Married … With Football Joyce Price Is An Important, If Often Unseen, Part Of Cougar Football Program
FOR THE RECORD (December 28, 1997): Location incorrect: An A-1 photo caption Saturday gave the incorrect location of the hotel where Washington State University coach Mike Price is staying during the Rose Bowl. The hotel is in Santa Monica, Calif.
A 32-ounce T-bone dangles from a serving fork in Joyce and Mike Price’s kitchen.
“Stud, how do you like your steak?” Mike asks a grinning teenager he’s eyeing as a potential Washington State University Cougar. “It’s got your name on it.”
A horde of burly young men cross the kitchen, heaping paper plates - two apiece - with meat, salad, baked potatoes.
This is recruiting, Joyce Price-style.
The paperwork happens later, on off-white leather sofas in the living room. Mike whips out letters of intent, invites the guys to join the football team he coached clear to the Rose Bowl this year.
But the night itself is designed by Joyce - from five fat candles flickering on the coffee table to the Christmas tree decorated with tiny cougars to the mega-meal she’ll make 10 times this winter.
She ate a tuna sandwich earlier. No one seems to notice she never sits down to a steak.
“You must have a lot of these dinners!” gushes a woman checking out the team with her son.
Joyce dismisses the admiration with the wave of a hand. “Oh, this is the first one this year.”
Joyce isn’t an attention-grabber. Few people recognize her at games. She forfeits a sideline pass. When the Cougars won the Apple Cup last month, she stood teary-eyed in the stands for 15 minutes as cheering fans hoisted her husband onto their shoulders and out of her sight.
But Joyce is always there. She’s missed just one Cougar game in nine years, and that was when her 83-year-old mother was dying. Earlier, when her three kids were young and some sickness or other kept her home, she’d envision the games by pulling out a miniature football field and moving toy players as a radio announcer described plays.
Mike, or quarterback Ryan Leaf, or some other face-of-the-moment may be grinning in front of the camera flashes, but Joyce is somewhere nearby.
Being married to a football program isn’t easy. On losing nights, she burns inside when over-amped fans scream at the top of their lungs that Mike Price is a stupid, lousy jerk - or worse. And the movie title “Home Alone” aptly describes much of Joyce’s life. She spends lots of lonely evenings with bowls of cold cereal.
“She’s probably the backbone of my dad - the backbone you don’t see,” says the Prices’ 22-year-old daughter, Angie Fry. “She’s the one that makes everything work around our house. And she keeps us happy, too.”
Empathy for single parents
Mike Price swears it was love at first sight. “I kissed her in … was it kindergarten or first grade? Then her grandpa chased me off the yard.”
Their families were friends in Everett long before Mike and Joyce began dating in high school. The pair went to Everett Junior College for a year, Mike playing football and Joyce studying to be a nurse. When they married in 1966, they were both 19.
Eric was born when the Prices were 20. Then Aaron a few years later, and finally Angie. Joyce’s sister went on to become a nurse, and her brother a doctor. But she readily dumped nursing school as Mike’s fledgling coaching career pulled the family from city to city.
Early on, she settled on a theory: “In coaching, if the wife has a career, something has to suffer. I loved it. I fell into the role and didn’t care.”
When her sons played football at Weber State College in Utah, where Mike coached for eight years, Joyce pulled Angie from school to follow the out-of-town games. (Aaron later transferred to WSU).
Those years gave her tremendous sympathy for single parents - shuttling kids to games, practices, doctor appointments, school. Fixing everything from meals to faucets, scheduling lunches with her husband “so we don’t lose contact completely.”
Several days a week, she cooked for 120 so the team would have well-rounded meals before practice.
Joyce smiles when describing the Utah years. “I think of those years as being fun - really, really fun.”
Busy became hectic when Mike landed the head coaching job at WSU in 1989. With Angie still in junior high, Joyce ran the home they built on a hill overlooking the campus.
Mike is away three-fourths of the year, either out of town or working until 11 p.m., Joyce says. “Especially when you get to this level, it’s a business. Coaches are fired all the time. You’re always living with that in your mind,” she says, then knocks rapidly on a wooden kitchen chair.
Football, for the Prices, is more than the subject of most conversations. It’s what raised them from $38-a-month World War II barracks to a roomy home with a basement devoted to Cougar memorabilia. It’s given them a long roster of chums in college towns across the country.
Friends and relatives say football hasn’t eclipsed their relationship. “I don’t know what they’d do without each other,” says her older sister, Joan Rice. “When Joyce is away, Mike’s calling her about four times a day.”
But the football life has been tough, too. So tough that when Aaron said he wanted to coach someday, Joyce suggested dentistry as a fine alternative. She warned his fiance, Tiffany, who prizes her status as a “fourth-generation Cougar,” about the isolation awaiting her.
It didn’t work. Aaron, a graduate student, works with his dad now. Eric coaches football at Northern Arizona University, and Angie married a high school coach.
Assistant coaches’ wives watch Joyce with awe. Who is this woman who bypasses VIP game passes to sit with them? Who skirts the spotlight and bakes pumpkin pies for homesick players?
“She’s kind of one of us,” says Judy Doba, a learning specialist married to the Cougars’ defensive coordinator. “There are some pretty huge egos in this business, but she’s just nice.”
Lately, the fans have been nice in return. Etched in Joyce’s mind are nastier times, when a handshake from Mike Price wasn’t an automatic status booster. After an early losing streak, she says, “People wanted him fired and gone - fans, the press, everybody.”
Joyce cringed. Sometimes, she cried. Angie marched right up to outraged fans and told them to stop talking that way about her father, please. Her mom was listening a few seats away.
Usually the critics hushed. But once, a drunk man leaned too close to Joyce’s face and offered a profane observation of her husband.
Joyce calls it her biggest emotional struggle. “Just because he’s losing a game does not mean he’s a rotten person. But that’s the way he’s perceived if he’s not winning.
“We stopped going to functions years ago because you’d either be mauled because you’re so great, or had things thrown at you because you’re such a louse.”
A bouquet for Joyce
Things are sooooo different this year.
Both Joyce and Mike were emotionally stretched going into the season. Joyce’s mother died last year, then her step-father. A brain tumor killed Mike’s brother.
In June, both Angie and Aaron married within a two-week period. Angie moved to Sumner, officially emptying the Price nest.
It seemed to Joyce like a good time to kick back, visit her brother in Alaska, relax a little.
Then suddenly the team was 7 and 0, and she started wondering: Could this be the year?
At the Apple Cup, Joyce sat near the end zone, her stomach in knots. Her sister, Joan, was there, shrieking so loud that laryngitis kept her from working for two days. The sisters mourned their football fan mom, who had faithfully attended games in her wheelchair.
“I can’t believe it,” Rice says. “My little Mikey’s famous!”
Well-wishers left 32 messages on the Prices’ answering machine until it wouldn’t hold any more. They listened to a few before Mike had to rush off. Joyce took notes on the rest and read them to him later.
A bouquet of red roses - what else? - arrived from John Robinson, who was the coach at the University of Southern California at the time. “He sent it to me,” says Joyce, tickled by the rare recognition. “It wasn’t for Mike, it was for me!”
Joyce bets Ryan Leaf will be a star in the pros, earning millions. She doesn’t know where football will lead her and Mike. She would like to retire sometime in the next decade, maybe spend more time at their house on Lake Coeur d’Alene.
For now, there’s a long string of recruit dinners to plan, players to lure.
Three of the fat candles have sputtered out by the time Mike shakes hands with the first dinner guest to sign a letter of intent - a stunned-looking teenager with hair dyed yellow.
“We’ve got a new Cougar here, Joyce!” Mike shouts toward the kitchen.
Joyce stops a conversation midsentence, darts to the living room.
“Yaaaay!” she says, clapping her hands, patting the boy’s back.
She smiles big. The start of a whole new season.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo