Cougfan at 15: The Crimson Colossus

HE WAS GREGARIOUS and quotable like Sweeney and Walden. And he did something even the great Hollingbery and immortal Dietz didn't: take the Washington State Cougars to two Rose Bowls. Even his departure was off-the-charts memorable, with airplane tail numbers at Pullman-Moscow Regional adding up to the end of an era.

The choice for the most compelling individual in the crimson orbit since was launched into cyberspace 15 years ago was a slam-dunk choice.

So our "15-for-15" series commemorating the 15th anniversary of the site concludes with a few thoughts about -- and even better thoughts from -- Mike Price.

Fittingly, today also marks a special salute to Price's greatest team, the 1997 club that took national champion Michigan to the wire in the 1998 Rose Bowl. The team will be inducted into the WSU Athletic Hall of Fame at a dinner banquet in Pullman this evening, and Price will be there.

MIKE PRICE HOVERS OVER THE "CF.C Years" like a Colossus -- both for what he did while on the sidelines during our early years and for the steady-as-rain erosion of the football program after he left.

You can pick nits with hand offs up the middle on third-and-long, the woes of November, or two losses to Idaho, but there is no escaping the inescapable: Mike Price and Cougar football were a perfect match.

Mike Lude, the one-time athletic director at Auburn and Washington, asked over coffee a couple of years ago to estimate how many millions in revenue WSU lost by not doing everything in its power to keep Price in crimson after the 2002 season.

He wasn't really looking for an accounting of the empty seats, lost TV appearances and sagging donor morale. His question was rhetorical.

"When you find coaches who work at your school," he said, speaking about college athletics generally, "you have to do everything you can to keep them in place, because the risk of not doing so can carry a heavy, heavy price."

And so it was with the departure of Mike Price at Washington State.

But while he was in Pullman, what a story he authored ...

  • The second-most wins in school history
  • Five bowl games
  • Three All-American quarterbacks

    A berth in the 2003 Rose Bowl was secured in victory over UCLA in regular-season finale.

    And then, of course, there was the personality. From the Elmer Fudd costume to the "King of Poop Island" comment to the debut of the Jason Gesser Heisman campaign on the side of a grain elevator. On recruiting weekends he and wife Joyce opened their house, Mike fired up the grill and proceeded to serve plate-sized steaks to the would-be Cougs.

    COUGFAN.COM WAS LAUNCHED eight months after Price guided WSU to its first Rose Bowl in 67 years. In our first season covering the Cougs they won three games. That was followed by three in '99. And then there were four in 2000, with three losses coming in overtime. The bumpy ride had us wondering on our front page if the coach had sold his soul to get that first Rose Bowl berth.

    The answer, it turned out, was an emphatic no.

    Because when Price left Pullman two years later he did so on the strength of back-to-back 10-win seasons and another Rose Bowl, and he had the program in place for another 10-win campaign the following year under his successor, Bill Doba.

    We recently talk with Coach Price by phone. Now 66-years-old and retired, he's still as personable and loquacious as ever. Here are highlights from the conversation:

    CF.C: How's retirement treating you?

    Price: This will give you an idea. I went to my doctor for a check-up and he asked what kind of diet and exercise program I was on because my blood pressure had dropped 40 points. I told him I wasn't doing anything. That's the difference between coaching and not coaching.

    CF.C: This will be the first football season in close to six decades that you're not playing or coaching. What's in store?

    Price: I'm just going to be a grandpa and spouse. Joyce and I are going to watch the grandkids play! … I had some opportunities with broadcasting, and in coaching similar to what Dennis (Erickson) is doing at Utah, but I really wanted to spend time with Joyce and relax … One thing we're going to do is spend a little time in New Orleans – Eric (offensive coordinator) and Aaron (athletic department administrator) are both at Tulane.

    CF.C: What could WSU have done to keep you from going to Alabama?

    Price: It was an opportunity I thought I had to take, going to a place where you had access to all kinds of great players, the most money, facilities, all that. As a coach, that's the ultimate situation. For people in the coaching profession, the decision was probably a no brainer. But it was a tough decision to make. And hindsight is 20/20. For me, and the Cougars, it was a mistake, but that's what life is all about. Fortunately we were able to land in a wonderful community, at UTEP and El Paso.

    CF.C: If you could take one of your Cougar quarterbacks and one receiver into a national championship game, who would you choose?

    Price: No way! I can't do that (big laugh). I was so fortunate during my time there at Washington State to have such outstanding quarterbacks. There's no way to narrow that down. They're all so different. And going back to being an assistant at WSU, my quarterback list includes Ty Paine, Chuck Peck and John Hopkins ... When it comes to receivers, Levy was such a great coach. He was a very important part of getting Cougar football turned around. But there were so many great receivers we had – the Curtis guys, C.J. (Davis) and Deron (Pointer) -- and (Devard) Darling and that group, I could go on and on.

    CF.C: If you had been given the last two seconds at the 1998 Rose Bowl and run your intended play, 596 switch, what were the chances the Cougars score?

    Price: I tell you what, I wouldn't have bet against it. It worked that season every time we ran it. I ran it (at UTEP), against BYU in the New Mexico Bowl and it worked, and last season we scored on Wisconsin with that play.

    CF.C: What players do you consider your greatest recruiting coups?

    Price: Drew (Bledsoe) was highly recruited. And Ryan Leaf. So were Singor Mobley and Chad Eaton -- the Tacoma area was really good for us. And Jack Thompson is one I was very proud to have landed (as an assistant coach). He was highly recruited. One guy I still smile about is Chad Carpenter. He was all set to go to Arizona and I called him up and said a kid from Weiser, Idaho, doesn't belong anywhere but Pullman. We were at his house the next day talking with him and his parents, and he became an outstanding player for us.

    Related CF.C Stories

    Mike Price and his recruiting trail lessons

    Great Moments with Mr. Price

    Dec. 7, 2002: A great day to be a Coug

    Mike Levenseller: 20 years as the Cougars' supreme technician

    For all the news, information, opinion and recruiting insight available on and its network, click here to subscribe and start your 7-day free trial!
    CF.C: Who were the greatest hidden gems you unearthed for the Cougs?

    Price: Will Derting in Okanogan didn't even have a phone at his house. He'd go over to his aunt's a couple miles away every Wednesday night so we could call him. James Darling was another. He was from Kettle Falls. Kettle Falls -- who finds football players in Kettle Falls? We discovered both of ‘em in our summer camps. Erik Coleman was also a tremendous player that nobody else was in on.

    CF.C: What do you consider the most bitter defeat of your Cougar career?

    Price: Losing to Arizona State down there in '97. We were undefeated (and ranked No. 10) and had come way back from a first-half deficit and were driving for the winning touchdown with a couple of minutes left. We called a play that was there, but they blitzed and we didn't get the slide-down protection we needed. Leaf got hit and fumbled and they returned it for a touchdown. That was a big disappointment … USC in '89 with Todd Marinovich (WSU was undefeated and ranked No. 19 and USC was No. 11), that was a tough one. They won it on the last play -- Mike Zimmer (WSU defensive coordinator) said here's the play they're going to run and they did. We knew what was coming, but they executed it perfectly … That Arizona game (in 1999) where the receiver (Bobby Wade) caught – or supposedly caught – that Hail Mary in the last second of the game. He never had the ball. I didn't even know that until after I had talked to the team and was in the press conference and reporters told me what the replay showed.

    CF.C: What was your greatest victory with the Cougs?

    Price: Winning the Apple Cup in '97, clinching the first Rose Bowl berth in 67 years. And it was in Seattle, where we had had so much trouble in previous years ... My brother had flown in for the game, and my daughter came running down to the field ... That was special.

    CF.C: Is there one player who for whatever reason has a particularly soft spot in your heart?

    Price: There are a number of guys. Jason McEndoo and Ryan McShane and the whole offensive line from the (1998) Rose Bowl team. Two of them were walk ons, Lee Harrison and Cory Withrow. Shawn Tims (WR) and Todd Nelson (LB) were also walk ons on that team … The walk-on of all walk-ons who holds a place in my heart is Grady Emmerson (linebacker, 1996-99). He came to WSU from the Tri-Cities to play baseball and got cut, so he walks into the football office and asks to play. The coaches looked at each other like ‘Who is this guy?' We'd never heard of him -- and he became a real ballplayer ... You know a guy who I have a real soft spot for is Chris Hayes (linebacker, 1992-95). He came in on a recruiting trip and was so loud and distracting that I asked our coaches to send him home early. I didn't want him around. Well, Chris comes up to me with tears in his eyes, and his gold teeth – he had gold teeth – and he's very apologetic, and says he wants to be a Coug and he's sorry for being so loud. He not only became co-captain of the Cougars, but co-captain of the New York Jets too. Quite a guy.

    CF.C: What would you like Cougar fans to know about your time at WSU that they might not know already?

    Price: I was one of you -- I was a Cougar. Those 14 years as head coach were just as fun for me as they were for the fans in the stands – although it hurt a few times to look up and see friends who I'd had drinks with booing me (laugh). But I was a Coug. Altogether, I spent 24 years in Pullman. Our three kids born there.


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