Albuquerque, N.M. • There will be no good-natured pranks to have some fun with an opponent's idiosyncrasies this year, fewer jokes about the ages of BYU's football players and how many children they have.
UTEP coach Mike Price insists he hasn't changed, saying he's the same fun-loving, quick-witted guy who grew on Utahns when he was Weber State's coach from 1981-88. But he's smarter now, he says, having been burned too many times when harmless quips were misinterpreted or blown out of proportion.
"Up close and personal, I am still the goofy guy I was just older, just smarter," Price said Thursday in an exclusive interview with The Salt Lake Tribune. "I am still having fun, still laughing, still enjoying life. But with the internet and everything, you tell your team a joke, and you are going to read about it the next day. So you have to be a little more reserved."
Price's 6-6 Miners will meet 6-6 BYU on Saturday in the fifth annual New Mexico Bowl (noon, ESPN). He said he has many ties to BYU's program, including a longstanding friendship with former Cougars coach LaVell Edwards and his recruitment of current BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall when Mendenhall was a senior at American Fork High School and Price was Weber State's coach.
"We spent eight wonderful years in Ogden," said Price, who occasionally still pulls on a pair of Tony Lama cowboy boots. "We raised our family there. … I have been getting a lot of calls from Utah this week. That will always be a special place to me."
Obviously, the 64-year-old coach is also less trusting, after losing his dream job at Alabama in the spring of 2003 before he had even coached a game in Tuscaloosa, or signed a contract. A story in Sports Illustrated said Price was seen highly intoxicated at a strip club in Pensacola, Fla., checked into a local hotel with at least one exotic dancer, and engaged in aggressive sex.
Aside from losing his job coaching the Crimson Tide, the family man who had been married to his wife, Joyce, since he was 19 became the butt of jokes nationally, mostly because the sports magazine reported that one of the dancers exclaimed "Roll, Tide!" during the night and Price allegedly replied, "It's rolling, baby!, It's rolling!"
Price has steadfastly denied most of SI's account of that night, and filed a $20 million libel and defamation suit against its publisher, Time-Warner.
He got some vindication in 2005 when the lawsuit was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. But the damage to his reputation was done, his chance at a big-time college football coaching job gone forever.
"That's way, way behind me," he said this week.
After sitting out the 2003 season, Price found a home in El Paso, of all places. He makes a reported $260,000 annually, plus incentives, and has three years remaining on his original contract.
Hired by the Miners in December 2003, Price quickly turned around a program that had struggled historically. UTEP went 8-4 in both of Price's first two seasons in West Texas, playing in the Houston Bowl in 2004 and the GMAC Bowl in 2005.
"We are really happy here," he said. "It is a great community, with great fans. They are very appreciative of what we've done. Not that we've done anything amazing or spectacular, but we have done better. And we could still do better. … It reminds me of Ogden."
In retrospect, Price said working at off-the-beaten-path places like Ogden, Pullman, Wash., and El Paso fits his style a bit better than a place in the major college football spotlight. He was head coach at Washington State for 14 seasons before taking the Alabama job, taking the Cougars to two Rose Bowls.
"We've always had fun," he said. "We started that at Weber State, we continued it at Washington State, and it has been the same way at El Paso. It is just the way I have always been. I have always enjoyed working with people this age, college kids."
And he's always been good for a laugh or two. Like the time he had two students dress up like Mormon missionaries on bicycles during a practice at Washington State before a game against BYU. Or the time he wore a bright orange wig to practice. Or the time he had Weber State practice in the parking lot of the Dee Events Center because that week's opponent had horrible turf and he wanted his players to get acclimated to it.
Earlier this week, while describing BYU's offensive linemen in a positive way, he quipped, "age 32. Four kids."
Does he have any more jokes or pranks in store this week?
"I was thinking about doing [the missionary gag] again this time, but I don't think our kids in El Paso would get it," he said. "You know, those things kind of add up. If you are winning, they work and you are a great guy and all that. But when you are losing, you have to tone it down a bit."
Mike Price at UTEP
Year Conference Record Bowl Result
2004 WAC 8-4 Lost to Colorado in Houston Bowl, 33-28
2005 C-USA 8-4 Lost to Toledo in GMAC Bowl, 45-13
2006 C-USA 5-7 None
2007 C-USA 4-8 None
2008 C-USA 5-7 None
2009 C-USA 4-8 None
2010 C-USA 6-6 vs. BYU in New Mexico Bowl
New Mexico Bowl
P BYU vs. UTEPSaturday, noon. TV • ESPN