Sad farewell to an old friend

PASADENA -- A handshake, a goodbye and good luck. It was like the end to any other game, but it wasn't. This was the end of the Rose Bowl and this goodbye is permanent. I knew I'd never see Mike Price again, except on my television. It was a sad farewell compounded not just by the loss but the negative sentiment aimed at Price the last few weeks.

Some delusional WSU fans will blame Price for the loss as if he or the players were distracted by his imminent departure to Alabama so much that they could not properly focus on preparation or the game itself.

The reality was that the offensive line was overmatched, facing not just one Terrell Suggs but what seemed like 11, coming at Jason Gesser -- still hobbled by that high ankle sprain -- from all directions.

Price said if Gesser was 100 percent he may have been able to buy some more time and make some plays but Wednesday. "The mobility was not there and he had to be a sitting target back there."

A few balls bouncing the other way could have kept the Cougars closer and maybe got the Sooners to blitz less, but it was hard to find a Cougar after the game who couldn¹t say flatly they got beat by the better team today.

"The coaching situation didn¹t have an effect on us," Fred Shavies said. "Oklahoma is a good team and they played better than us today. They wore us down. We were stopping the run and then Hybl would make a play on third down."

His comments were echoed by everyone from Gesser to Rien Long.

Other Cougars, a la the variety that sits in the stands, may blame Price's departure for the loss, and they may call him a "sellout" or "traitor" for leaving the Cougs during their finest hour.

With all due respect, I must say sorry folks. Coaches get job offers when they're winning. Schools don't go after coaches when they are winless in the Pac-10 and only the Chargers go after coaches who are .500 in the Pac-10.

To be sure, Mike's The timing wasn¹t the best. But before Bo Schembechler made his "Michigan Man" speech about Bill Freider, coaches finishing out their reign in similar situations wasn't all that uncommon.

And for those with a short memory, how quickly did Dennis Erickson bolt town after his first smell of success? Kelvin Sampson also left after his berth in the NCAA tournament. Don't forget that Ryan Leaf and Drew Bledsoe left Pullman before they were out of eligibility.

And how about Athletic Director Jim Livengood? He seemed to spend more time job hunting than fundraising.

George Raveling, the coach most comparable to Price with 11 seasons before his departure, left for bigger money and a bigger name program, where he wouldn't always be the underdog, engineering the little school that could.

Being the underdog and cheering for the underdog is part of WSU's charm. Rooting for the Cougs isn't like rooting for Notre Dame. Coug fans are like Cubs fans, not Yankees partisans.

Let's face it, Pullman is not a place where people stay. It's a college town and half its population stays for four years and moves on. Some coaches see it the same way. Coaches from small schools like Weber State and assistants from larger schools like Oklahoma State see WSU as a step on their ladder of success.

Some find themselves not ready for prime time and others make a name for themselves and move on. It's not all that different than the athletes and the students.

Pullman is a great place to learn about yourself and the world, but rarely the final destination. The same could be said for sports reporters at my old paper, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. I loved the community feeling in the Palouse, but like those before me and probably those after me, there comes a time when the long hours and short pay aren't worth it and it is time to try life in a bigger market.

For Mike Price, a competitor through and through, the time was right for him to leave.

At 56, he probably figured it was his last chance to see what he could do with a big budget and storied tradition backing him up.

Many have questioned why Price would leave his cozy situation in Pullman, especially for Bama where he has no ties and sanctions will linger for two more years. The answer, in a word, is recruiting. No matter how many games he won, no matter how many new facilities the alumni were able to build, Price has always been the underdog trying to attract the top talent.

Most blue-chip prospects are attracted by the lore of places like Notre Dame, Nebraska and yes Alabama. How many blue-chip prep All-Americans has Price been able to land? You can count them on one hand.

He's had to be a salesman and charmer to get the talent he has and many times those were the athletes the other Pac-10 teams weren¹t so keen on, whether it was a lack of size, speed or grades.

I remember the time Price brought in two true blue-chip all-Americans to visit Pullman. When the players left, I asked Price what the chance of getting them would be. "You remember that movie Dumb and Dumber?" he asked.

"You saying those guys don¹t have the grades?" I asked. "No," he laughed. "The part when he asked the girl if there's a chance of them getting together and she says 'One in a million' and he says 'So you saying there's still a chance'."

That was classic Price --- always positive, always finding humor in the darkest hours, always thinking he had a chance even when the odds were stacked against him.

Just once he¹d like to go on a recruiting trip as the favorite or at least know that the odds are 1-in-5 or 10, but not one in a million.

His players at WSU were more the underdog types --- a Steve Gleason who was spurned by Stanford for a lack of size, or a Nian Taylor, passed over by most schools for academics. Both of them, by the way, were in Pasadena on Wednesday wearing their crimson loyalty on their sleeves.

Price gambled on the question marks, generally taking what was left after USC, UCLA, Washington and Oregon made their choices.

Price took kids with upside and then "coached them up," as he used to say.

The results were impressive: Five bowl games --- including two Roses --- in the span of ten seasons from 1992-2002.

For what Price has been able to achieve against those odds, he should be revered and sent off with congratulations and warm wishes.

Moreover, I will remember him more for the kind of person he was than for his wins and loses. Price greeted me warmly from my very first game on the beat and always treated me as being just as important as reporters writing for papers 10 or 20 times the size of mine.

I was there in the dark days from 1998-2000 when the losses piled up. After every setback, each seemingly more frustrating than the previous, he'd stick around after answering all the questions from most of the reporters and take a few more from me while I was chasing down a few players. He never complained or grumbled that he¹d already answered that question. Instead, he'd try to force a smile and a positive response.

Those were the people skills that won over me, and many of the players and coaches he's been able to get to follow him over the years.

"I have tremendous respect for Mike as a person," said Robb Akey, who chose to stay in Pullman to become defensive coordinator rather than join Price in Alabama. "He's the person who got me into college football as a player at Weber State and gave me my first assistant coaching job. He's the guy who got me the opportunity to be in the Pac-10. I will continue to be friends with him.

"He spent 14 years here building a program when many said it couldn't be done. I hope people around the Cougar Nation who made those (negative) comments can reflect on what he brought this program."

I worry about Coach Price. I've seen so many free agents sign with other teams for a few more dollars only to find out their new environment wasn't worth the price of admission. In Pullman, Price was revered. There was hardly a grumble through the three losing seasons I spent covering the Cougars.

In Alabama there will be outrage after just one losing season, and 7-4 seasons and trips to the Sun Bowl won't be celebrated but jeered. During the Rose bowl I sat next to the Mobile Register writer who will be covering Price and the Tide. He concurred with this sentiment and clicked on the Internet to see how Bama boosters felt about the Cougs and Price midway through the game. There were already bulletin board postings complaining about the one-back offense, and other pieces of the Price game plan.

Speaking with another reporter who has covered both conferences, he told me the Pac-10 is an intense Saturday afternoon at the park while the SEC is a religion 365 days a year --- a religion similar to the one I witnessed during my days in Nebraska. It's not an environment for the faint of heart.

I will cheer for Price at Alabama whether he is 4-7, 7-4 or 12-0, but I doubt I will feel the same passion about the Tide as I do the Cougs. At the same time, I have to admit I will follow the Cougs less closely without Price. After all, I've never felt the need to get my boss to send me to cover the WSU basketball team when they came to Stanford or Cal. I doubt I'll be as eager to pay my way to future bowl games with fewer and fewer familiar faces in Crimson and Gray, especially the charm of Price. He is a great coach and those who have spent time with him know he is an even greater man.

Closing Costs

Data compiled by ESPN from information supplied to the NCAA by Division 1A public schools for FY 2011

Oregon    $590,683:
Colorado    $470,355,683:

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