Price returns to Alabama two years after brief run as Tide's head coach

Friday, December 16, 2005

The UTEP coach directed the Miners into the GMAC Bowl two seasons after losing the Alabama job.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Mike Price wanted to get one thing straight before returning to Alabama: Don't judge him by the colors of his clothes.

The UTEP -- and briefly University of Alabama -- coach hasn't turned against the Crimson Tide and started pulling for Auburn.

"When we come back, I'm going to be wearing dark navy blue and orange representing UTEP," Price said in a phone interview. "I'm an Alabama fan. I'm not an Auburn fan. Coming back, I'd rather be wearing crimson."

Price brings the Miners to Mobile today to prepare for the GMAC Bowl against Toledo on Wednesday, returning to the state where he sparked both excitement and controversy in large amounts.

Price doesn't speak with bitterness or ill will toward Alabama despite his firing in May 2003 -- before coaching a game for the Tide -- following a night of drunken partying at a strip club in Florida.

He expresses nothing but praise for the "great job" his last-minute replacement Mike Shula is doing. Several of his hires remain assistants on Shula's staff, and he brought in some of the players in his lone recruiting class.

He doesn't expect a negative reception from Alabama fans during his stay in Mobile, several hours south of Tuscaloosa.

"I would be shocked if it was anything but positive," Price said. "No one has said one negative thing to me about what happened from the state of Alabama. Not one. I don't know why that would have changed.

"When it happened, they might have been on talk shows. I don't listen to talk shows. But to my face, my friends and people who lived in my neighborhood in Tuscaloosa were very supportive and very nice to me the whole time."

Price has achieved some vindication on and off the field since the embarrassing episode in 2003. He settled a suit against Time Inc. over a Sports Illustrated story detailing his actions that night in Pensacola, Fla.

Price has publicly acknowledged being heavily intoxicated, but denied allegations of sex with two women in his hotel room that the magazine reported. University of Alabama President Robert Witt fired Price a few days before the article was published.

On the field, Price has led the Miners to 16 wins in his two seasons since taking over a program that had only three winning seasons from 1971 to 2003. The 24-year head coaching veteran has sparked plenty of excitement in El Paso -- just as he did in Tuscaloosa, where he arrived after leading Washington State to the Rose Bowl.

"He doesn't go anywhere without getting noticed," UTEP quarterback Jordan Palmer said. "They really love him down here. It wasn't like there was a whole lot going on here before he came to town."

Linebacker Jeremy Jones doesn't think Price should be judged based on one past incident, calling him "a Hall of Fame coach."

"None of us were there that night, and nobody really knew what happened," Jones said. "When you look beyond 'he said, she said,' you see what kind of coach he is. He's a great guy to be around, a great person."

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