When the Athletic Department formed a search committee last summer to hire a new baseball coach, one can imagine the mission with which they were charged.
Find us a strong bench coach who is a relentless recruiter, has marketing savvy, and a penchant for fundraising. Oh...we need a visionary as well.
After all, KU baseball program had been mired at the bottom of the Big 12 for a few years, and hadn't sniffed the Big 12 tournament in six years. While the job attracted a number of strong applicants, Cal-Poly Coach Ritch Price stood out as the man who could wear any number of the hats that the job required.
"In Ritch Price was saw an energetic individual with a proven record of success in building a program and competing for championships," stated Richard Konzem, the Senior Associate Athletic Director.
"We saw a lot of Roy Williams' type qualities in Coach Price during the interview and campus visit."
Now there was only one last step to making it a reality.
Uh, honey. Yank the kids out of school. We are moving to Kansas.
"It was an opportunity to coach at a premier program," said Coach Price. "The Big 12 is one of the top three conferences in the country right now. The challenge of turning around this program is one I couldn't turn down. My family was very supportive."
While Coach Price didn't know what to expect in terms of talent from the team he was to inherit, he was pleasantly surprised.
"The talent level is much better than I thought," said Price.
"We have four to five high quality players, and I can field nine decent players. The biggest problem is depth especially in pitching. We don't have that one streak stopper who can come in when we desperately need a win and deliver."
This spring the Kansas Jayhawks will have to rely upon more than raw talent to win games. Since last fall, the team has been enduring early morning conditioning drills in the hopes of being prepared for Coach Price as he enters his debut season.
"What impresses me is that the kids are so hungry to win," explained Price.
"These kids are willing to pay the price it takes to turn around a program. We'll have our growing pains, but we will succeed. One thing I'm committed to is staying positive. I want these kids to enjoy the journey. We are all in this together."
If Coach Price needs any more motivation to ensure his players enjoy the experience, he can find it in Ritch Price Jr. The younger Price is the Coach's son and starting second baseman for Kansas.
"I feel very lucky to be able to watch him play, and I'm thrilled that he came to play for me at the University of Kansas. I have to get on him just like the other players, but it never carries past the field," said Price.
The 6-2 175lb freshman played with the Firestone Rangers last summer. Through 100 games he showed consistency at the plate hitting .352 with 11 HR and 85 RBIs. The young Price also showed a propensity for theft as he stole 63 bases over the course of the season.
"It's up to me to deliver a winning program. Until we win, we simply are going to have the doors of the top young high school prospects slammed in our faces. I know we have to win now and so we focused on bringing in a strong recruiting class made up of mostly junior college players."
And recruit he did. In Coach Price's first incoming recruiting class, he signed 12 outstanding players that made up a class ranked in the top 25 by most baseball publications. Coach Price is quick to sing their praises.
"We have 4 or 5 players who have been drafted, and two in this class are former high school players of the year in their home states. These players are seasoned and know how to win."
A main reason Coach Price took the Kansas job was the sales job Richard Konzem did, confirming to Price that KU was committed to building a strong program.
"Richard Konzem assured me that Kansas viewed baseball as a premier sport and they were committed to investing the money needed to build a program and improve the facilities on a level commensurate with our Big 12 peers."
With funds remaining from the previous construction project and money in the Baseball Margin of Excellence Fund, Prize and Konzem set forth a plan. The $60,000 worth of improvements includes five new batting cages, an upgraded bullpen, and a newly painted fence that will display "Kansas Jayhawks" in 40-inch letters. Coach Price is ecstatic with the decision.
"We have an opportunity to build Hoglund Stadium into one of the premier facilities in the conference," insisted Price. "Couple that with our facilities at Anschutz and we have a lot to offer young men who want to represent the University of Kansas."
Rebuilding an athletic program that has been at or near the bottom of the conference is no easy task. One might think that Coach Price and Coach Mangino would have a lot to talk about, but according to Coach Price they seldom cross paths.
"Yes, well we are both in a similar situation I suppose. I love Coach Mangino and I have no doubt he's going to be successful. The truth is that I rarely see him. We are both too busy. Sometimes I'll run into him in the hall when we are both leading a group of recruits on a tour of the facilities," said Price.
"The closest thing I see to Coach Mangino is his office light. I'll be up late working and I'll see Coach Mangino's office light on and I know he's working hard to turn the football program around. It's great motivation."
Speaking of motivation, Coach Price isn't coy about his expectations for this year's Jayhawks.
"It may not be fair, but I expect us to make the Big 12 tourney," stated Price.
This is a goal not reached by any Jayhawk team in over a half decade. However, Price feels it is attainable.
"This is a strong conference and we'll need to beat some top 40 teams in order to get there, but it's what we have to do. One win can mean the difference between 6th place and 9th place."
A slightly longer-term goal is to turn the baseball program into a top 25 team every year.
"Look at what Nebraska has been able to do in a short period," explained Price.
"They were able to turn it around in a relatively short period of time. Now they compete at the highest level and have 5000 fans show up to watch games in the rain. It's incredible. We have the same opportunity here at Kansas."
Coach Price understands that fan support is critical for driving revenue as well as building a winning team.
"You need to get fans in the stands. Period. We are encouraging fans to come out and take a look at this team. We will work our butts off to earn your support," said Price.
In order to get fans out to the games, Coach Price has enlisted a motivated group of guerilla marketer - the players themselves.
"I've got the various classes coming in during the evening to run phone-a-thons. We call football and basketball season ticket owners, as well as Lawrence residents. We give them the details of the season ticket packages and ask for their support."
Coach Price sees the value of involving the players.
"The players have worked very hard to get the fans support. Through this work, they are understanding that they are asking the fans to invest in them, and they certainly aren't going to want to let the fans down."
Season ticket prices for 28 home games are $50 for General Admission, $75 for Reserved Box. The Big Blue family card pass is also available for $75 and allows two adults and two children to sit in General Admission. KU home games include some premium matchups including three games against Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma State and a game against Wichita State.
The Jayhawks are currently 5-3 and travel to Baton Rogue this weekend for three games at LSU. Their home debut comes Friday, February 21st, against Eastern Michigan. Tickets are still available at 1-800-34-HAWKS or can be purchased at the Hoglund ticker office on game days. Individual tickets are $3 for children and $5 for adults, with special group rates.
Coach Price leaves no room to question whether or not this Jayhawks team is worth the fans' investment.
"These kids want nothing more than to win, and they are willing to endure the hard work it takes to get there," stated Price.
The Kansas athletic department worked to bring in more than a coach. Certainly, it was important to hire a skipper with tactical competence, but with Coach Price the fans have been given much more. Coach Price has a vision for success, and perhaps more importantly, the ability to sell it to recruits, players, and fans alike.
Clearly, this Price is Right for Kansas baseball.