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What Price for One More Year at UTEP? [OPINION]


Duke Keith

The UTEP Miners have begun their sojourn to Camp Socorro, most likely for the final time under Mike Price, who’s contract to coach the Miners ends with the final whistle of 2012.

As much acid indigestion has been belched at his under-performing teams the last few years from both media and fans with sour stomachs, it’s no wonder Price has shifted practice to early morning. This move alone will throw more than half of El Paso’s writers and broadcasters off the scent.

Oh, there’ll be two or three unfortunate TV cameramen who’ll be forced to set their alarms for two hours after they go to bed; all to film some drills and read from a 3×5 index card scrawled with questions from their station’s sports directors. But when the Miners practice this year, most of the sports guys will be sleeping off last night’s tab at the club. The rest of us have jobs.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Ah, the lilt of a cool early morning breeze with barely a microphone in sight!

It doesn’t change a thing, though. UTEP football still has to prove itself to a doubting city.

It’s an unfortunate by-product of a coach who has been asked to create consistency in quicksand and the mindset of a community that covets a program like Boise State and its quickly-won bling without understanding college football geography.

Here’s a simple equation for those who wonder: Population + Proximity +
Past + Profits = Program.

Now, name one of those things UTEP has even a little of.

As for Boise State, the lack of history probably helped. Proximity to population centers in California helped them start well by recruiting above-average players who wouldn’t have to worry about traveling cross-country to get home. Then came BCS profit. Now, the Broncos past has been nothing but success after success.

Voila! Program.

The deck is stacked against the Miners. Barring the discovery of gold under “M” Mountain, it won’t change anytime soon, either. El Paso is six hours from the nearest metropolis from which it could recruit, and Phoenix has its own stake in a conference with a TV contract worth nearly $30 million per school.

So, do you stop playing? Do you drop to I-AA? (This space does not accept the term Football Championship Subdivision.)

No, you do not. Football is still and will always be too important to the overall success of UTEP’s athletic program. You just take those successes where you can find them. And the coach who helms UTEP football right now has provided plenty, relative to an abysmal history.

Mike Price will go down in Miners’ history as one of its best-ever coaches. He’s just staying one season too long.

I will say this: if any coach has earned the right to call his last shot, it’s Price. He’s involved in the community. He still serves up huge helpings of positivity, even after it started to set some teeth on edge.

Despite what many think, he knows how to coach and commands the respect of his assistants, many of whom turned down bigger money to coach under Price.

The players, to me, might be another story.

UTEP has some solid character, but that character will be tested early and it will be tested hard.

Fourth-ranked Oklahoma kicks off the season at 8:30 p.m. September 1. Next weekend, a “breather” at unranked Ole Miss, of that lightweight conference division called the SEC West. NMSU comes to town September 15. Then the Miners face the crucible of Camp Randall Stadium and No. 12 Wisconsin.

It is legitimately one of the toughest non-conference schedules of any team in Division I-A.

Cap off that first month with an expedition to Greenville, NC, worthy of a Conestoga wagon for a game against Conference USA stalwart East Carolina and the Miners’ typical November woes could be a pimple on Paydirt Pete’s posterior.

When I said last year that 2011 should have been Price’s final season, being a 66-year-old coach in the last year of his contract — and trying to keep the attention of bloodied young men in their late teens and early twenties who know that — is part of the reason why.

If you’ve worked hard leading up to a big start only to get kicked in the teeth, and a guy you don’t think will be around for you next year keeps yelling at you to care, it’s easy to ease up. More than a handful with that attitude can wreck a locker room.

No predictions, but if UTEP loses focus, 2012 could be the first time a Mike Price UTEP team doesn’t win at least four games.

Not that he — or they — can’t stay the course. The Miners do have more than a few vets. They have the quiet fire of QB Nick Lamaison. Defense continues to get more consistent under coordinator Andre Patterson. Should UTEP stay physically and emotionally healthy after September, a C-USA West schedule minus Case Keenum and G.J. Kinne is a lot simpler to manage.

That easy smile we’ve come to know over the last decade will still be there. The jokes, the ability to make college football fun for his players — that’s still there, too.

Mike Price will have his program ready to start what everybody understands is likely his last run at a winning season and a bowl at UTEP come the first of September.

The first of October? We’ll see.

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