Bill Doba didn't think anything was amiss when Mike Price called him into his office last December. Not even with rumors that had Price bolting Rose Bowl-bound Washington State for Alabama picking up speed like a snowball rolling downhill.
But Doba's professional life as the trusty sidekick assistant was about to change very quickly.
"In about a minute and a half," Doba recalled earlier this week. "I went in there and he told me that he was leaving. He was almost in tears and I asked him if he was sure -- he was really struggling with it -- and he said he was. And then he said that I was the new coach.
"I said, 'Shouldn't we talk to [Athletic Director] Jim Sterk about this first?' And just then Jim Sterk came up from behind and put his hand on my shoulder and said, 'Congratulations, Coach.'
"It's a good thing I didn't have to interview for this thing," he said with a laugh. "I might not have gotten it."
And Washington State might not have become the most surprising team in the country.
All Doba has done in his first season as a college head coach is lead the Cougars, who were picked to finish seventh in the Pacific 10, to a No. 6 national ranking with a 7-1 record, 4-0 in the Pac-10, and take them to the verge of a second consecutive Rose Bowl berth. Of course, today's game against No. 3 USC (7-1, 3-1) at the Coliseum will go a long way toward determining which team will represent the Pac-10 in Pasadena.
Not bad for a 63-year-old rookie whose last head-coaching job was at Mishawaka High in Indiana during the waning days of the Ford administration. (Doba began his coaching career as an assistant at Goshen High in the second year of John F. Kennedy's presidency.)
Doba, a bookish Indiana Hall of Fame high school coach, is a longtime defensive mastermind. He had a healthy enough resume to warrant at least cursory looks whenever head-coaching jobs opened.
He was an assistant under Lee Corso at Indiana from 1977 to '82 and moved to Purdue from 1983 to '86 and The Citadel in 1987 and '88. Doba joined Price's first staff in 1989.
But although Doba interviewed twice at his alma mater, Ball State, and was promoted hard by his friend Price for the Indiana job two years ago, he never found a taker.
"I thought it wasn't going to happen but I wasn't going to pout about it," Doba said. "I wasn't going to go to my grave unfulfilled.
"I think you go through life in phases. It's healthy to do different things. I mean, I would have been happy just retiring as Coach Price's defensive coordinator."
That changed when Price left for Alabama, a move that never fully came to fruition; he was fired less than five months later after his alleged encounter with a Florida stripper named Destiny.
Doba remains close to Price, who is in nearby Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, though he said, "We don't talk football.
"[Price is] OK, better than he was. He's just frustrated because he wants a job."
Doba, though, has found his own destiny.
When Doba's hiring was announced Dec. 18, 2002, a day after Price's departure was official, he signed a five-year deal that reportedly pays him at a rate close to Price's annual base salary of $600,000. Still, Price coached the Cougars in the Rose Bowl, a 34-14 loss to Oklahoma.
Under Price, the Cougars had a reputation as a pass-happy outfit that churned out such gunslingers as Drew Bledsoe, Ryan Leaf and Jason Gesser.
Now, with Doba running the show, the Cougars' high-pressure, aggressive defense, which refers to itself as "Damage Inc.," is drawing raves while being compared to the likes of Florida State's, even while the offense remains strong.
Consider: Washington State is leading the Pac-10 in passing offense, averaging 295 yards, and is the league's second-highest scoring team with a 33.2-point average.
And the Cougars are leading the league in sacks, 31, fewest points allowed at 16.9 a game, rushing defense at 68.1 yards a game, and total defense at 303.8 yards a game.
Of course, Doba credits his coaches, six of whom he retained from Price's staff, and his players.
Cougar captain Al Genatone, a fifth-year senior linebacker, said that Doba related well to the players, in a grandfatherly manner. Doba, a married father of three grown children, does have six grandchildren.
"Everybody loves him," Genatone said. "Nobody has anything bad to say about Coach Doba.
"He's real diligent in his work and he's such a hard worker and it rubs off. That tough attitude rubs off on the team. And we're always working on the small things to get even better."
It's a philosophy that was ingrained in Doba as he grew up in a Catholic family in New Carlisle, Ind., in the shadow of Notre Dame. His mother would shake her rosary beads above the radio during Fighting Irish game broadcasts.
No wonder that the Cougars' lone loss this season -- a 29-26 overtime defeat by Notre Dame in South Bend, the city of Doba's birth, on Sept. 6, the day before he turned 63 -- is rife with nostalgia. Still, he isn't dwelling on it.
"I'm having a ball," he said. "At first I was frustrated with not having a [specific] position to coach. It's kind of like I'm a glorified cheerleader."
"You've got to sell what you've got," he said, "and not worry about what you don't."