PULLMAN — In three years, Mike Price has gone from national coach of the year to someone about to become a target pigeon if he doesn't regain his winning touch.
No one seems more impatient than Price, who considers this year's Washington State team his best since the 1997 squad whose magic-carpet ride finished in the Rose Bowl.
"We want to get back to going to some bowl games here more than anything else," said Price, sitting in his office last week. "We want to get back to having fun in December."
Since the Pac-10 championship season, the Cougars have gone 10-24 and won only three Pac-10 games.
"The administration has been supportive and the fans have been patient," Price said.
The departure of 29 seniors, including All-America quarterback Ryan Leaf, largely explained the 3-8 and 3-9 seasons of 1998 and 1999. Last season's 4-7 team was snakebit, losing three overtime games.
Now, the time has come to put some joy back in Cougars football. The team has 17 starters back, including quarterback Jason Gesser. It also has what Price calls the best offensive line he has had as he enters his 13th season in Pullman.
Price has become the Methuselah of Pac-10 coaches. Since he succeeded former Everett High School teammate Dennis Erickson as Cougars coach early in 1989, there have been 18 replacements at the other conference schools. No current coach in the league is closer than six years to Price in Pac-10 seniority.
For the Pac-10's most financially-strapped athletic department, Price seems to represent a loyal bargain.
Price is a Cougar's Cougar. He was a try-hard member of the WSU roster for two years before transferring to the University of Puget Sound, where the level of play was more suited to his ability. He returned as an assistant coach. His son, Aaron, played for WSU and now is on the staff. Son Eric left the staff in the offseason for the New York Jets. Price was an assistant under three Cougars coaches — Jim Sweeney, Jackie Sherrill and Warren Powers. He has spent 20 of his 55 years in the Palouse.
Price has retained his "nice-guy" and "players' coach" reputation throughout his time in Pullman. One factor that has guided his coaching style was the death of a player when he was a graduate assistant at WSU in 1969, helping Pinky Erickson (Dennis' father) coach the freshman team.
Price was eager to show older coaches how tough he was and treated a promising player, Jay Gulledge from Vashon Island, "like dirt."
"I really like him but I tried to motivate him by being mean and really lousy to him," Price recalled in a 1989 interview. "I never told him I loved him or wanted my son to grow up and be like him.
"And then, after fall season, he got killed in a car accident coming back over the mountains. I said after that, `I'm never going to let another player that I coach go through a season or a year without me telling him how much I appreciate him.' "
Price's players seem to appreciate him.
"Everybody loves the guy," said senior co-captain Jeremy Thielbahr, who has been moved to tight end from running back this season. He said some players look upon Price as a "surrogate father."
"He's what you look for in a coach," Thielbahr said. "I've had times here when it hasn't been the best. I've been hurt or fumbled and he's lifted me up. He's just said, `OK, get it going,' or, `Don't worry about it.' He really wants us to succeed. You can see it in his eyes. He wants us to graduate. He wants us to win the Pac-10 championship. He wants us to be good people."
Defensive coordinator Bill Doba, the only assistant to be with Price for all previous 12 seasons in Pullman, describes him as "a steady person" who hasn't changed over that period except to get "heavier, balder and grayer."
In his early years as Cougars coach, Price wore duck-hunting gear to practice before one Oregon game. Before a USC game, he had a costumed student ride by on a horse that resembled Traveler, the Trojans mascot, and he pulled out a pistol and fired blanks at horse and rider.
Price, whose early teams weren't winning, said those stunts "kind of backfired, so I stopped doing it publicly."
The wacky stunts are gone, but this year almost every Cougars practice ends with something offbeat, whether it's been players sliding headfirst on hosed-down plastic or field-goal contests between players and coaches. The message: football can be fun.
The Cougars are picked to finish last in the Pac-10, but that's old news. Cougars teams have surprised in the past and might have the ingredients to have a successful season. But the pressure is mounting.
"In this business, you've got to win games," Price said. "And we've got to start winning."
Craig Smith can be reached at 206-464-8279 or firstname.lastname@example.org.