practicing,” he said bluntly.
He wasn’t accusing any one player or accusing the whole group of players. But it’s something that ate at him all fall.
For someone, who had such a tolerance for playing through pain, it’s difficult to understand or accept. “It goes back to the old line of being hurt or injured,” quarterback Gary Rogers said evoking a long-held sports mantra. “Some guys maybe needed to toughen up.”
Strong words indeed, but they came from a quarterback. And quarterbacks aren’t allowed to be hit during practice.
But for a player like defensive tackle Matt Eichelberger, who spends a good portion of his practice in controlled burst of hand-to-hand combat in a 3-yard rectangle while accumulating bruises, bumps, scratches and aching joints and muscles, the feeling was mutual.
“I definitely think we need to get tougher,” Eichelberger said. “My freshman year, I thought I was hurt every week with something or another. But now I get hurt all the time and I don’t miss practice or games.”
Eichelberger is searching for accountability.
“There needs to be some,” he said. “I feel some players might have dings here and there, but aren’t really injured. You need to learn to play through that.”
And missing practices, but still playing in games doesn’t always cut it.
“The mentality needs to be the same,” he said. “Because that’s where you get better as a team is at practice.”
To be fair, there are some legitimate injuries on the Cougs roster, and Wulff was the first to admit so. “A lot of these guys were hurt before we even got here,” he said.
But there is something else beyond the physical boundaries of toughness that Wulff has at times questioned. There’s the mental toughness that coincides with the physical toughness. Wulff still isn’t sure which players possess the all-important quality that he believes leads to in-game success “I want know how they respond when they’re under duress and stress, meaning they’re very tired, meaning things aren’t going well in the game” he said. “That is a concern with me. How do they respond when it’s very challenging and they’re in that moment? How are they going to respond when things aren’t going well? I know it’s been a weakness here. And I know it’s something we have to overcome.”
To do that, he and his staff brought in a type of intensity and energy to practice that current players admit has been common in recent years.
“They bring the intensity every day,” Roger said. “It’s amazing.”
And with the intensity comes a level of expectation of effort. Wulff demands maximum effort from players at all times, in all drills, in all facets. He simply won’t accept anything less.
“It’s learning how to practice,” he said. “We’re just so much more demanding than what they are used to doing. I think there was a little bit of mental shock along with some physical shock.”
But the bulk of the players are ones brought in from a previous regime. And buying into and embracing Wulff’s new philosophy isn’t a given for all of them.
“Some will and some won’t,” Wulff said. “We’re looking for a particular type of person. When I say that, I’m not looking for a particular type of athlete, but a particular type of a person. It’s a person we know will fit on our philosophies. There are some players here that don’t. And there are some that just haven’t bought in. They just don’t quite understand it. It’s not like they’re trying not to buy in, it’s just still a shock to their system.”
Did the Cougs of recent past lack the type of resounding resiliency necessary for success?
Wulff won’t point fingers of blame. But he knows now that it’s his program, he’ll make sure he brings the players in that will blossom, not wilt under expectations.
“We want kids that are extremely dependable, that are very passionate about the game of football, very passionate about Washington State,” he said. “We want players that want to be part of our philosophy. That’s what we want, those kind of guys.”
It sounds like Wulff wants players that are, well, a lot like he was, tough, or something beyond that.