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Rose Bowl | Randy Harvey

Price Is Just One of Factors to Consider

January 02, 2003|Randy Harvey

Life could be gloomier today in the Palouse. Instead of Mike Price coaching his last game for Washington State on Wednesday in the Rose Bowl, Bill Doba could have been coaching his first game for the Cougars. Imagine how Washington State fans would have felt if they had been ringing in the new coach with a 34-14 drubbing by Oklahoma.

So, as it turns out, Price did the decent thing by coaching the Cougars one more time. This was his loss. The Bill Doba era begins next season without a blemish.

Everyone can say it was Price's fault that the Cougars were embarrassed, having been distracted by the announcement two weeks before that he was leaving after the game to become the coach at Alabama.

Of course, there is the possibility that it was his fault.

This certainly isn't how he envisioned his two decades at Washington State, the last 14 as head coach, ending. He admitted that he had dreamed of leading his players to victory, the university's first in the Rose Bowl game since 1916, before joining the Crimson Tide of Alabama. Instead, he and his team drowned in the crimson tide of Oklahoma.

Asked if his status as a lame duck coach had any effect on the outcome, he said: "I'm not sure. The game is usually played between the lines, not before so much or after so much.

"But I'm sure I'll get my fair share of blame for that, which is OK. I just wanted to do everything I could to help the team win."

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Price's situation was impossible to ignore, what with Oklahoma fans derisively beginning to chant in the third quarter, "Roll, Tide, Roll."

Alabama fans who might have tuned in for an early look at their new coach might have been alarmed to see that his team didn't look quite as sharp as the Bear's did when he coached the Tide. This could be the first time that some of them are calling for the head of a coach with a 0-0 record.

But we on the West Coast can assure them that Price's teams are usually better coached than this one was against Oklahoma. His record at Washington State was 83-78, which doesn't sound that great until you remember that the Cougars were perpetual losers until he became head coach. He even took them to the Rose Bowl game twice.

It's true, though, that they didn't seem to belong there Wednesday.

Doba said Oklahoma had something to do with that. That undoubtedly is true. But anyone who saw the Sooners' losses to Texas A&M and Oklahoma State knows that Oklahoma is just OK. And anyone who has seen the Cougars play this season knows they're not as bad as they played.

Was that because of how the coach coached or because of how the players played? Certainly, Jason Gesser, the quarterback who has been so efficient this season, didn't have a game he'll want to remember.

"You're only as good as your players," Doba said, trying to deflect criticism from Price. "The coach gets too much credit when we win and too much blame when we lose."

But the Cougars weren't well prepared. They had too many penalties, too many sacks, too many fumbles and interceptions to draw any other conclusion.

"It's probably not one of the better games in my career," Price said, understating the obvious. "We've never been shut out before [in his 14 years as head coach], and they came close to shutting us out."

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Price was selfish to coach in the Rose Bowl game. His players had to have been distracted, first by the news of his defection to Alabama, then by all the talk about it during their preparation period. There is no way they could have been concentrating on Oklahoma.

It's impossible to know whether they would have played better for Doba, who has been their defensive coordinator, but his unit played well until worn down from spending too much time on the field in the first half.

But perhaps Price had no choice. Perhaps some would have seen him as disloyal if he hadn't coached the team. Perhaps it was a no-win situation, unless the Cougars had won.

His players, to a man, said that he had played too much a part in getting them to the Rose Bowl game to be anywhere except on the sideline with them.

"That had nothing to do with how we played," Gesser said when asked about Price's situation. "If he didn't want to coach the game, we would have asked, begged, 'Why don't you coach the game?' He's coached us the last 14 years. It would have been more of a distraction for him not to be here."

Price, fighting back tears in the postgame news conference, said he had been treated with "unbelievable warmth" by players and their parents, his assistant coaches and supporters during the last two difficult weeks.

Some fans, he said, complained.

"But they're fans," he said. "Not supporters."

He clearly had Doba's support. "It would have been a shame not to let the guy coach this ballgame," he said. "He gave 14 years of his life to building this program."

Now it's Doba's program.

"I'm not nervous," he said. "I'm excited about the future. Well, maybe I'm a little apprehensive. To be honest with you, it's going to be a new deal for me."

But at least he gets to start it with a clean slate. This is apparently not the year to coach a Pacific 10 team in a bowl game, unless you're Ed Kezerian.

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Randy Harvey can be reached at randy.harvey@latimes.com.

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