Mike Price's new adventure

MIKE PRICE earned another turn as a Division I-A head coach on Sunday. But it's an assignment of truly daunting proportion. And that may be an understatement when you look at the in-state recruiting challenges that await him.

UTEP is close to as low on the college football food chain as you can go before sinking into Division I-AA. The Miners have posted but three winning seasons since 1970. Repeat: since 1970. That was 33 years ago. Those are old Oregon State-types of numbers.

In the last three years they've gone a collective 6-29. This year their only wins came at the expense of mighty Sam Houston State and Death Penalty U. (a.k.a. Southern Methodist).

If you thought Mike deserved a lifetime contract for ending WSU's 67-year Rose Bowl drought in 1997, a turnaround of any kind at UTEP would be cause for canonization.

Diana Natalico, UTEP's president, said today that Mike paid dearly for that grievous error in judgment at Alabama, and "all of us believe he has earned the opportunity to restart his career. We are very pleased that he will resume that brilliant career at the University of Texas-El Paso."

For the record, the words "restart," "brilliant," and "UTEP" have never been uttered in the same sentence until today.

To think Mike was prepping for another Rose Bowl game a year ago at this time with a $10 million contract from 'Bama in his vest pocket.

Now this.

UTEP is as far from there as you can get and still be within the borders of legtimate football.

To watch Price on Sunday, though, you'd have thought he'd won the lottery. He loves the game. As he said, "I was born to be a football coach."

And clearly, it doesn't matter where.

Deservedly, Mike's been granted a second chance and he's thrilled about it.

But to truly understand the enormity of the challenge that awaits him, look at the recruiting landscape he's parachuting into.

Pullman and the Pac-10 are Easy Street compared to this.

UTEP is so far down the pecking order for athletes in the state of Texas that Price has major ground to cover just to catch up with the University of North Texas of the Sun Belt Conference.

For Texas prep prospects looking to stay home or close to home, UTEP is somewhere down the list of relative appeal around No. 12 or 13.

We're not talking one or two big rivals for high school prospects. We're talking a dozen just in the neighborhood alone.

The first tier, of course, consists of Big 12 heavyweights Texas, neighboring Oklahoma and Texas A&M, followed by Texas Tech, Baylor and cross-state Oklahoma State.

And over in Conference USA you've got TCU and Houston, two teams that are bowl-bound this season.

Right next door to the West, in the Mountain West Conference, there's the New Mexico Lobos, who draw 40 percent of their players from Texas. They'll be making their second straight bowl appearance on Christmas Eve.

In UTEP's own league, the Western Athletic Conference, the Miners join SMU somewhere below Tulsa and Rice as a place of interest to Texas athletes.

And finally, there's North Texas. With 80 percent of the team composed of kids from Texas, the Mean Green racked up nine wins this season and its third-straight bowl berth.

Price is embarking not only on the road less traveled, but a path history says leads to nowhere.

No matter. On Sunday, Price sounded like he just landed at Notre Dame, saying the "sky is the limit" with his new program.

"I really think UTEP has what it takes to be a winner, and I promise I will work my heart out to provide the student-athletes with an enjoyable college experience, follow the rules and win with integrity and character. I'm going to make the president and Bob proud of this decision. I feel reborn."

An eternal optimist who was born to be a coach. That's Mike Price. And it's why hapless UTEP is giving him a shot at redemption.

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