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Wednesday, July 26, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Bud Withers

Doba healing a battered team and a broken heart

Seattle Times colleges reporter

Bill Doba got the call in the spring, about the time he was trying to find himself.

"I've never seen Montana," said Harry Tolmen. "I'm going to ride back here with you."

Doba and Tolmen knew each other in happier times. A couple of generations ago, they were high-school buddies in New Carlisle, Ind., and then college roommates at Ball State, doing the loopy things college roommates do. Doba was headed to a lifetime of coaching football, Tolmen to teaching, coaching high-school baseball, and of late, selling insurance in New Carlisle.

Until the spring, their contact was often through Tolmen's Tuesday voicemails, which Doba came to expect.

"It's Harry," the message would say. "You don't need to call me back. How's Judy doing?"

Judy wasn't doing well. In April, Doba's wife of 43 years died of ovarian cancer at age 65, leaving the Washington State football coach with an empty house and a broken heart.

That's when Tolmen said he'd be flying west. The Dobas always spent most of July at a vacation home on Birch Lake in southern Michigan. This time, it would be Tolmen accompanying Doba back there — in Doba's pickup truck, packed with boxes of his wife's keepsakes for family members.

Tolmen and Doba golfed in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, motored through Montana and told old war stories. They did a quick side trip off I-90 to Little Big Horn before 112-degree heat urged them back into the pickup. Together, they cursed Chicago traffic, where construction reduced them to one mile in two hours.

"We talked about old times," Doba said warmly. "Lied a lot."

It was one more small step on Doba's long road to recovery. He and the pickup made the return trip solo in 47 brisk hours last week. Another taxing football season beckons, starting Thursday in Los Angeles at the Pac-10's annual media-day gathering.

"It's a good thing for me, to keep me going," Doba said. "Life goes on. I'm excited to get started. The busier I can keep myself, the better it is."

The best thing Doba has gleaned from all this is, he isn't going it alone. He received hundreds of condolences in the wake of Judy's death.

It has been going on for months, including the days after the Apple Cup, when Doba got a message to call WSU President V. Lane Rawlins. Uh, oh, Doba thought, he's not happy with a 4-7 season following 5-6.

"Thanks for beating the Huskies," Rawlins said. "How's Judy doing?"

This is a pivotal time for fundraising, and Jim Sterk, WSU's athletic director, had Doba ticketed for much of it after spring practice.

"He took me off all that stuff," Doba said. "You couldn't work for a better place during a crisis."

Doba had the kind of seven months to bring a man to his knees. The weekend at Oregon State when his team began a maddening series of blown leads and near-misses, Judy entered the hospital in Pullman with a setback.

Even then, she was looking out for him, if perversely. Her gradual decline allowed him to think about the big picture rather than climb the walls over a football team that couldn't seem to get it right.

"Judy's condition kind of put things in perspective, to be quite honest about it," Doba said. "The ball didn't bounce our way, I guess is the best way to put it. At least we competed. But we didn't finish."

After recruiting season, they went to M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, and got the death sentence. There was nothing more that could be done. With her husband on autopilot much of spring practice, Judy Doba died a week later, starved by the tumors inside her.

"I've got a good staff," Doba said. "They kind of took over for me this spring."

Through the four years of her illness, Doba never wanted a word printed about it. Now he speaks freely about her, perhaps part of the healing process.

That doesn't mean his voice doesn't catch at her memory, though.

Doba talks about the $11,000 donated to Pullman charities in her name, about the memorial to come at Franklin Elementary, where she was a teacher's aide. For the Japanese and Chinese and Indian children in Pullman — many of them WSU professors' kids — she had a spot in a hallway to tutor them in English as a second language.

They're going to put some permanent furniture in that hallway with a plaque, commemorating "Judy's Corner."

So this is the sobering backdrop to Doba's fourth season as Washington State's head coach. You don't see a lot of football coaches single, simply because the demands are so extreme, big and small, and inevitably, somebody else handles them.

"I had a month's worth of mail sitting there," Doba said, referring to his desk after the trip to Michigan. "There were a lot of things like that Judy used to do. She was a great wife, and I lost a bookkeeper and organizer."

And a bill-payer and gift-giver and a soulmate and a shoulder to cry on when the game film disappoints him.

It's almost football season again, and without his No. 1 assistant, Bill Doba's rebuilding year continues.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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