A few days before another Apple Cup far to his northwest, Mike Price called a press conference Monday at Texas-El Paso and called it quits as a football coach at 66.
The two events are related, because the fact Washington State is listing badly at 2-9 entering this game has some distant roots to the end of, and the nature of, Price’s tenure at WSU from 1989-2002.
First of all, WSU fans ought to say a thank-you to Price, or they could be lamenting not having been to a Rose Bowl since 1931 instead of 2002. With time, it will become more and more astonishing to think that within a mere six-year time frame, Price took the Cougars to two Rose Bowls, with a deep competitive recession between them.
He was a little loopy, but terminally congenial, a good man and a player’s coach. Not everybody around WSU — its fan base — got behind him, especially in the early years (when we were assaulted with too many “Is Price Right for WSU?” headlines). But he stayed with it, won just in time in 1992 with Drew Bledsoe at quarterback, then had the Palouse Posse in 1994 and made another run-up toward the first Rose Bowl in 1997 with Ryan Leaf.
Price’s failing at WSU, if you can call it that, reflected the same one the school has had historically. It has followed its periods of success too quickly with horrible periods of futility. Just after Price’s senior-laden Cougars went to that first Rose Bowl, they sustained a three-year nosedive of 3-21 in Pac-10 games before building back up.
After that 2002 Rose Bowl season, the Cougars should have been poised to capitalize and sustain success — both by locking Price up financially and getting a jump on facilities improvements. But a sleepy administration let him go to Alabama and made an emergency hire in defensive coordinator Bill Doba to replace him, and after Doba had a 10-win season bleeding the last real talent out of the program in 2003, the dark days began to set in for WSU.
They haven’t stopped.
You can argue persuasively that nothing was going to keep Price in Pullman, not when Alabama calls. And you may be right. But I think the school took him for granted. He was kind of an old shoe at that point — 56 years old, and he’d coached 14 years at WSU, and perhaps it was easy to think he could be replaced. He’d been to two Rose Bowls; how difficult could it be?
Price was never going to be a fit at Alabama — never mind all his troubles starting with an ill-fated night at Arety’s Angels, the strip club in Pensacola, Fla. — but the school was waving millions at him, so if he had any reservations, “fit” went to the back burner.
So here we are 10 years later, and we’ve gone through the Bill Doba years, and then Paul Wulff, and now there’s Mike Leach, muddling through a trying, turbulent year.
They’re paying him $2.25 million a season for his trouble. Wouldn’t it have been a lot easier just to give Price some of that 10 years ago?