Four years ago, on a campus thousands of miles away near the Idaho border, Washington State coach Paul Wulff declared an “open campus” tryout, wading among the beer bellies and the glory hounds for a scout team signal-caller, because one of his quarterbacks cracked a neck vertebrae, another hurt his back and a third blew out his knee.
Granted, he didn’t need a starter. But Washington State still needed a quarterback to at least take snaps in practice and help prepare the scout team.
“We didn’t have anybody who could throw the football,” Wulff, a current assistant with the San Francisco 49ers, said Monday by phone. “There comes a point, you’ve got to be able to get through a drill, and get your receivers work, your defense is facing a quarterback that opposing week and they need somebody to give it a reasonable look throwing the ball downfield. That was the reason. That was the number one reason.”
And so Wulff announced the tryouts, drawing more media attention than anything else the Cougars did in the coach’s first season in Pullman. Cameras and reporters flooded Rogers Field, watching as somewhere between 27 and 31 students showed up in cut-off sleeves and sweatpants, gasping and wheezing as they side-stepped over bags and executed passing drills.
“We had guys coming out of the bar trying out that looked like they were in their mid to late 30s,” Wulff said. “There was some comedy to that part of it. We ended up finding one person, so it did help.”
That person wound up being Peter Roberts, a 6-foot-1, 190-pound former high school quarterback who beat out two other finalists and was later added to the Cougars’ roster. As a senior, Roberts threw for 1,571 yards, eight touchdowns and eight interceptions.
From Wulff’s standpoint, Washington State needed some help, and not just in practices. The Cougars needed a rallying point, a morale boost after Wulff took over from former coach Bill Doba. Even though some assistants weren’t exactly fired up about the tryout, it created buzz and excitement on campus that an ordinary student – an engineer, it turned out – could emerge from the classroom and join the football team. Roberts even generated a personal fan club in the stands. Wulff allowed him to stay on the team through spring practices, but said Roberts’ parents wouldn’t allow him to after his grades suffered.
“The question was, Are we going to be able to get anything out of it?” said Wulff, who had all the applicants prove they would be NCAA eligible beforehand to avoid paperwork headaches later. “We didn’t get too caught up in whether it looked bad, or are we going to look good, one way or another. We needed help now, what can we do? Could we get some help doing it? We didn’t know of any other way to do it.”
Wulff posted just a 9-40 record at Washington State and was fired following four seasons, emerging with at least a good story about holding an unprecedented, movie-like open tryout. He and his coaches kept their spirits up, joking about one day penning a book about the experience.
But even Wulff had never heard of a situation like Maryland’s, where four Terps quarterbacks are out for the season. “What are the quarterback’s injuries again?” Wulff asked.
He was told: torn ACL, torn ACL, Lisfranc injury, torn ACL.
“No, I’d never guess that you’d ever get in a situation like that,” Wulff said. “Wow. That’s amazing. That’s unbelievable? Hopefully it’s something that you can look back on, remember when this happened? Now look where we’re at.”