Price making the most of his second chance
EL PASO, Texas -- The metaphor, Mike Price thought, was rich. Price has always been a sucker for motivational gimmicks that would keep his players focused and entertained. The day Price arrived at UTEP last December, he shook the hand of linebacker Rob Rodriguez, looked him in the eye and said, "You're going to love playing for me."
For instance, at the end of practice last Thursday, Price gathered the team together and gave a cue to someone in the Sun Bowl press box. Through the public-address system came "Miner Mash," a tune based on the old novelty hit "Monster Mash," and Price began dancing.
Anyway, UTEP's sports teams are the Miners, so before the season Price got this idea. He had a tunnel in the Sun Bowl dressed up to look like the opening to a mineshaft. Before the game, with smoke machines going full bore, the Miners emerge out of the shaft and come down to the field. In front of them is Price, carrying an antique pick provided to him by a campus professor.
Tradition may take a while, but pride got here faster than anyone imagined. After winning six games in the last three seasons, UTEP has begun this season 6-2. Price has turned around the Miners, just as he turned around Washington State twice in his 14 seasons in Pullman before leaving in Dec. 2002 for Alabama.
There's another metaphor involving emerging from a mineshaft, the one where you plummet hundreds of feet below ground only to rise again. That isn't what Price had in mind, but it's just as rich. Eighteen months ago, Price was fired by Alabama, his 37-year coaching career in tatters, after a night at a Florida strip club that erupted into scandal.
Not only did Price lose a dream job and the $10 million contract he had agreed to but never signed, but Price's sons Eric and Aaron, who had come with him to Tuscaloosa, lost their coaching jobs as well. Mike Price the man and Mike Price the coach went underground. Alabama hit Price so hard that, as the old schoolyard taunt went, it hurt his whole family.
He could deal with the personal humiliation. "I got high school friends dying of cancer," said Price, 58. "I can live through this."
The mortification that comes when your actions affect not only you, but your sons and their families, too, was another thing still.
"I told them," Price said, referring to his sons, his voice a feather pillow, "go ahead and go." Other coaches were calling, college and pro, with job offers for his sons.
Eric and Aaron stood by him.
"We were still getting paid by Alabama," Eric said "Me and Aaron decided that if he gets a chance to get a head coaching job, we were going to go with him no matter where. My wife and Aaron's wife are close friends, in the same sorority. It was a tough deal, because me and Aaron weren't sure. How long do we wait?"
Says Mike Price, "They said, 'We're going to stick it out with you and make this thing right.'"
You always knew when Price entered the room. He would be full of energy, full of bombast and backslapping. The energy and friendliness are still there, but he speaks softly these days. He has lost weight, and the west Texas sun has given his face a pinkish glow. Over a year and a half, Price has progressed from humiliation to humility.
"It changed him in a way," Eric said. "He appreciates things more. He appreciates the profession, how he had it taken from him and now he's got it back. No one was even sure he would coach again. He appreciates the daily interaction with the coaches and players. You notice that he's trying to smell the roses."
Price made a career of winning from the other side of the college football tracks. He's in his element at UTEP, a school that had had three winning seasons since 1971.
"They didn't even know the fight song here," Price said. "The kids didn't know. We sing it in the locker room after the game. We do all the fun things. Kids are coming off the field saying, 'Gee, we're having fun.' For three years, they didn't have any fun. They felt horrible about themselves."
The players no longer feel horrible. After a 1-2 start, with the losses coming to Arizona State and Boise State, both of them ranked, the Miners have won five consecutive games. Quarterback Jordan Palmer, the younger brother of former USC Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer, is leading an offense that averages 34.25 points per game. A bowl game is all but assured.
"We had a lot of talented players going in different directions," Rodriguez, the senior linebacker, said of his first three seasons. "We've been a lot more disciplined, a lot more focused on game plans. Without Coach Price and this staff giving us focus and direction, we'd be like we were."
Imagine that. Price, the symbol of the perils of no self-discipline, the winner of the National There-But-For-The-Grace-Of-God Award, has turned losers into winners by having them adhere to rules. That goes for on the field, where the Miners have gone from minus-15 in turnovers last year to plus-eight this year, and off.
"You can be disciplined and have fun," Price said. "Discipline isn't saying yes sir, no sir, like you and I did it. Discipline is doing what the coach wants you to do when he asks you. You don't have to look any further than me to see that bad decisions can change your life."
Last spring, Price walked up behind center Bo Morris before practice, said, "You're good!" and kept walking. Morris is a fifth-year senior. He had, by his count, been on the field for six plays in four years.
This fall, Morris is starting.
"I really hadn't had a coach tell me that here before," Morris said. "It was just a little thing he did. It just made me try harder. That motivated me through the summer."
Morris is generously listed at 6-foot-2, 260. He looks as much like the MBA candidate that he is as he does an offensive lineman.
"He ain't the biggest specimen there is," Price said. "I just told him, 'Snap the ball to the quarterback every time. Set our linemen so that our helmets are on the right guy. If you get blown 10 feet back, fine. You do that, you'll win for us.'
"He's doing a lot better than that," Price said. "Sometimes, a kid gets hit with 'He can't play. He can't play," and they never get a chance. It was a second chance."
As good of an offensive mind as he has -- and Price has sent quarterbacks like Drew Bledsoe and Ryan Leaf to the NFL -- his best coaching trait is making his players believe in themselves.
"Inside every one of these kids is a winner," Price said. "You just have to find it."
What we're talking about is the world's largest group therapy session. A coach and a locker room full of players, lifting each other up, making each other better than they were when they met.
It is one of those first days that Price and his sons remember the most. In August, Price and his staff took the Miners to Socorro, N.M., for several days of practice and team-building. Spring football had been rewarding, sure, but Price had gone through spring ball at Alabama a year earlier. He and his sons hadn't run a preseason workout in two years.
At the first practice in Socorro, as the players came onto the field, Price hugged Eric and Aaron.
"No one on this field," Mike Price said, "knows how damn happy we are right now. The season is starting, and we're back."
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your question/comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org. Your e-mail could be answered in a future Maisel E-mails.