Price Is Right at Home In A City That Wanted Him Fired [OPINION]
A cold wind blows across a porch in Couer d'Alene, ID. The tall pines in the snowy mountains above stand vigil in dress whites sharp enough to put a Navy man to shame. But there is no light inside the house, no fire in its hearth. It sits empty, its owner still enamored of a warm desert breeze near another international border, still friends with the man who would fire him, still positive about the best job he never thought he'd have.
A job he knew he would no longer have.
It's complicated, but family usually is.
As of the final whistle of UTEP's final game against Rice this Saturday, Mike Price will join a chorus line of ex-Miner football coaches who leave with a losing record. After nine seasons, the second-longest tenure of any Miners football coach, Price will officially retire to spend time with his wife, Joyce, and his family. Most of the time he'll be doing that from El Paso, TX, even though unofficially he was most likely told by Athletic Director Bob Stull he wouldn't be welcomed back in 2013.
Nonetheless, “We’re definitely going to continue to live here," said Price of his adopted home. "We love it here. We have our summer home up in Coeur d’Alene that we’re looking into, but the more places you go, the better El Paso looks."
Price has certainly seen the other side. He saw it this past Saturday in the Miners' 34-33 win over a Southern Miss team that is now 0-11 under first-year head coach Ellis Johnson.
"We have friends here and the people are just so gracious and nice," said Price. "It was obvious to me when I was looking at the stadium (in Hattiesburg) and what they’re writing about the poor coach there. It’s BS. You don’t get that here. I’ve been to a lot places and I have thick skin, but they treat people with dignity and respect here and I appreciate that.”
Would he still appreciate it if he knew Stull front-loaded the Miners' schedule with money games against Ole Miss and Wisconsin and the smash-and-grab addition of Oklahoma because he knew other home games wouldn't provide enough revenue?
It says here, Yes. Price even alluded to this in his assessment of the program's current state, saying, "Financially, we made some money this year."
At UTEP's last home game against UCF, the announced attendance was over 20,000. In actuality, it was closer to 6,000. Beer sales or no, the only way the Miners made money in 2012 was as cannon fodder to Wisconsin and Ole Miss, with a nice season kickoff against the Sooners that dropped into their laps after the Big XII lost both its I's.
Stull and Price are close friends, and it was suspected by many that this would be Price's final turn at the helm. Stull knew it. Price knew it. Despite the Miners playing well in those games, the scheduling is testament to it.
With six straight seasons of losing football, Price saw the hand writing on the wall in 2012 and dealt with the reality like a man planning out the end after receiving a terminal diagnosis.
You do that for family.
Even so, he still believes the Miners can win consistently.
“I have been other places where it is harder to win than UTEP. That (the Miners can't win) is a cop out to me. I think you can win here," said Price.
"I didn’t do a good enough job and didn’t win enough games. That’s my fault.”
The empty seats in the Sun Bowl would agree. Regardless of Price's bonafides as a former national coach of the year and two Rose Bowl appearances, the program needed the kind of fall cleaning many athletic departments go through about now.
Truth be told, it needed it last year; but there was a year remaining on Price's contract that UTEP would not have been able to pay comfortably. That, and Price's desire to finish things out.
And so, here is 2012, still with the potential to be Price's worst season in his nine years on the border. Price has never won fewer than four games at UTEP, but the 5-6 Rice Owls will come Saturday looking to punch a ticket to a bowl game and punch an old coach off the clock at 3-9.
Win or lose, the clock will be punched Saturday night. And then Mike Price will settle in for a short-sleeved winter and cookouts with the man who would fire him, in a city that encouraged Bob Stull to do exactly that.
The house in the Couer d'Alene pines will still be there next summer, but it's not home.