UTEP coach Mike Price addressed reporters at the WAC meetings yesterday in Reno, Nev.

Win at any Price

Mike Price is putting the past
behind him and revving up UTEP

RENO, Nev. >> Mike Price is a new man in many ways.

He underwent successful hip replacement surgery last month. Then he had corrective eye surgery and doesn't wear thick glasses anymore. And he has a new job, head football coach at Texas-El Paso.

But inside, he is the same Mike Price who coached Washington State to the Rose Bowl and then got hired at Alabama. And he is the same Mike Price who was fired by Alabama two years ago, before he even coached a game, for a highly publicized drinking and sex incident -- the most incriminating and embarrassing elements of which Price says were exaggerated or just totally invented by Internet posters, an exotic dancer and reporters. He is suing Sports Illustrated.

If Price is bitter, if the negative attention irreparably harmed him, it didn't come across yesterday when he spoke at the Western Athletic Conference's annual media briefing. Hawaii coach June Jones said that is a good thing.

"Well, I've known him for a long time. He's a real, real good guy. And you root for good guys. He's a people guy. His players love him and play (hard) for him. He's going to put UTEP on the map," Jones said. "Any publicity is good publicity, and that stuff he went through at Alabama in the long run is going to be a positive thing. Everybody's gonna know what UTEP does. When he turns them into winners it's gonna be magnified."

Price doesn't enjoy talking about the Alabama situation, but he did so willingly yesterday.

"I just feel like I was wronged. I think we're in a different world now because of the Internet and how immediately information is available, right or not," he said. "I'm moving on with my life and I have a good attorney who's helping me. But it's not going to happen right away. Nothing in the legal system happens right away."

Price didn't dwell on his problems for long, he said, partly because other people have worse burdens.

"I guess you have to be in that situation (to understand). Parts are kind of blurry and there are things you don't want to think about," he said. "A real good friend of mine got prostate cancer, a friend's wife got cancer. Those are things that make other things seem trivial."

Price has had at least two occasions since his problems arose to counsel friends who found themselves in difficult situations that became publicized because of their football celebrity.

Jason Gesser, his star quarterback at Washington State who is now with the Tennessee Titans, got a DUI while home in Hawaii after last season.

"I talked with him after that. He couldn't be a better person or more embarrassed. He just got caught in a situation, and he's not really a drinker," Price said of the former Saint Louis School All-State player. "He stood by me. I'll stand by that guy forever."

Price is also a friend of Colorado coach Gary Barnett, and they spoke several times while Barnett was suspended amid a sex scandal at his school.

"It's a different situation and you need to adjust to it," Price said. "You're in a glass house. The good old boys and good old times aren't around anymore."

WHEN THE Texas-El Paso Miners met their new football coach nearly seven months ago, they were greeted by a 57-year-old man dressed as a miner. Attempted by others, it might be a cheap ploy that turns the new boss into a clown on his first day. But Price is the kind of person who can pull off such a stunt and acquire respect. At least that's what team captain Robert Rodriguez said.

"Check this out. He walks into his first team meeting with a hard hat and a pick and ax. He marches in with a strut and tells us we're going to be more enthusiastic," Rodriguez said. "We all started going crazy, yelling and screaming like we were at a concert."

It was a genius move, because it sent a figurative message that in some ways Price considers himself at the same level as his players.

"Miners are tough people," Price said. "We want to be tough just like that. We want to emulate a miner and strike gold, use a pick and shovel and get dirty and get grubby like miners. That's how we're going to develop -- through hard work and toughness and striking it rich with gold."

The Miners rarely did that in four seasons under Gary Nord. UTEP won a share of the WAC championship in 2000, but has gone 6-30 since.

There are those who believe Price can turn the Miners around instantly, like Jones did with Hawaii in 1999 and Steve Kragthorpe did with Tulsa last season. The most important people in the equation believe this -- the players.

"He's been a breath of fresh air," Rodriguez, a senior linebacker from El Paso said. "He's given us so much hope, completely flipped it over."

Price has already secured an attire contract with Nike and received commitments from high school seniors he met at camps in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Midland.

He's brought in 10 new players since taking the job in December.

"We did some coyote recruiting," he said. "They were under rocks, out in the wilderness."

As for future recruiting in talent-rich Texas:

"They can't all go to Texas and Texas A&M. Go ahead, take your 60," he said.

Price is confident he can win with what he has now through synergy, with two-time defending WAC champion Boise State's example as a blueprint.

"Inside every one of (the UTEP players) is a winner. We just need to find a way to pull that winning attitude out of them and fold and blend the new guys, the hotshot JC transfers and the guys sweating and toiling the last four years," he said. "We have to emulate Boise State, the perfect example of a team. They don't necessarily have the biggest, the fastest, but they play together as a team very well."

Mike Price might never make it back to the top of the college football world again, but he's getting a second chance. His plan is to find his way back to the top, and to take a bunch of Miners with him.

"We're going to make UTEP football big-time," he said. "We could be the story of the year."

Western Athletic Conference


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