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Price's second chance starts in El Paso

He wasn't the same. Something was missing. He was too thin. Too gray in his suit. Seven months of sordid stories about strippers and booze, a shocking termination and bitter legal wranglings had irrevocably changed Mike Price, even as he stepped in front of a sympathetic audience.

Though his introduction as UTEP's new coach last December was supposed to be about redemption and new beginnings after the debacle at Alabama, the characteristics that made Price perhaps the nation's most avuncular and downright lovable coach while he built a winner at Washington State were absent.

Price knew as much while he stood at a lectern and looked at the expectant but subdued Miners players for the first time. So he requested a do-over and walked back out the door.

Moments later, he returned sporting a hard hat and pick ax and a resolute bounce in his stride. He was a Miner just like them, ready to get dirty and start digging for gold -- or at least a Western Athletic Conference championship -- in this border town where the football team has won only 41 percent of its games over the past 86 years.

And in this pitch-perfect gesture and Cheshire Cat grin was fairy dust.

"It was hilarious," UTEP linebacker Robert Rodriguez said. "It was amazing."

No second acts in American life? Balderdash.

Price's encore, of course, is paying him about $1 million less per year. A drunken evening at a Pensacola, Fla., strip club -- whatever the contentious details -- cost him an unsigned, seven-year, $10 million contract at Alabama last summer.

It cost him way more emotionally. A reputation built over decades imploded in the ensuing media frenzy that was fueled by mocking, dark-comic quips.

There was the suffering of his wife of 37 years, Joyce. And his two sons, who had followed him to Tuscaloosa and were out of jobs and stuck with new homes to unload. His eldest, offensive coordinator Eric Price, had bailed on a promising NFL coaching career in order to work with his dad.

"Those were tough times. It was almost like being in court daily," said Eric Price, who joined his brother, Aaron, on an impressive, experienced UTEP staff. "But it's dying out. No one here is trying to pick apart the story."

It was hard for the elder Price to stay positive before UTEP called. During his exile, he learned how to use the Internet, debriefed with his lawyers, lost 30 pounds, underwent Lasik eye and hip-replacement surgeries and generally laid low in Idaho. When fall gave way to winter, he became obsessed with getting another coaching job, not only to take care of himself but also his sons.

He thought he had a shot at Arizona, considering his long friendship with athletic director Jim Livengood and Pac-10 background, but university president Pete Likins quickly made his feelings clear in unambiguous statements to reporters.

"President Likins slammed the door in my face," Price said. "It wasn't closed; it was slammed."

Then UTEP athletic director Bob Stull, another long-time Price friend, opted to fire Gary Nord after three consecutive two-win seasons. Stull took Price's name to school president Diana Natalicio, who was willing to sit down for an interview after initial skepticism.

"She asked tough questions -- she's definitely not afraid to ask anything," Price said. "It was very blunt."

She later explained her acquiescence by stating Price "has been humbled by a highly public mistake."

Rodriguez remembers turning the television on during these December days and bolting out of his seat when Price was quoted as being interested in the job.

Perhaps it demonstrates the program's lack of self-esteem that Rodriguez and his teammates didn't buy it. A school that went 14-34 over the past four years and mostly served as an appetizer for BCS teams looking for a four-to-six touchdown victory couldn't possibly be attractive to a coach with two Rose Bowls on his résumé.

"It felt like a joke, like he was just humoring us," Rodriguez said. "Coach Price is big time, so I just thought it was a long shot. We thought he had better things to do than coach us."

Coach and program, both downtrodden but persevering, needed each other. All parties insist that the incident at Arety's Angels and the hotly contested events thereafter haven't come up -- and won't.

"What he was accused of is not true, but it's not an issue for us and I've never wanted to ask him about it," said Rodriguez, sounding 75-percent convincing, 25-percent media savvy.

"We're just grateful he's down here. I appreciate him for what I know of him."

The past is still present, nonetheless. Price continues to pursue a $20 million lawsuit against Sports Illustrated publisher Time Inc. -- his suit against Alabama has been dismissed -- charging the magazine slandered him in a dubiously sourced story before his termination.

He's honest enough also to admit that the trauma is never too far from his mind, even while his old optimism and energy return as the season approaches.

"I think about it every day," he said, his voice atypically low and serious. "I don't know if I say 'What if,' but not a day goes by that I don't think about it."

But only for a moment. Price can't go more than a few seconds without gushing about the reception he and his family have received in El Paso. He raves about the weather, the Mexican food -- though he hasn't been to landmarks Kiki's or L&J Café yet -- and about how he wants to win while making football fun.

He plans to follow what he called "the Boise State model" to build UTEP, and it's obvious that this is a recurrent theme because Rodriguez mentioned a desire for a "Boise bounce."

Of course, if Price transforms the cloudy water of the Rio Grande into Herradura Seleccion Suprema tequila and UTEP starts to win, it will take less than 19 seconds for media pundits to start tossing his name into the rumor mill when big-time coaching vacancies start to pop up as they inevitably do each winter.

Price agreed to pay UTEP $250,000 if he bolts for another Division I-A job before his contract ends in 2009, but that won't discourage a wealthy suitor.

Price professes loyalty to UTEP because it gave him an opportunity when others wouldn't. He wants to turnaround a program that has won two or fewer
games 13 times since 1981 and posted just a pair of winning seasons over the past quarter century.

In any event, Rodriguez said isn't worried whether Price plans to stay for a decade or not. He said he understands the chasing-rainbows business of coaching; he just wants a small taste of success to change the culture of futility surrounding the program.

He believes that Price and the Minors have something to give each other.

"The guy is like Santa Claus in this town," Rodriguez said.

Ted Miller covers the Pac-10 for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.