Long, hard journey for Paul Wulff

It had been almost a month since his wife Tammy had died, and Paul Wulff had barely left his house. There were family, friends and a community waiting to wrap their arms around him, but Wulff did not want visitors and he did not want to talk on the phone. He just wanted to work through the emptiness on his own.

Wherever Wulff had gotten in life, it was through quiet determination, a quality he already knew would serve him just as well coping with tragedy as it had in forging a career in football. Leaning on others would be a comfort, but he needed to suffer — just like he did in the weight room, building himself into a three-year starting center at Washington State or shivering through eastern Washington winters living in a trailer as he embarked on a coaching career as an unpaid assistant.

Or, more profoundly, the way he suffered as a child through the grief of his mother’s unsolved disappearance — likely at the hands of his father — and the way Tammy suffered through brain cancer.

“I just had to do it and I did it, because otherwise I would stuff it and it wouldn’t be good for me,” Wulff said. “I’d be in denial and I’m not going to live my life in denial. I’m going to face it and it’s going to be hard, but I’m willing to take the pain because I want to get to the end.”

Finally, Wulff was persuaded to to join a friend and his wife at their home for dinner. After an evening of food and conversation, Wulff returned to his house. He let the dog and cat out of the room he’d kept them in and headed upstairs. As he turned the corner at the top of the stairs, sitting on the carpet in the middle of the floor was Tammy’s wristband from the San Francisco hospital where she died. Almost from the moment Wulff had returned from San Francisco, the wristband laid next to his desktop computer in the office on the other side of the bathroom. Now, it was sitting upright on the hallway carpet, as if someone had delicately placed it there.

“It was a sign,” Wulff said. “I can see why somebody wouldn’t believe that, but I felt it right away. I remember looking up, talking to her. It was a sign that it’s OK. You’re OK.”

Nine years later, Wulff, sitting in a black leather chair in the head coach’s office at Washington State, smiled at the memory.

Articles of faith can be found most anywhere — a vision of Jesus in a grilled cheese sandwich — so why not a hospital band standing upright on a carpeted floor?

Or a football program that had to be torn down to the studs before it could begin to be built back up? Or another woman with whom he could embark on a new chapter? Or, most of all, the young boy he can still see in the mirror, who lost his mother — and essentially his father — but not his way?

So, when Wulff stood on the sideline and watched his team fall Saturday to No. 7 Oregon — coming on the heels of seeing everything crumble against Oregon State, being outclassed by Stanford and losing at the wire to UCLA — it is easier to understand why his demeanor rarely wavers.

There are no displays of anger, frustration or disenchantment.

Instead, it is a look of composure, of grace, of certainty that accompanies a distant view. One that whispers: it’s OK, we’re OK.

“When you go through experiences like Paul has, you either get pretty tough or you get bitter,” said the Rev. Bob Elfers, who has counseled Wulff for more than a decade. “Not that he walks on water all the time, but I think he has a presence about him that’s noticeable to a lot of people (that) I’m not going to let it get the best of me. It’s in bigger hands than mine.”

As Wulff walks into an already full ballroom at The Spokane Club on a recent Monday, it is not hard to notice. He stands 6-foot-4, with a barrel chest, forearms thick enough to handle a Harbaugh handshake, and still fit enough at age 44 that he does not appear far beyond his playing days. After a few hellos, but with little chit-chat, Wulff fills his buffet plate and sits down to quickly eat with his wife, Sherry, and their 5-year-old son, Sam. When Wulff is finished, he steps to the front of the room, where he spends 45 minutes narrating cuts of the coaches’ film from the previous game. He carries himself like a professor, clinically pointing out nuances that lead to a successful play — or prevent one.

Wulff is unlikely to fill a reporter’s notebook with quips or charm a crowd with wisecracks – qualities that might soften the grumbling that comes with winning five games in three seasons or otherwise fire up a fan base. Rex Ryan he isn’t.

But scratch beneath the vanilla-coated exterior, and there is a man who is direct, introspective, patient, firm in his beliefs and owner of a keen eye for detail, qualities that have been burnished by the calamitous events in his life.

And, it should be noted, someone who is ideally suited — and content — to be in Pullman, a place where being competitive means finding a difference at the margins.

Wulff may not carry the charisma or savvy to work in Seattle or Los Angeles. But at a place like Washington State, with a budget that has annually been the smallest in the Pac-10 (and is less than half of what Oregon operates on), it is useful to have someone who has done more with less since he started his career working for free at Eastern Washington, squeezing into a diesel Rabbit and living down a gravel road in an aluminum trailer, whose chief amenity was a feeding trough that had been converted into an outdoor tub.

Though Wulff’s standard of living has risen — he earns $600,000 per year — he is more likely to appreciate being able to make a five-minute drive home for lunch than he is to pine for someplace more cosmopolitan or a salary that is not the lowest among all BCS conference coaches.

Wulff arrived nearly 25 years ago, choosing Washington State over Nebraska and five other Pac-10 schools, because he could feel the comforts of home, Woodland, Calif., an agricultural community west of Sacramento.

He hasn’t left the area since.

“In the history of football and basketball at Washington State, it’s been a revolving door for coaches,” said Bill Moos, the athletic director who was an all-conference lineman at Washington State in the 1970s and who was a consultant to the school when Wulff was hired four years ago. “I told the committee that all things being equal, I suggest he be your guy because if he can get this thing established, he’d take great pride in coaching Washington State. Paul is very grounded. He’s not chasing rainbows. This is where he wants to be.”

Pullman is not for everybody — not even graduates, who rarely stay. The town’s population is 29,000, or only slightly more than the university enrollment. Arriving, after a 90-minute drive from Spokane on a two-lane highway that meanders through wheat fields — a landscape that is dotted with more cows than people — leaves a first-time visitor wondering if the end of the earth is just over the next hill.

“Man, when are we going to get there?” said Rickey Galvin, a redshirt freshman running back from Berkeley, recalling his recruiting visit with a chuckle.

Upon making this journey, it is easy to understand why the Cougars went 67 years between trips to the Rose Bowl.

“You always want expectations,” said Jim Walden, the former Washington State coach who recruited Wulff in the mid-80s and is now the team’s radio analyst. “But you’ve got to be realistic. We’re not USC or Alabama. We’re Baylor and Texas Tech. We don’t get to the Promised Land every day.”

When Wulff was hired, taking over after four consecutive non-winning seasons, he did not quite understand how far the Cougars were from the Promised Land. He quickly learned.

Six times in 2008, his first season, Washington State allowed at least 58 points in a Pac-10 game. And so merciful was USC that quarterback Mark Sanchez took a knee with the Trojans up, 41-0, and poised to score . . . at the end of the half. A school with a rich quarterback tradition — Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf, Mark Rypien and Jack Thompson — was so threadbare at the position that Wulff held open tryouts.

The Cougars were just as bad off the field. They lost eight scholarships because of the team’s poor academic performance and in an 18-month span that ended before Wulff coached his first game, 25 players had been arrested for crimes ranging from DUIs to money laundering to assault for whacking someone over the head with a frying pan, according to the Seattle Times.

Wulff said there were many moments in that first season when he was left thinking, “This is unbelievable, it’s embarrassing,” he said with a laugh. “But I wasn’t going to get fazed by it because every decision I was making was based on the future, how is this going to look in three to five years?”

The plan was two-fold: improve the culture, which Wulff set about doing by implementing a code of conduct for his players and setting up a leadership council, and improve the talent level, which his staff has done with hard work and shrewd evaluations in recruiting. The Cougars received a commitment from quarterback Jeff Tuel, an NFL prospect from Fresno, before he had even started a high school game at the position. They landed a diamond-in-the-rough in Marquess Wilson, a receiver from Tulare, Calif., who was a freshman All-America in 2010. They took a flier on Alex Hoffman-Ellis, who has developed into one of the conference’s best linebackers after playing one year in high school. When Florida State revoked middle linebacker C.J. Mizell’s scholarship, the Cougars snapped him up.

It is hard to see much progress on the scoreboard — the Cougars’ three wins this season are their most under Wulff. But Hoffman-Ellis described as “monumental” the difference from when he arrived in 2008.

“It was like cleaning a fish tank and putting in fresh water and you don’t gradually introduce the fish to that water,” Hoffman-Ellis said. “It was a shock to the guys who had been here. … But as the years have gone on, more guys have not only bought in, but Coach has become more open, more comfortable and more trusting of the team. There’s a mutual respect.”

What remains to be seen is how much that counts for at the end of the season, when Moos will decide whether to bring Wulff back for the final year of his contract. Moos says he wants to see progress, and it has continued in increments this season. The Cougars are 3-5 entering Saturday’s game against Cal. But it could be better. A 44-21 loss to Oregon State on Oct. 22, for example, was clearly a step backward for a program that was in the rare position of being expected to win.

At the end of a sunny, late October afternoon at the Rose Bowl in 1988, there was nothing but euphoria outside the Washington State locker room. The Cougars had just rallied from 21 points behind to stun No. 1-ranked UCLA, and perhaps themselves, with a goal-line stand in the final seconds.

As the players rejoiced with friends and family, Wulff emerged to a large group of family members only to be caught by a stunning sight — his father.

Wulff had not seen his father, Carl, in almost five years, since he visited him in a jail cell after he was arraigned on charges of killing his wife and Paul’s mother, Dolores. Carl Wulff, after a judge had dismissed the charge, had moved to Los Angeles and Paul had tried to move on.

“It was strange. It was odd. It was tough,” Wulff said. “I’ve got my direct family, everyone over here – about 15 or 20 of them — and then he’s standing over there, with someone else. So, yeah, it was different. But I felt obligated — no matter what, he’s still your dad. So I went over to say hi because he’d made the effort to come.”

It was the last time Paul would see Carl, who had become a pariah to everyone but his daughter, Anna Marie. Paul spoke to his father once more, several months later, when Carl called seeking entry back into his youngest child’s life. When Paul hesitated, saying he needed more clarity, a clearly inebriated Carl said he was leaving the country soon to work for the CIA.

“I said, well, good luck,” Wulff said.

Carl Wulff died in 2005, leaving no confessional or clues about what might have happened to Dolores. Or any closure for her four children and the rest of an extended family of Portuguese immigrants.

Even today, the case of Dolores Wulff is familiar to anyone who lived in the Sacramento region in 1979, as it carried the local TV news and rode the front page of the area’s newspapers. For Paul, who was 12, and his brother Tom, who was 16, whispers and stares followed them around school.

The boys moved in with Dolores’ brother, Mat Rocha, and his family immediately after Dolores disappeared on July 31, 1979. It was comfortable for Paul and Tom, because their cousins may as well have been their brothers — David was Paul’s age and Mathew was Tom’s age. It was also liberating to be free of the tension at home, for Paul not to have to grab the steering wheel to keep his father, drunk, from driving into a ditch on the way home from a Little League game.

Just the same, it was not home.

“Even though the last three or four years were dysfunctional because of my dad’s alcoholism, I was the baby and I was like any kid that was spoiled by the mom,” Wulff said. “Then, it’s bam! It’s completely gone. You have all this swirling and you can hear people talking behind your back at school. … The whole family just blew up. When you’re 12 years old, your view of the world and the unknown is different from somebody who is 20. I felt like I was floundering forever, yet I had loving supporting family members make sure I was always ‘OK,’ so I just floated along.”

It did not take long after Dolores disappeared for fingers to be pointed at Carl. She had moved out twice in the previous year — moving in for weeks with relatives — and had filed for divorce that April, though the petition was dropped when she failed to act. Carl, who constantly worried about money, did not want a divorce because it would force him to split their holdings. Dolores, as a devout Catholic, wanted to try to make the marriage work.

So, when Carl reported his wife missing, but Dolores’ wedding rings were in their usual spot on the bathroom counter, her medication was still on the shelf, and she had not taken any clothes or money, suspicion of foul play was immediate.

In the trunk of Carl’s Buick, police found pieces of baling wire, Playboy magazines and several heavy movers’ blankets, which were folded in the trunk. The green and white blanket that lay on top had a blood stain, which matched Dolores’ Type A. As another blanket was unfolded, it contained a gold earring that belonged to Dolores, as well as strands of her hair. On the inside of the greasy trunk lid were four streaks, which police construed as finger marks.

But for each piece of evidence, Carl had a plausible explanation, so without a body — or more evidence — the district attorney told investigators there wasn’t a case. And so, Dolores’ family and friends set out on weekends searching, shovels and maps in hand. They hired psychics, used infrared scanners and scoured remote areas that Carl knew from his work as a real estate insurance appraiser.

As the pages turn, some details become fuzzy, others forgotten. So it is for Paul Wulff when he looks at his mother’s photo and sees the same high cheekbones, pug nose and thick dark hair he sees in himself. He remembers that she cracked jokes, never had a cross word to say about anyone and, mostly, that she doted on him, her baby.

But it is the details he misses.

“The hardest part throughout the years is to, in my brain, recapture her and her moments,” Wulff said. “I lost her at 12 and I wasn’t absorbing every moment with her knowing she would be gone. At that age, you don’t think like that.”

It is easy, now, to see why Wulff takes time at the Spokane Club to kiss Sam on the forehead, why he’ll drive home for lunch when he can steal time away from the office, and why he walks off the field after an excruciating loss to UCLA holding Sherry’s hand.

“It scares me,” said Wulff, who keeps a detailed picture in his mind of his mother driving away from his cousin’s house the last time he saw her. “I do it with my kids now, with my wife. I give them that extra look. Those emotions come out of me all the time.”

When Tammy was ill, Rev. Elfers, the pastor at Eastern Washington, stopped by their home to visit. He knew them well, a chance meeting leading to Paul and Tammy rededicating themselves to their Christian faith and Elfers baptizing them in the campus pool. With Tammy resting in bed, Paul and the reverend laid down beside her and recited the 23rd Psalm. It is the story of a good shepherd being a mainstay of the economy, Elfers explained, ensuring his flock had quality food, avoided dangerous weeds and turbulent water, and provided such comfort that a follower might be served a meal in the midst of enemies.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil.

As Tammy went through her ordeal publicly, her grace served as an inspiration. The support of the community, which raised funds to help offset the $10,000-per-month cost of her experimental therapy in Houston, and the visits to oncologists in San Francisco, was overwhelming.

“Tammy had a peace in the midst of all the unknowns and uncertainties,” Elfers said. “She would often share that around here with people and so she ended up encouraging people. She probably had that encouragement for Paul.”

To Wulff, the decision with Tammy to reaffirm their faith meant seizing control of their lives. Whether it was managing Tammy’s care, coaching football at Eastern Washington or anything else in their lives, he would be all in. Or he would be out.

The touch of this faith is apparent in the culture at Washington State. Wulff makes a pastor available for his players (about a third of whom worship), which is not unusual. The team’s code of conduct, which emphasizes the values of trust, family, intensity and attitude, is called Cougar Football Team Covenants because Wulff believes the word covenant, due to its religious overtones, carries more weight than the term code.

Wulff said he does not force faith on any player, but believes it is important to make religious counsel available — just like for nutrition or academics. “It’s part of the spiritual development of the athlete,” he said.

It is that change in culture that has allowed a player like Mizell, the middle linebacker, to thrive. Rated the fifth best linebacker in the country by one scouting service, Mizell did not qualify academically at Florida State, and had several off-the-field incidents in high school. When he arrived from Tallahassee last year, Mizell was out of shape, did not pay attention during film study, and was lackadaisical at practice. As a result he did not start, even though he was a dynamic presence the Cougars sorely needed.

Slowly, Mizell’s effort and attitude improved, and his playing time increased.

Now, if not flawless, he is a defensive cornerstone.

“It would have been a bad deal for everyone if C.J. had been here the first year,” Wulff said. “He would have washed out. But when you have the culture right, you can bring in kids with rough edges and kids like C.J. will ultimately benefit.”

If stories like Mizell’s resonate with Wulff, it is because he knows what a sport can mean to someone who, before he found religion, found another life-preserver to cling to — football.

Wulff first played as a freshman in high school, but despite being 6-foot and close to 200 pounds, he was not good enough to rise above third string. “He was the biggest candy-ass,” said his uncle, Mat. “He’d wait until the play was over and then jump on the pile.”

The next summer, after several days of practice, Wulff had an epiphany: he was tired of getting hit. He would become the hammer instead of the nail. And he loved it.

It was “the first time I really felt like I started having direction and an identity . . . and it was all because of football,” Wulff said. “It gave me new friends, it gave me validation, it gave me a direction and that’s why I respect this game so much and I have so much passion for it, because it saved my life.”

For nearly 20 years after his mother disappeared, the football field was one of the few places he found a release. Much of the emotion and the grief remained bottled inside. And then Tammy, the graduate student he’d fallen for and married, became ill. One morning, he and Tammy woke, and they talked about Dolores and about Tammy’s illness. And before long it all poured out.

“I cried as consistently as I could for an hour, then I went outside, grabbed a garbage can that had been emptied the day before, walked back in and just . . . Boom!” Wulff said. “I felt everything come out. It was that complete meltdown that felt like this bottled up stuff in me came out. It was a combination of my mom and the current pain. When I was done, I felt different.”

If Wulff was haunted by never being allowed to cherish and say goodbye to his mother, the same thing would not happen with Tammy. In her final weeks, in the winter of 2002, visitors would come by to talk with her, but she and Paul rarely spoke, having already said and cried everything they could to each other.

Six weeks after Tammy died, Paul loaded his trunk with unsold cookbooks from a fundraiser for Tammy, and went to drop them off at the oncology clinic where she had volunteered when she was feeling well.

By chance, Sherry Roberg, who directed the volunteer program, was there. She and Tammy had become fast friends, with Tammy setting up Sherry, a single mom, on a date with one of Paul’s assistant coaches. But to Sherry, Paul was curt, so much so that Sherry would cringe if he answered the phone when she called to check on Tammy.

After Paul unloaded the boxes, he and Sherry talked in the parking lot for nearly an hour.

“He was a different person,” Sherry said. “The weight of the world was off him at that point. I used to think she’s so nice, what does she see in him? But as much as it sucks to be the patient, it sucks to be the caregiver, too.”

They were both taken aback by how comfortable they were with each other. They met for coffee. Then dinner. They were engaged in September and married after the season. The marriage raised concerns in Wulff’s family — especially among the women — who wondered if it wasn’t hasty.

“We were slow to, I’d say, warm up to the idea of Paul remarrying,” said Heidi Wulff, his sister-in-law. “What I think we learned is that Paul had been in mourning the whole five years Tammy was sick.”

But Wulff had simply spotted a partner who made sense. They both understood the dynamics of caring for and surviving cancer patients. They were both devout about their religion and treasured the importance of family. (They now have three children, Katie, 16, along with Max, 8, and five-year-old Sam.) And they wanted to be with each other.

So, of course, why wait?

It is easy, now, to see that those qualities — the grace, the confidence and the certainty of what is important and what is not — are not exclusive to the football field. It is what Jon Husby, a former offensive line mate, described as Wulff’s gift, the ability to live life at 10,000 feet.

From that distance, it is easier to see far and wide, above all the amber wheat fields, tragic circumstances, and frustrations on the sidelines, where it’s possible to make out a sign, one that tells him it’s ok, you’re ok.