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Monday, November 14, 2005 - Page updated at 08:53 PM

Bud Withers

Good guy Doba needs to prove he's good coach

Seattle Times colleges reporter

In their Season of the Cursed, a Washington State staff member sought out Bill Doba and handed him an account of a priest whose home had been destroyed in a California firestorm.

When he returned to his home, the reverend found only one item intact: A pottery vase, which he brought to the pulpit to hammer home a message.

"The only reason it survived was, it had been through this thing before," Doba said. "To try to take a positive slant, if we can fight through this thing, we'll be stronger people."

If he's right, the Cougars, subdued again at the wire by Oregon Saturday night to fall to 0-7 in the Pac-10, will soon be able to bench-press more than anybody else in the league.

Mind-set tends to be more fragile at Washington State, and the WSU head coach worries that losing can set in and be the expected thing by all parties — players, students, fans, alumni. It did that in the abyss of 1998-2000, when the Cougars went 3-21 in the Pac-10.

The take here is that the experience of 2005 only instructs those various constituencies that if there's a meteor the size of an airplane hangar loose in space, it's probably headed directly for Pullman.

It's been that kind of season, when bad karma gets piled on by spasms of dubious coaching.

More than anything, it's what happens when you have a failing defense, when players might as well be on roller blades as cleats, when every decision is bound up in the nagging reality that you can't stop people.

Even that autopsy is incomplete, because the defense clearly would have been better had the Cougars had a 22-year-old fifth-year senior, a borderline All-American in Will Derting, on the field in October and November rather than a true freshman, 18-year-old Greg Trent. Is there an entry on the death certificate for "mojo"?

You can envision Doba at 62, taking over the Cougars from Mike Price two years ago, believing that four decades into this business, he had seen everything. And if not, he had a solid, comfortable staff around him for counsel.

"I haven't seen this one," he said grimly, referring to 2005. He hadn't seen the fourth quarter at Oregon State, when Michael Bumpus had the ball popped from behind after a 46-yard gain deep in OSU territory, blowing up what might have been a 10-point lead midway through.

Of course, it's all exacerbated by the fact that Doba has engineered several game-turning decisions that have blown up in his face like cheap fireworks.

I don't fault his premise that with close losses, the Cougars were growing a bigger monkey all the time on their back, and they needed to be aggressive, especially given the defensive horrors.

But at California on fourth-and-two at the 38, ahead 10 with six minutes left, if you've committed to keeping the ball, why not just line up and go for it rather than fake? And when Cal kept its defense on the field, rather than its punt-block team, couldn't upback Scott Davis have been instructed to check out of the fake, or been given the option to simply call timeout?

Doba was widely scorned for taking tying points off the board against Arizona State, opting for a fourth-and-one rush inside the 5. I'll accept the line of thinking, but WSU has struggled mightily with conventional short-yardage runs in recent years (2001 Apple Cup, 2002 USC game, et al). Maybe a rollout with the nimble Alex Brink, perhaps slipping a tight end out, looks better in retrospect than it would have on game day.

Did somebody say tight end? Two years ago, Troy Bienemann was a second-team all-league guy. He seemed like a natural target for a developing, second-year quarterback this year.

Instead, while Bienemann has helped block for the remarkable Jerome Harrison, he has only 24 catches for 278 yards, and the Cougars have been mystifyingly unwilling to use the middle of the field. Now it doesn't matter; his WSU career is probably done with a knee injury suffered against Oregon.

Some clock-management decisions have left crimson faithful the alarming impression that the game was going too fast for the WSU brain trust. Against UCLA, the Cougars squandered a 17-point fourth-quarter lead and found themselves tied at 38, their ball at the WSU 20 with 44 seconds left.

Apple Cup info

12:15 p.m. at Husky Stadium, Saturday

TV: FSN Radio: KJR (950), KPTK (1090) The line: WSU by 2.5

All the momentum belonged to UCLA, and you assume the last thing WSU coaches wanted was to bring their defense onto the field again. So with two timeouts left, the Cougars ran Harrison for 6 yards — and didn't call timeout. Then Brink ran for a first down, which stopped the clock anyway, and WSU called the first timeout with 15 seconds left.

Eventually, the drive expired at the UCLA 42, victim of those precious wasted seconds. WSU lost in overtime.

So there are those who want to fire Doba yesterday. Of course, some of those are people who want the successor to be Pete Carroll or Charlie Weis.

They need to know that this is a school that doesn't fire football coaches. It hasn't done it since 1967.

More important, athletic director Jim Sterk said Sunday, "No one would have wanted the season to turn out like this, but Bill and the coaching staff are a great group. There's no less confidence in their expertise to bring us success in the future, no wavering in that support."

Two years ago, in Doba's first season as a head coach, WSU won 10 games and embarrassed Texas in the Holiday Bowl. It might have been the school's best win ever. Last year's 5-6 team played roughly to its talent. This season, 3-7 simply represents underachievement, the defense notwithstanding.

Almost three seasons in, it can be said without hesitation that Bill Doba is a good man. It remains for him to prove he's a good head coach.

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

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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