Jeremey Williams, the junior defensive tackle, after Mike Price informed the team he was leaving for Alabama. "> Jeremey Williams, the junior defensive tackle, after Mike Price informed the team he was leaving for Alabama. ">

The timing couldn't have been worse

"WE THOUGHT he'd be here forever," said <B>Jeremey Williams</B>, the junior defensive tackle, after Mike Price informed the team he was leaving for Alabama.

So did we, Jeremey, so did we.

Heck, Paul Sorensen, the street-wise former Cougar All-American and color commentator, was convinced as recently as 2 pm Tuesday -- just three hours before the news broke -- that this talk of a move to Tuscaloosa was all sizzle and no meat.

Jim Moore, the Cougar-crazy columnist for the Seattle P-I, said he thought Price "would get a token look, maybe even a first interview, and return to Pullman, saying, 'Once a Cougar, always a Cougar.' I never thought he would jilt us for a Southern girl."

Clete Casper, the old Cougar quarterback, told a reporter he just couldn't believe it.

At age 56, after finally getting the program to a point where sustained success on the Palouse appears more reality than fancy, the marriage between Ol' Wazzu and its affable coach seemed a lifetime bond.

Just ten wins shy of equaling legendary Babe Hollingbery's school record for wins, and with a long-term contract in his pocket, Price and Pullman were destined to live happily ever after.

At the rate he was going, Martin Stadium would have been renamed in his honor. And so be it. Mike Price is one-in-a-million. Houdini with a Whistle. A father figure to his players. A friend to the fans.

And now this.

No, it's not the fact he's leaving --- he's earned the right to look around. And no, it's not his stated reason -- a ton more money -- that bothers us.

It's the timing.

If you thought the two-seconds that mysteriously disappeared from the Rose Bowl clock in 1998 was a bummer, this one outdoes it tenfold.

Why?

Because we're two weeks away from sending our troops off to accomplish something no Cougar team has done since the days of Lone Star Dietz 87 years ago: Win in Pasadena.

Granted, we're not talking war with Iraq here. Or the implications of a segregationist serving as Senate Majority Leader. But it's football and we take it seriously --- especially when it's a particular contest that all of us, plus many of our parents and grandparents, have dreamt of winning.

Did this really have to happen now?

Couldn't it have waited until January 2?

Mike Riley, an Alabama alum fergawdsakes, told Tide officials to pound sand when they wouldn't let him take a few more days to decide whether to take the job.

Why couldn't our Mike have played a little hardball?

After all, it's not like coaches were breaking down the door to interview in Tuscaloosa. Besides Riley, 'Bama was reportedly rebuffed by Virginia Tech's Frank Beamer and South Florida's Jim Leavitt.

You were their fourth choice, Mike.

You held the cards. Why not tell them to come calling on January 2?

But here we are, 14 days away from the Rose Bowl, with our 19, 20, and 21-year-old gladiators distracted, upset and uncertain.

There were tears in the eyes of big hosses, muscled linebackers and fiery wideouts on Tuesday after Price broke the news to his team.

Fred Shavies, the fifth-year defensive end, was consoling young teammates late into the night, according to news reports.

Can they refocus on Oklahoma? Can they overcome the emotional drain of all this?

Only time will tell.

Price says he will lead the team against the Sooners. Alabama officials say they welcome that notion -- a great recruiting tool to have their new man on national TV in a showcase game, you know.

WSU A.D. Jim Sterk will clarify it all this morning, but Price no doubt wouldn't have assured his players of his intentions unless Sterk had granted it.

The Cougar Nation, though, appears foursquare against the idea.

Young and old, male and female, a CF.C canvassing of Coug fans Tuesday evening painted a mostly united front.

Despite 14 years of dedication. Despite all the glory that comes from being a BCS contender. Despite the fact they love the guy. Despite the fact they know he's spent most of his professional life in quest of a Rose Bowl victory, they think the coach formerly dubbed by some as "Saint Mike" should stay away on January 1.

The reasons vary, but invariably the timing issue comes up as the most bothersome.

As one woman put it, "You don't detonate a torpedo in your own boat as you're sailing into the biggest battle of your life. You just can't do that and expect those young kids to do what they need to do."

Maybe so. Or perhaps it's just the reverse. Perhaps, as Jim Moore suggests, having their beloved leader on the sidelines one more time will elevate them to even greater heights.

We'll find out sometime around 6 p.m. on New Year's Day.

Regardless, Price's timing on this will no doubt scar his Cougar legacy for many years. Not forever. But for a long time.

And that's unfortunate. Because when the hurt is healed --- when it really is time to rename the stadium in his honor --- there will always be something gnawing in the back of our collective conscience. Something that says this marriage shouldn't have ended this way.

Something that says it shouldn't have ended at all.

Something that says Saint Mike --- the guy who was supposed to be carried out of Martin Stadium feet first --- made a big mistake.

THE LATEST FROM THE GRAPEVINE:  WSU defensive coordinator Bill Doba will be named WSU's head coach at a press conference this morning. He came to WSU with Price in 1989. Prior to that he was an assistant at The Citadel, Purdue and Indiana. Defensive line coach Robb Akey is expected to be named defensive coordinator and Mike Levenseller will remains as offensive coordinator. How Price and Doba will fight over the rest of the staff is uncertain, but it is believed that Kasey Dunn and Aaron Price are almost certainly going with Price. The rest of the group consists of Chris Ball, Bob Connelly, Mike Walker and Robin Pflugrad.


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