Mike Price will stand Saturday as head coach on a sideline opposite Oklahoma for only the second time.
Since the first, a 20-point thrashing in the 2003 Rose Bowl, the 66-year-old struggled through a difficult — and self-inflicted — voyage to and from the abyss that led him to the west Texas town of El Paso, where he enters his ninth season as UTEP's football coach.
In many ways, Oklahoma's Rose Bowl win against Washington State nine seasons ago and Saturday's 2012 season opener at UTEP represent bookends in Price's nearly 10-year journey to this point.
He said in a telephone interview he feels like it's been “full circle,” for many people during that interval, speaking of Mike Stoops' return to OU and, much more significantly, the personal serenity and peace he's found at UTEP.
“It's been a Godsend, really, for me to have gotten this job nine years ago,” Price said. “I never would've thought in a million years I'd be out here calling this my home, but El Paso is my home now. I love this place, and it couldn't have been better.”
A couple weeks before meeting the Sooners in the 2003 Rose Bowl, Price announced that his 14th year at Washington State would be his last; he accepted Alabama's head coaching position and vowed to become the storied program's second-best coach ever, after only Bear Bryant.
He still wanted to lead the Cougars for that last game, saying that's what players wanted.
“I called every offensive play for 14 years at that school, and in the biggest game of the year for these kids, I'm gonna leave them? With two weeks notice?” said Price, who was the National Coach of the Year in 1997.
“I was getting so much heat from everybody; it was all media-driven, alumni-driven and administrative.”
Despite the outcome, he doesn't regret sticking around for the Rose Bowl.
But the infamous, humiliating weekend trip he took four months later? Price said he doesn't go a day without regretting it.
“Never,” he quickly responded when asked if he'd moved on. “I think about it all the time.
Price went through spring practices with Alabama, but he was fired after details emerged from a trip he took to Pensacola, Fla., for a celebrity golf pro-am. Details of Price's embarrassing night have long been disputed, but he's never denied spending time at a strip club, or that a woman who wasn't his wife, but was in his room, charged about $1,000 of food and drink to his hotel bill.
Alabama terminated Price's seven-year, $10 million contract before he coached a single game.
Sports Illustrated published a sensational story, citing several anonymous sources that alleged tawdry, embarrassing behavior by Price that night; the magazine's list of charges included infidelity, which the coach has strongly denied. He sued the magazine, and the two sides eventually agreed to a financial settlement.
Price took an entire season off before interviewing for UTEP's vacant coaching position. The Miners had suffered through two straight 2-win seasons, and the program desperately needed a boost of enthusiasm and energy.
Still, when athletic director Bob Stull mentioned Price's name to university president Diana Natalicio, she was very hesitant.
But after personally investigating the situation in Alabama, Stull was confident Price's story was blown far out of proportion.
“It wasn't his best night, by any means,” Stull said. “But ... about 75 percent of the stuff reported didn't happen.”
Natalicio, after personally interviewing Price, was herself convinced that he was the right man for the job, and allowed Stull to make the hire.
Entering the final year of his current contract, Price has compiled a 45-52 record in eight years in El Paso. He's two wins shy of being the school's winningest coach. Price has led the Miners to three bowl games, a feat only one other, mid-1950s coach accomplished at the school.
“Your reputation for a thousand years can depend on one moment,” Stull said. “No matter what you do, you make one major mistake and it changes how everybody looks at you.
“I think you learn from that, and he teaches along those lines, too. He's able to communicate with kids about making mistakes like that and what can happen to you personally and with your career.”
Nearly a decade removed from the scandal for which he's best known, Price is preparing for another meeting with Oklahoma. The stakes, national interest and odds of success are substantially smaller than the last time he met Bob Stoops' Sooners.
But he said there's nowhere else he'd rather be.
“This was the right place, the right fit for me and my family, at the right time,” Price said. “There's no question about that.
“I'm still growing. I can't believe my wife stayed married to me for this long ... I really feel good about myself, what I've done and where I am, and how I'm contributing to this community and to this university.”