WSU coach inherits a mess off the field
In the past 18 months, at least 25 players have been arrested or charged with offenses that carry possible jail time. Most were charged with misdemeanors such as underage drinking or possession of marijuana.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Six months ago, the mood was festive in Pullman when Paul Wulff returned to his alma mater to resuscitate the Washington State football program. But bubbling beneath the surface were off-the-field problems that would combine to make a tough job even tougher.
Before coaching his first game, Wulff must deal with players arrested and scholarships lost. Wulff is paying for the past — for academic casualties under previous coach Bill Doba and for Doba's failure to hold players accountable for problems off the field.
In May, the NCAA said WSU failed to meet academic standards in 2006-07 and yanked eight scholarships, among the biggest penalties in the country.
"Just blame it on me," Doba kidded Wulff. "I'm gone."
If inclined, Wulff could also blame his predecessor for players running afoul of the law.
"I wasn't real proud of it, to be honest with you," Doba says. "They're kids ... I guess maybe I might have been too easy on them."
In the past 18 months, at least 25 players have been arrested or charged with offenses that carry possible jail time, court records show. Most were charged with misdemeanors such as underage drinking or possession of marijuana. Thirteen had been arrested or charged before.
This year, one player faced felony charges after hitting a man on the head with a frying pan. Another tried to hurt a teammate by soaking his contact lenses in rubbing alcohol. A third was accused of punching a student, knocking him unconscious and fracturing his cheekbone.
Wulff has two problems, and fixing one could compound the other. If he kicks a wayward player off the team, that could hurt WSU under the NCAA's academic guidelines — and possibly cost the Cougars another scholarship.
Wulff's challenges hardly end there. Like all WSU coaches before, he must sell recruits on the merits of isolated Pullman — population 27,030. He must counter the take of Courtney Williams, an ex-defensive back from Los Angeles who left with academic problems.
"WSU is a hard school to go to, man," Williams says. "You ain't got nothin' to do but get drunk and smoke weed, and not go to class because you're too tired from doing what you're doing."
A frying pan leads to felony charges
Some coaches get a honeymoon — but not Wulff. The month after he was named coach, one of his best players landed in trouble.
Andy Mattingly, a linebacker coming off an outstanding sophomore season, was in Spokane in late January when a friend called for help. His front teeth had just been punched out in an argument with some soccer players from North Idaho College, he said.
The friend joined up with Mattingly and Trevor Mooney, a WSU tight end. The three went to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, where two of the soccer players, a goalie and a midfielder, shared an apartment.
First, they knocked. Then, Mattingly kicked in the door. The midfielder grabbed a steak knife, the goalie a butter knife. Mattingly picked up a frying pan off the stove.
The midfielder jumped out a window. This left the goalie — Cesar Lira, 5 feet 10, armed with a butter knife — to contend with Mattingly, a 6-4 linebacker swinging heavy kitchenware.
Mattingly hit Lira's head so hard the pan's handle broke, court records say. Lira got back up, jumped out a window and called police. He had a 2-inch gash and was "bleeding profusely," a police report says.
When police arrested Mattingly and Mooney, Mooney was so drunk he vomited while being booked. Both players spent a night in jail before bonding out.
Prosecutors charged Mattingly, 20, with aggravated battery and burglary, both felonies. In February, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and was sentenced to two years' probation and three days in jail — to be served only if he violated his probation's terms. Mooney received a similar deal on a single misdemeanor charge of unlawful entry.
Ten days after being sentenced in Idaho, Mattingly and Mooney crossed paths with police again, this time in Pullman. An officer reported that while he was standing in a parking lot, a Nissan Pathfinder "swerved and accelerated towards me," prompting him to draw his gun.
Mattingly was the driver, Mooney the front-seat passenger. After the car stopped, another officer saw beer being poured from the passenger side. He found two empty cups at Mooney's feet and an unopened beer can in his pocket. Mooney, 19, was charged with being a minor in possession of alcohol. He pleaded guilty and was fined $200.
Mattingly wasn't charged. But the previous year he'd been convicted of the same alcohol charge and fined $200.
Wulff said last week that he knew of the incident in Idaho, but it was his understanding, from talking to the players, that no charges had been filed. He hasn't read the police reports, Wulff said.
"The kids were punished, believe me, they were punished," he said.
Mattingly has been ordered by the team to do some community-service work on weekends, Wulff said, and Mooney "chose to leave the program."
Alcohol fuels series of arrests
The 25 players in trouble since January 2007 break down like this: Four have been charged with felonies. Eight served jail time, from one to 45 days.
Under Doba, few players in trouble missed playing time.
Mike Graise, a defensive end, was charged in January 2007 with driving under the influence. He pleaded guilty to negligent driving, served a day in jail and received a year's probation. Six months later, Graise was pulled over while driving to a coach's house for breakfast — he told police he'd been drinking wine the night before — and charged again with DUI. He pleaded guilty to negligent driving, and this time was fined $300.
Graise wasn't punished by the team for the first arrest. That's because Doba didn't find out about it until much later, Graise said. After the second arrest, Graise called Doba himself. This time, his punishment consisted of missing "a couple of workouts," Graise said.
Andy Roof, a 300-pound defensive lineman, has one of the longest criminal records among those who played for Doba.
Before coming to WSU in 2004, he'd been charged with misdemeanor assault; the charge was later dismissed. A year after arriving on campus, he was convicted of being a minor with alcohol. Then, in April 2006, a Pullman police officer pulled Roof over on suspicion of driving under the influence. Roof's blood-alcohol level of .109 exceeded the legal limit of .08.
At the police station, Roof paced "and started telling me that I ruined his life," the officer wrote. He "started calling me names ... and asked if I was made fun of in school." Roof swore at the officer and used a homophobic slur. Charged with DUI, Roof pleaded guilty to reckless driving. He received a day in jail and two years' probation.
On Nov. 18, 2006, WSU hosted the Apple Cup and lost. That night, Roof went to a campus bar, where he was "yelling at Huskies" and spoiling for a fight, according to court records. Roof called a woman a highly offensive four-letter word, then sucker-punched her boyfriend, opening a cut above his eye, the man told police. Roof was charged with misdemeanor assault, but the case was later dismissed with the victim's consent.
In May 2007, a Whitman County sheriff's deputy stopped Roof in Colfax after watching his car drift and swerve. Roof began "crying so loud I could not understand what he was saying," the deputy wrote. With a blood-alcohol level of .13, Roof was charged with DUI and driving with a suspended license. Both charges were deferred when Roof agreed to enter an alcohol-treatment program.
After his third alcohol-related offense, the university suspended him from school for the fall semester. He missed the 2007 football season.
Roof hoped to rejoin the team this season, but in April was arrested again, after a fight with six people at a party. He's accused of head-butting a bouncer, knocking a student out with a punch, and slamming another person's head into a traffic sign. Police have requested six assault charges — including one felony — but prosecutors have yet to announce any decision.
WSU will decide Roof's future after that.
Program's plight reflects recruiting hardships
Washington State has always fought an uphill battle to be competitive against USC, UCLA and Washington, football programs with major population and geographic advantages. To bridge that deficit, the Cougars have taken risks.
Some have worked, such as Eboni Wilson, a player who came out of Los Angeles in 1995 with an abysmal 470 SAT score. Wilson graduated in four years, earned master's and doctorate degrees and became principal of a charter school in Chicago.
When the Cougars broke a string of 67 years without a Rose Bowl appearance in 1997, the running back was Michael Black, who had taken part in an armed robbery as a youth in Los Angeles. He became a positive role model for the team while at WSU.
Doba, who became head coach in 2003, also took risks. But unlike his predecessors, he had to deal with the NCAA's increased scrutiny, in place since 2005. Scholarship athletes now must stay eligible and progress toward graduation or the NCAA takes action. Eight players failed to do that in 2006-07, causing the recent penalty.
WSU often tried to fill specific needs with junior-college talent, but frequently found accompanying academic problems. Four of the eight casualties were JC transfers.
"When they're in junior college, they're there for a reason," said Ken Casavant, WSU's faculty athletic representative. "I don't want to be too rude, but you're potentially starting with damaged goods — or at least at-risk students."
"We just had a bad class, basically"
How did the Cougars come to lose eight scholarships? Doba, 67, thinks it has roots in the night of Dec. 30, 2003, when WSU beat heavily favored Texas in the Holiday Bowl, completing a dazzling run of 30 victories in three seasons.
For Doba, that stretch gave the program a false sense of what it was — "We might have gotten a little too big for our britches," he said recently — and the staff spread itself thin by targeting some high-profile recruits it failed to land. This overreaching, he contends, limited the research on fallback recruits.
"There were some character risks we weren't able to completely turn over and maybe find out all about," says Robb Akey, a defensive coordinator who left WSU in 2006 to be the head coach at Idaho.
Others familiar with recruiting say the Cougars simply didn't work as hard after their unprecedented success. And now there was increased pressure to sustain the good times.
"When the alumni see three 10-win seasons in a row, they think it's something that should just happen," says Leon Burtnett, an assistant coach under Doba. "It's just not going to happen at Washington State."
Recruiting at WSU will always be a challenge, Burtnett says.
"We never beat Washington on a kid in the state that Washington wanted in the time I was there," he said. "Those are the things you face."
The talent level dipped. Former coach Mike Price's last recruiting class in 2002 produced six first- or second-team all-conference players. It took Doba five years as head coach to reach six — and none on defense, his specialty.
Midway through Doba's tenure came the class of 2005. It included six of the eight who ran afoul of the NCAA's new academic standards.
"We just had a bad class, basically," Doba says.
Some of those eight players took and retook classes, trying to remain eligible. Courtney Williams says he had to take a fine-arts class three times. Defensive tackle Bryan Tarkington says he couldn't pass an advanced health class he was taking for the second time.
Running back DeMaundray Woolridge says he fell behind when he wasn't diagnosed with dyslexia until late in his freshman year. He concedes he missed too many classes and didn't study enough on his own.
Quarterback Arkelon Hall was a highly regarded recruit whom WSU coaches came to feel was a negative influence on the team. Academically ineligible at WSU, he transferred to junior college in California and is now competing for a starting position at the University of Memphis.
"Every spring, I outperformed everybody," Hall, still bitter, said of his days at WSU. "I felt like I should have been playing. That's why I left."
Offensive lineman Derek Hunter came to WSU with relatively solid academic credentials after a year in junior college, but didn't work hard.
"I blame myself pretty much for everything," he said. "The support was there. I'm not sure I was ready to live on my own and take care of my own business."
Was the support structure in place to help at-risk athletes? Most people interviewed for this story said it was adequate if not excellent.
"There are so many opportunities provided for student-athletes," said former quarterback Alex Brink, who received repeat Pac-10 academic honors. "Tutors, and the computer lab, and mandatory study hall.
"You point the finger first and foremost at the individual."
When academic, criminal problems collide
Paul Stevens, a reserve defensive end, found trouble in both the classroom and the courtroom.
A couple of years ago, Stevens got involved in a sophisticated scam apparently dreamed up by a man referred to in court records as the uncle of another player no longer on the team.
Four forged checks, ranging in value from $2,287 to $2,612, were issued to Stevens and another player, Odell Howard, according to court records. The checks were deposited in the players' bank accounts, then withdrawn through money orders and debit cards.
Charged with five felonies, Stevens pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering and two counts of second-degree theft. He served 30 days in jail and was ordered to do 240 hours of community service and pay $4,751 in restitution.
The criminal charges prompted the university to expel Stevens, who was already struggling academically.
"I wasn't really interested in school," Stevens says. "This case was so on me, it was so stressful, I couldn't really go to class sometimes."
Doba says: "Paul's not a bad kid, but he was short on money. Here's a chance to make $2,500 or $5,000."
Doba said he was surprised when Stevens and Howard went astray: "When you talked to them on their home visits, they hadn't been in trouble before."
In Stevens' case, that wasn't true. Before coming to WSU, he'd been accused of burglary and vehicle-prowling, and landed in juvenile court. While in college, he was charged with a string of misdemeanors, including a DUI that was pleaded down to reckless driving.
Stevens, living in SeaTac with his girlfriend, recently said his debt is unpaid.
"I haven't been working or anything," he said. "I'm trying to find a way to pay it off. My background is following me everywhere."
An important first test for Wulff
Junior safety Xavier Hicks became one of Wulff's early disciplinary cases and a measure of how the new coach might handle problems.
In January, Hicks slipped rubbing alcohol into the contact-lens case of Grady Maxwell, an offensive lineman. The two roomed together and had been feuding over an unpaid cable bill. Maxwell noticed the lenses had swelled to the size of a quarter and never used them.
Charged with a felony, Hicks pleaded guilty to attempted third-degree assault, a gross misdemeanor, and received a 45-day jail sentence.
Twice before, Hicks had been accused of theft. In 2005, he was charged with stealing another student's $150 annual parking pass. Later, he was convicted of stealing a debit card. When Hicks appeared on a video camera using the card to buy gas, the card's owner said he was "shocked" and had considered Hicks a friend.
"If you were going to tell me about the trouble he's in, I never would have guessed," said Burtnett, the former Doba assistant.
Wulff says he'll be suspended for three games: "He's right on the edge and he knows it, and everybody on the team knows it."
As Hicks headed home from jail last week, he was stopped by police and cited for driving with a suspended license.
When Doba was coach, he had to deal with a player, running back Kevin McCall, who also served 45 days in jail. In 2005, McCall was convicted of a gross misdemeanor, pleaded down from a felony rape charge. Doba suspended the player from offseason activities — but no games.
"I think he's been punished enough," Doba said at the time.
New coach guarantees things will be different
Paul Wulff is taking an upbeat view of his challenge. He says the loss of eight of his 85 scholarships has already been assessed, so future classes won't be affected. The Cougars are also buoyed by a 2.72 cumulative team grade-point average this spring, the highest in 30 years.
"Although the attitude and behavior of our football student-athletes is not in a crisis situation, there is room for improvement," WSU athletic director Jim Sterk said in an e-mail last week to boosters to brace them for today's story. "While there are no quick fixes, the program is heading in the right direction."
Last month, Wulff released recruit Calvin Schmidtke from his letter of intent, citing the Tacoma quarterback's continuing legal troubles.
Wulff also imposed a curfew during spring practice and told players not to frequent bars. Graise, the defensive end, says the seniors met and decided to extend the drinking ban through the summer, policing each another.
"So far, I haven't heard any bad news around," Graise said.
Wulff, 41, said he put a high premium on retention in his first signing class, and wants to sign fewer junior-college transfers in the future. He has implemented the Unity Council, a group of 16 players that sits in judgment of teammates and recommends penalties to Wulff on everything from missed meetings to serious criminal charges.
"We've got some kids making some mistakes, but they're not major mistakes," Wulff said. "We're not talking major drugs. We're not talking some truly serious issues that go on in society."
But he adds: "I guarantee that will be held to a minimum as we move forward. The players understand that. I guarantee it."
Bud Withers: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-8281.
Ken Armstrong: email@example.com or 206-464-3730.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company