Paul Wulff had just arrived in the Big Easy for the Big Game, and the former Washington State player and coach sounded as relaxed and confident as could be expected of any first-year NFL assistant coach during Super Bowl week.
“I’m in a very fortunate situation,” Wulff said Sunday night after the San Francisco 49ers’ charter flight landed in New Orleans.
Barely a year removed from a bitter parting of ways with his alma mater, Wulff finds himself one win away from a world championship. He maintains that he has no regrets about the work he and his staff did at Washington State, and he certainly has no regrets about going to work for hard-driving 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh.
“He’s as good a person as I could ever imagine working for,” Wulff said in a telephone interview. “Absolutely.
“I think the perception of Jim, looking from the outside in, is a lot different than from the inside looking out. He’s one of those guys, when you’re on his team, he couldn’t be a better guy for you. He ‘promotes’ and helps everyone.
“He’s a great guy, but he’s your worst enemy if he’s your opponent, and that’s OK.”
Wulff, 45, spent his entire 19-year coaching career at the collegiate level at Eastern Washington (15 years) and Washington State (four years) before joining the 49ers last spring as the senior offensive assistant coach. He says pro football and the college game both offer plenty of appeal.
“I wouldn’t say one is a lot better than the other,” he said. “Both have great things to be part of. I would never say that I’d only want to coach in the NFL, or that I’d only want to coach in college.”
Wulff said “there’s no question” he’s interested in becoming a head coach again, “but it’s definitely not something I’m looking at closely right now at all.
“I’m really enjoying getting to know the NFL and continuing to learn our system and continuing to grow as an offensive assistant coach.”
Wulff said he would only consider becoming a head coach again “in a healthy situation.” Wulff and his staff inherited a Washington State program filled with players with marginal talent and character, and poor academic work under the previous staff led to NCAA-mandated scholarship reductions.
The Cougars went 9-40 under Wulff, including 4-32 in the Pac-10/12 Conference. Still, Wulff says he was “as confident as you could be” that Washington State would have gone to a bowl game in 2011 if quarterback Jeff Tuel had not been sidelined with injuries most of the season.
“He was playing at such a high level in the spring and fall camp,” Wulff recalled. “The rest of the team didn’t have enough veteran leadership to make a bowl unless we had a great performance from the quarterback.”
Wulff said he’s not certain a bowl game would have guaranteed him a fifth year with the Cougars.
“I can’t answer that one,” he said. “I don’t know if it had anything to do with whether I was going to win enough games there. Certain people or person (athletic director Bill Moos and/or school president Elson Floyd) wanted me out, so it didn’t matter.”
Asked if he would have taken the Cougars job if he had fully understood the condition the program was in when he arrived, Wulff said, “I go back and forth.”
“You look at guys like Jon Gruden and Tony Dungy and Bill Belichick and — I don’t know, I can name all the coaches — Bill Parcells. All these guys that have won Super Bowls have been fired as head coaches before.”
Wulff signed a two-year contract with the 49ers after being pursued by Harbaugh. The two had developed a friendship prior to coaching against one another in the Pac-10 when Harbaugh was at Stanford.
Wulff has savored four more wins in five months as an NFL coach than he experienced in four years at Washington State. One of the keys to San Francisco’s success has been the development of young quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who replaced veteran Alex Smith at midseason in a controversial decision that Wulff says he supported.
“I always thought he was the guy with the most potential,” Wulff said.
Wulff, a native of Davis, Calif., said he and his family love the weather and lifestyle in the San Francisco East Bay area where they reside. Of course, the commute to work is a bit more challenging than in Pullman.
“It’s a good, long commute to Santa Clara (home to the 49ers’ training facility), and sometimes I sleep in the office,” Wulff said. “On a good day, it’s about 50 minutes.”
Wulff says it’s all worth it. After all, this is a man who spent his first year coaching at Eastern Washington for zero dollars, though he cheerfully points out that he earned $700 for working at Eastern’s summer football camp prior to the season.
Wulff never made it in the NFL as a player, getting cut in training camp by the New York Jets in 1990. He played the next two years in the old World League, but it is as a coach that he has made his way to the top.
Well, one win from the top.
“I’m working with the best coaches and best players in America at the very highest level,” Wulff said.
“Very few get to be part of being in the Super Bowl and the potential of being part of the best team in America.”