by Howie Stalwick
The strangest thing about Mike Price -- I mean, besides the fact that he kissed his future wife under the porch in the first grade and never had another girlfriend, and that he wasn't fired despite never putting together back-to-back winning seasons in his first 21 years as a head coach, and that he started this season with a career record of (yawn) exactly .500 -- is that he's so utterly, completely... normal.
Coaches of college football powers tend to be so caught up in themselves or their teams that the real world escapes them. They can analyze a dive play for 60 minutes, but can't tell you the color of their daughter's eyes.
Price, however, often looks and acts like the proud grandfather he is. He's 56, graying where he's not balding and putting on just a bit of a belly, but he's still got the smile, the energy and the personality to get along famously with the teenagers and 20-somethings he coaches at Washington State.
"I don't think any coach is as in touch with his players as Coach is," says the Cougs' first team All-American defensive tackle Rien Long.
"He's a player's coach all the way," says quarterback Jason Gesser, who was named the Pac 10's co-offensive player of the year earlier this week. "It's just the way he acts, the way he does things.
"I remember when I came here on my recruiting visit," Gesser continues. "I went into a store with Coach Price, and everyone in the store went, 'Hey, there's Coach Price.' He didn't know who they were, but he'd go and have a five-minute conversation with them. He's good for the community, the football program and the school."
Not to mention his staff. Coaching college football requires long hours, yet Price virtually orders his assistant coaches to go home for dinner each night. And if your son or daughter has a game, or a recital, or something else that might be more important than a couple extra hours of studying game tapes -- chances are, you'll get the time off.
"There are not a lot of coaches who understand how important that is; that there are other things besides football," WSU offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Mike Levenseller says. "It makes you a better football coach, too. It's a lot easier to work into the night if you know you can get away to watch your 13-year-old throw the ball around."
"He's just the best person to work with," says Kasey Dunn, WSU's assistant head coach, running backs coach and special teams coordinator. "You see him at practice, always smiling -- he's exactly that way when he comes to our staff meetings. He always keeps it light, whether you win or lose."
Price says he always wanted to be a football coach, dating back to childhood days spent watching game film with his father when Walt Price coached Everett Junior (now Community) College. Price learned a great deal about coaching from his father, but another incident may have influenced his coaching philosophy even more: When he broke into coaching as a graduate assistant with the 1969 Cougar freshman team, one of his players, Jay Gulledge of Vashon Island, was killed in an auto crash.
"That really got me to thinking," Price recalls. "I never told that player how much he meant to me and how much I loved him. I decided then to make sure my players know how much I care for them."
Price has spent his entire 34-year coaching career at the college level -- 1969-70 at Washington State, 1971-73 at Puget Sound, 1974-77 at WSU, 1978-80 at Missouri, 1981-88 as head coach at Weber State, and since 1989 as head coach at WSU.
"I like the college player-coach relationship you have," says Price, relaxing in his office before a recent afternoon practice. "The growth; molding a teenager into a young man. But coaches on pro teams make so much money, the NFL is something you might consider."
Price says he's been contacted by NFL teams in the past regarding openings for offensive coordinators or quarterback coaches, but received no firm offers. Price has rejected other college head coaching jobs in the last 21 years. "I don't want to say who I turned down," he says. "That's not fair to them."
Born in Denver and raised in Everett, Mike was the youngest of three boys in the Price household. He grew up a Cougar fan, dreaming of following brother Geoff as a football player at WSU. Geoff now sells real estate in California; the late Walt Jr. was an artist.
Price played a year for his father at Everett JC, redshirted one season and played a year at WSU, then finished up at Puget Sound. He played quarterback and safety in college, just as he did at Everett High, where he competed for playing time with current Oregon State coach Dennis Erickson. The two have long been close friends, and it was Erickson whom Price replaced as head coach at WSU.
Price entered the 2002 season with a 119-119 career record, including 73-75 at WSU. Though the Cougars never experienced consecutive winning seasons under Price until the past two years -- and finished last in the Pacific-10 Conference from 1998-2000 -- Price says he's always been staunchly supported by the administration. Of course, it didn't hurt when he was named national coach of the year after guiding the 1997 Cougars to WSU's first conference championship and Rose Bowl appearance in 67 years.
"I like it here," Price sums up. "Having three athletic directors, two presidents and numerous vice presidents in between causes you to sometimes wonder, 'What's going on?' Other times, it kind of stimulates you."
He still seems hopelessly in love with Joyce, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 36 years. They married when he was still playing at WSU. "She quit school [at Washington] to put me through college,'' Price points out.
Ever the good coach's wife, Joyce was kind enough to produce two boys who wound up playing and coaching for her husband. Aaron remains at WSU; Eric, a former Weber State player and Cougar assistant coach, is now an assistant with the NFL's New York Jets. Daughter Angie is married to Jim Fry, athletic director at Spokane's Rogers High School and the son of former WSU sports information director Dick Fry.
This fall, Price signed a five-year contract that automatically adds a year every time the Cougars post a winning record. He's the only coach to guide the Cougars to more than one bowl game (this year will mark his fifth), and the 9-2 Cougars are threatening to break the school wins record of 10 that Price's teams have tied twice since 1997.
Price seems likely to stay at WSU long enough to break the career football wins record of the legendary Babe Hollingbery -- Price is 11 back in second place -- but he's already bought a place on Lake Coeur d'Alene where he plans to retire.
"I don't think," he ventures, "I'll be doing this in 10 years."
WSU finishes the regular season on Saturday, Dec. 7, against UCLA in Pasadena, Calif. (at 1:30 pm on KXLY-4 and KXLY 920 AM). A victory guarantees the Cougars a return trip to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl; a loss sends them to San Diego for the Holiday Bowl.