Ex-Cougars coach Price steps away from the game

A football saga that began on the playgrounds of Everett nearly six decades ago will end in the coming days when Mike Price officially retires as head coach at the University of Texas at El Paso.

Price announced his decision in mid-November and coached his final game against Rice on Nov. 24. He is tending to some last details and then will leave for good, perhaps as soon as this week.

“It’s been a great career,” he said by phone from El Paso. “The coaching profession has been a great life for me.”

A 1964 graduate of Everett High School, Price played football at Washington State University and the University of Puget Sound before starting in coaching as a WSU graduate assistant in 1969. There were later assistant coaching jobs at Puget Sound, WSU again, and then Missouri before he got his first head coaching position at Weber State in 1981.

Eight years later he was named the head coach at Washington State, where he would remain for 14 seasons. Price closed his career with nine years at UTEP and it started well, with his first two teams going 8-4 and playing in bowl games. But the next seven teams all had losing records, including a 2012 squad that went 3-9.

And that, Price admitted, is a major regret.

“Everybody wants to go out a winner,” he said. “You seldom do, but I just wish we would’ve won more games in my tenure here. That’s my job and I didn’t get that part done.

“But I have no bitterness. I’m not leaving mad at anybody. This (retirement) didn’t really depend much on the win-loss record this year. More than anything, I was just ready for it.”

That Price got into coaching was almost a sure thing, given his background. As the son of Walt Price, the longtime head coach at Everett Junior College, he was immersed in football from his earliest memories.

“I used to watch my dad’s games every Sunday morning from the film he had of the game (the day before),” he said. “I went to every one of his games, home and away. And I was a ballboy, so I went to the practices. I was half-raised on 13th and Oakes (at the team’s north Everett practice field).”

But if he dreamed of becoming a coaching himself back then, what he ended up with turned out to be much more than he ever imagined.

“I would’ve given anything just to be the head coach at the University of Puget Sound,” he said. “Or at Western Washington because that was my dream job. But then I ended up getting my true dream job and that was Washington State.”

Indeed, if there is a pinnacle to Price’s career, it would be his years at WSU. The Cougars had just six winning seasons in that span, but three of those squads won 10 games, including Rose Bowl teams in 1997 and 2002. He was also on the sidelines for one of the most memorable games in Apple Cup history — a 42-23 WSU victory over the Rose Bowl-bound Huskies in a 1992 blizzard at Pullman’s Martin Stadium.

Coaching the Cougars “was such a great run,” Price said. “I grew up in Everett, but I spent 21 years of my life in Pullman as a player, a graduate assistant, an assistant coach and a head coach, and it was just wonderful. … Those years at Washington State were very, very special, and they always will be.”

But if his time at WSU was the high, what followed was the low. Price was hired to coach the University of Alabama in December of 2002, but was fired a few months later after admitting to drinking heavily and being in a strip club after a pro-am golf tournament in Pensacola, Fla.

“I’ve been through an up and down career,” he said candidly. “It hasn’t always been rosy for me, but there’s been great support from some very loyal people.”

Among them, UTEP athletic director Bob Stull, a former assistant coach at the University of Washington under Don James who hired Price in 2004 and stood by him through some difficult seasons.

“I’m very appreciative of my opportunity to go to UTEP,” Price said. “This job and this community have been maybe the best thing that ever happened to me. They took me right in and they were appreciative and supportive and loyal. The people in this town are wonderful.”

As he faces a life without football, Price admits to uncertainty. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like,” he said, “but at least I can sleep in and not have to worry about having my guts turned upside down every weekend.”

One thing he is definitely looking forward to is summers back in the Pacific Northwest. Though Price and his wife Joyce expect to keep their permanent residence in El Paso for the time being, they have a second home on Idaho’s Lake Coeur d’Alene, where longtime friends and Snohomish County coaching colleagues Dennis Erickson and Keith Gilbertson have places nearby.

“I just talked to Gilby this week and I talked with Dennis also,” Price said. “We’re all still close friends and we all still talk about the old days. We still enjoy each other’s company and our wives do, too, so that could be a lot of fun for us.”

Quipped Erickson in a separate interview: “Maybe we can all sit around and have all the answers.”

Price has been approached about getting into broadcasting, but says he is reluctant. Television work “is a lot harder than people think,” he said. “And that’s not why I’m retiring, so I can go watch somebody else’s team.”

Instead he expects to do volunteer work in El Paso and spend time with his kids — sons Eric and Aaron, and daughter Angie — and their families. “Maybe I’ll just be a professional grandpa,” he said. “I’d like that.”

And he will have time to reflect on a remarkable career with many remarkable memories.

“Football has been my life and it’s been a good life,” Price said. “I’m proud of it, and now I’m anxious to get on with the next chapter.”

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