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The Price is right

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

EL PASO, Texas – The view from Mike Price's office here in this old West Texas border town gazes across the Sun Bowl, over the Rio Grande and into a vast Mexican valley where each morning the desert sun pops up with stunning intensity.

A year ago, each new sunrise wasn't wasted on Price, whose meteoric rise in the coaching ranks was detoured here from Alabama because of a late night and a hungry stripper – and by a UTEP program that had amassed just six wins the three previous years.

Back from the brink, both coach and program roared to what has to go down as one of the most enjoyably redemptive seasons in college football memory: a stunning 8-4 season, national rankings and an appearance in the Houston Bowl.

"I don't think of it as vindication," said Price Wednesday from that office inside the school's modern new football facility. "I think I am going to get that in [a pending libel suit] against Sports Illustrated.

"When I got fired at Alabama it wasn't like, 'You are a crummy coach.'"

Which is why Price is almost exclusively focused on looking out his East-facing window rather than going to the other side of the football complex in the evening to watch a brilliant sunset light up the sky.

Each day is a new opportunity and as far as Price is concerned, things have never been brighter for UTEP.

"Recruiting-wise it is an easier job," Price said, comparing this gig to his mega-successful run at Washington State, which he turned into a nationally prominent program and took to the Rose Bowl despite its remote location.

"It is much better weather. We have no flight problems. We have a huge recruiting base. We are halfway between San Diego and Houston. If you can't find 25 players there, then you can't make it."

Price knows how to make use of what is one of his biggest assets.

"[The key is] bringing the kids in on a Saturday Night when the Sun Bowl [capacity 50,000] is packed and it is nice. You can see the lights of Mexico and you come out on the field through the Mine Shaft and the place is going nuts.

"The fans are as loud here as they can get. I've played in every stadium in the country. I've played at the University of Michigan. They are just as loud here as there and they are probably more aggressive.

"[The recruit] will think, 'This is big time.' Because it is."

Price can go on. And if you happen to be an excellent high school football player living between San Diego and Houston, expect him to deliver that and other impassioned spiels in person.

His energy in recruiting is considerable. There is little doubt Price and his staff can coach circles around a lot of people, but the key is his players.

"A year ago I was talking to a real good player in Houston and after a half hour he asked me, 'What's a UTEP?' And I said, 'Boy, we have a long way to go.'"

So rather than hold its football camp out here in West Texas, Price went to the players, staging two sessions in Houston, one in Dallas and one in San Antonio. Meanwhile, he suspects playing in a new league, Conference USA, will help in-state visibility. As will eight television appearances – plus the sheer force of momentum.

A year after reaching the top 25 for the first time since 1988, the Miners return a slew of starters – including quarterback Jordan Palmer – and are favored to win C-USA.

To have asked anyone in El Paso 12 months ago if that was possible would have been comical. But Price walked into his first meeting with his beleaguered players – who had experienced three consecutive two-win seasons – and tossed out plastic bowls while declaring "we're going to a bowl."

"They looked at me like I was nuts," laughed Price.

Price laughs a lot these days, a sign that one of the best coaches in college football is back to normal. That's his trademark: tough on the field, a bit breezy off of it.

"He really works hard but he likes to laugh too," said UTEP athletic director Bob Stull. "I think the whole atmosphere here changed the day he was hired."

This wound up being the perfect fit for Price, a coach in need of a fresh start, and a 450-year-old border town that, as the coach notes, "doesn't care who your daddy is."

Price once brought his Washington State team to the Sun Bowl, looked out at the impressive, mountain-surrounded stadium, the two-million person metro area (counting football-mad Juarez, Mexico) where this is the de facto pro team, and declared, "God, what a great place, they could win here on a consistent basis."

And now he is going to prove it.

"Top 25 every year," he says. "We want to be that kind of program. We don't want to just be a flash in the pan. We are in uncharted territory."

Kind of like having people talk to Mike Price about the future, not the past.

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