Profiling the nation's most embattled coaches..
Calling it a "thankless" job might be a bit much, but it's not a stretch to call UTEP one of the less thankful coaching jobs in the I-A ranks. Since the school changed its name from Texas Western 43 years ago, the Miners have averaged about three and a half wins per season, assembled back-to-back winning seasons only twice and won a single bowl game — the hometown Sun Bowl in 1967. The last conference championship came as a member of something called the Border Intercollegiate Athletic Association in 1956.
So, while some programs might not have been willing to take a chance on Mike Price, still bearing the tarnish from the infamous "It's rolling, baby!" stripper scandal as of December 2003, UTEP was not: Coming off three consecutive two-win seasons under previous coach Gary Nord, the Miners were only too happy to snap up the coach who'd led Washington State to a pair of Rose Bowls and once been considered good enough to lead the Crimson Tide.
Price repaid their enthusiasm in a hurry, guiding the Miners to back-to-back eight-win campaigns, easily the program's most productive two-year stretch since the 1950s. But they haven't had a winning season since, though, and in a conference hardly brimming with powerhouse programs, questions are starting to surface about why Price can't seem to get the mojo back.
Why he was hired. Price had already worked wonders at one perennially downtrodden border program in the middle of a vast expanse of nowhere. While his 83-78 record at Washington State may not look like anything special, the Cougars had earned only two conference titles and four bowl bids in the program's entire history up to that point, both of which Price doubled in his 14-year stint in Pullman. And the fact that, technically, he joins Allen McCants (1-0 in 1897) as the only undefeated head coach in Alabama history.
The "Uh-oh" Moment. After sustaining their first losing season under Price in 2006, the Miners were anxious to regroup in 2007. A thrilling 48-47 win over eventual Conference USA West champion Tulsa improved UTEP to 4-2, from whence it proceeded to lose to East Carolina and Houston by three points apiece.
A trip to Rice, 1-7 at the time, presented a golden opportunity for a spirit-restoring win, and UTEP held a 48-28 lead early in the fourth quarter. From there, though, it was a complete defensive meltdown, with the Miners giving up touchdowns on four straight Rice possessions in a span of less than eight minutes. Final score: Rice 56, UTEP 48. The Miners subsequently lost their last four to finish 4-8 and wouldn't win another game until a matchup with Central Florida on Sept. 27, 2008.
Embarrassing attempt to right the ship. When the Miners opened their 2008 campaign with a blowout loss to formerly moribund Buffalo, the program needed an adrenaline shot, bad — and they thought the Texas Longhorns' first visit to UTEP the following week might provide it. Ticket sales set a Sun Bowl record and UTEP produced special T-shirts to mark the occasion. Having watched Central Florida play the 'Horns to the wire a year earlier in the first game at UCF's new on-campus stadium, Price evidently thought the climate was right to talk some minor trash: "The crowd is going to be a major factor in this game," Price said days before the game. "It will be a definite positive for us. It will be so loud that Colt McCoy won't be able to check off at the line of scrimmage. They won't be able to hear him. He probably hasn't experienced this too many times. They've played before loud crowds, but not loud and wild crowds."
The crowd was "loud and wild" for the first quarter, at least, as UTEP scored field goals on its first two possessions and trailed by only a point after 15 minutes. But Texas scored three straight touchdowns in the second quarter and cruised from there, crushing the Miners 42-13. Colt McCoy, for his part, didn't seemed to have many problems with the crowd — he finished 20-of-29 for 282 yards, four TDs, and one pick, and was sacked only once. Meanwhile, the crowd found more interesting activities to engage in as the game got out of hand:
The Miners' hangover, meanwhile, continued into the following week, when they lost at home to lowly New Mexico State to fall to 0-3.
Can this marriage be saved? Though the Miners may be hungry for a winning season at this point, Price has still led the program to a good bit more success than most of their previous coaches have. That's part of the reason why Adrian Mac of the blog Miner Rush says Price is still in the good graces of the fan base:
From the outside looking in, I can see why any numbers of publications view Mike Price as an "embattled coach" or as being on the "hot seat." As someone who follows Miner athletics regularly, I donít believe his situation is quite so dire. Despite his record (18-30 in the last four seasons, 34-28 overall), Price is still quite popular among Miner boosters and the school administration.
Athletic director Bob Stull, a former UTEP football coach himself, understands the difficulties of recruiting to El Paso and knows that winning will be cyclical. While last season was clearly a struggle, Price's supporters found solace in knowing that the team lost six games by seven points or less. UTEP's offense was one of the best in the league and finished 20th in passing offense, 18th in total offense, and 35th in scoring offense nationally. With a three-year starting quarterback, Trevor Vittatoe, and Doak Walker semifinalist Donald Buckram coming back, Miner fans were more than willing to give Price another season to see if he can find some payoff with this group.
What does Price need to do to be around in 2011? Make a bowl game. Any bowl game. If Coach Price can get this team to 6-7 wins, which is very realistic, then he'll become the first Miner coach to take a UTEP team to three bowl games in the history of the program. Stull has to be concerned about attendance. Last season, the Miners averaged 29,010 fans per home game, the fewest since 2004 (Gary Nord's last year in El Paso).
If Price fails to make a bowl game, and attendance stays at those levels, then for the first time I think El Paso's faithful will really turn on Coach Price. Even then, I think Stull would give Price another shot. If it plays out like that, I'd say that 2011 would be the year where Price is officially an "embattled coach."
Approximate hotness of seat. A leather car seat on a summer afternoon in El Paso — not comfortable, but hardly life-threatening. The fan base generally seems to like Price, but that amity needs to start manifesting itself in the form of ticket sales, which will only come with wins. If it doesn't, that could be the deciding factor that rolls up the car windows and turns Price's hot seat into a career-killer.