When the old Pacific-10 Conference held its annual football media briefing and cocktail-a-thon in the summer of 1992, Mike Price wandered into the hospitality room, poured two glasses of wine, handed one to a Washington State beat reporter of that era and delivered the greatest conversation icebreaker in coach-and-writer history:
“So,” he asked, “are they going to fire my ass?”
Price’s Cougars teams had lost 19 of their last 26 games at that point. That he hadn’t been fired already says a lot about how the school has traditionally finessed its ante into the no-limit game of college football, and probably a little about how Price had already become part of the Wazzu furniture, too.
But quarterback at the time was being manned by Drew Bledsoe. So there would be a bowl game, and no firing.
Later, there would even be a Rose Bowl, and then another, the spikes made all the more welcome and remarkable by the swales in between.
This history refresher is brought to you by Price’s thoroughly unsurprising announcement Monday that he’ll coach his last game this weekend when he sends his UTEP Miners against Rice. Instead of a bowl, just a bow on a 31-year career as a head coach.
Under Price, the Miners haven’t had a winning season in seven years. And you thought WSU was the home of the slow trigger finger.
But Price had ingratiated himself in El Paso by going 8-4 his first two seasons at a school where they used to throw parades for three wins in a year. Nor did it hurt that athletic director Bob Stull, the only other Miners coach who’d had any success in 40 years, had become his BFF.
“Everybody leaves pissed off,” Price said at his press conference Monday, “and I’m not.”
Which is as good a time as any to segue back to 2002 when Price left Pullman, and everyone was a little p-o’d.
And also to wonder: how would things have turned out for the Cougs had he been coaxed to stick around? Presuming that was likely, which is certainly arguable.
We know all too well what’s happened since: a terrific rookie year and a Holiday Bowl win for Bill Doba, then slippage, then a Cougpocalypse that’s continued even to this week’s run-up to the Apple Cup.
Now the school has brought in Mike Leach at $2.2 million per year to perform more meatball surgery, and he’s elbow-deep in innards.
Mega-irony in that. As the story goes, after Price led the Cougs to that encore Rose Bowl, Alabama came calling during what let’s gently call its outside-the-box search for a new coach and waved $14 million at Price, who promptly marched into his bosses looking for a counter-offer after signing a nice bump three months earlier.
He didn’t get it. So he got on the Tide’s private jet instead.
That was probably misplaced stubbornness on the school’s end. Price’s achievements at Wazzu were unprecedented, and if president and athletic director had tired of their coach’s not infrequent nudges about his 10th-place salary, well, welcome to the marketplace. Price got it done; any replacement was going to be a we-think-he-can-get-it-done hire.
On the other hand, WSU’s traditional patience (or inertia) played no little part in Price’s success, so maybe the school deserved some from the coach.
What happened next, of course, was too bizarre for belief – getting fired at ‘Bama before coaching a game after the drunken foray in a Florida strip club and the strange-woman-in-his-hotel room image crusher.
So we know Price probably would have rewound the tape if he could. What about the Cougs?
Sustaining the 10-wins-a-year run they were on was improbable. As noted, Price’s valleys were as pronounced as his peaks, mirroring WSU’s history. And to that point the school had done next-to-nothing to capitalize on its success, nor were there donors storming the gates to demand someone take their money. Bill Moos’ vision was being realized at Oregon instead of Wazzu, and the program investments were being made elsewhere in the Pac-10 swamped whatever might be going on in Pullman.
As for Price, his arc at UTEP is telling. The 8-win seasons were achieved mostly with talent rounded up by a luckless predecessor. For all his grand successes as an evaluator and developer at WSU, Price could not find the same magic at UTEP – even in the football-rich state of Texas, though certainly the Miners are not any Lone Star hotshot’s dream team.
The game changed, both on the Cougars and Price. It’s likely the trauma at WSU wouldn’t have been as painful, but unlikely that there wouldn’t have been some.
And, hey, who says no to Alabama, anyway?
No one – not even a coach worried about whether Wazzu was going to fire his you-know-what.