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November 25, 2012EL PASO, Texas -Mike Price thought he'd seen all his first times during his 31-year tenure as head coach -- first job, first win, first bowl appearance, first (and only) coach of the year. But one moment he hadn't seen until his last game was his wife stand beside him on the field, which was the final realization that his career was over.
"We've been married for 46 years and she's never been on the football field with me, first time in the locker room, too, so that was a huge surprise for me on the sidelines and that was a little tough emotionally for me to take there," Price said.
Price's career came to a close after nine seasons with the UTEP Miners as his last team fell to the Rice Owls 33-24 Nov. 24 at the Sun Bowl.
But if there was any game that could parallel Price's career at UTEP, it was his last one -- it started off strong, had plenty of big plays and risky calls but finished on a sour note.
Price opened the game with senior quarterback Nick Lamaison and kept him in throughout the first half as Rice took a 17-14 lead into the half.
During that span, all of Lamaison's passes went for a big gain or touchdown as he finished 6-of-12 for 219 yards and two touchdowns in the first half.
Lamaison said he was instructed to throw the ball deep, with it also being his last game.
"It was my last game and coach (Price) told me to air it out and I was like, 'perfect, I'll go out swinging,'" Lamaison said. "That was the mind set and we wanted to throw a little wrinkle in the second half, which I thought was great."
Lamaison was replaced by redshirt freshman Blaire Sullivan to begin the second half, another strategy Price came up with if he felt the Owls had a tough time containing Lamaison.
"I know over there, they're talking about the pass and putting a rush on Lamaison so we made the switch then," Price said. "It was a hunch, I went with it and it didn't work but Blaire moved the ball but he sprained his ankle and broke his nose."
Price went back with Lamaison in the fourth quarter, despite UTEP leading 21-20. But it wasn't the offense that affected the game in the fourth quarter as much as it was the UTEP defense.
"They threw a couple of things up and we tried to make some adjustments but in the end, we came up short," senior linebacker Josh Fely said. "We had a couple of assignment errors but throughout the whole thing, we stuck with each other."
Rice took the lead back off a 9-yard touchdown run by Rice's Charles Ross, which capped off a 95-yard drive that consisted of five third-down conversions.
The Miners were forced to punt the ball away on their next drive but the Owls' Dennis Parks muffed the punt at the Rice 46, setting up a short field for UTEP to regain the lead.
Instead, the Miners had to settle for a 35-yard field goal to cut the lead to 26-24 with 6:45 left, which Price regretted not going for.
On the ensuing kickoff, Jeremy Eddington returned it 97-yards for a touchdown, which broke the nation's longest drought dating back to 1984. The Miners were the best kickoff coverage team in regards to return yards in the nation heading into the game.
"Of course, (the kickoff return) hurt. Our special teams have been amazing all year and we just let one get away, which was the final nail in the coffin," Leslie said.
UTEP failed to pick up any points on their ensuing drive as Rice was able to run out the clock, clinching their first bowl appearance since 2008 and their third ever in the past 51 years.
Following the game, the team was in their locker room for the longest duration of the season, as players said they were giving thanks to Price and vice versa.
"(We were) saying how much of an inspiration coach Price was and is, how he affected our lives in a positive way and to keep this legacy going by moving forward from here," Fely said.
The game was not only emotional for Price and the seniors, but for sophomore wide receiver Jordan Leslie, too, who was arrested Nov. 19 and charged with unlawfully carrying a weapon and making a terroristic threat. Leslie said he played the game without distractions but his emotions were still running high.
"Coach Price called me right after (the incident) happened and just asked for my side of the story and has been there ever since," Leslie said. "My teammates have rallied around me and supported me and it felt good to come out here."
Price won't be there for his players any more in that aspect, at least not as a coach as he hopes to become a possible booster, but he said he wanted to send his players off right, regardless of who gets the job.
"I want (current defensive coordinator) Andre Patterson to get this job but there's nothing wrong with new blood, there's nothing wrong with change," Price said. "The only thing we know about the future is that it won't be the same so just embrace it."
His players understood that, too.
"I'm going to come and work on Monday, you can believe that. I'm going to go and try to encourage and lead by example to my teammates," junior linebacker A.J. Ropati said. "Whoever the new coach is, we're just going to be out there riding with each other until the end."
William Vega can be reached at email@example.com or you can follow him on Twitter at @WillVega21. Make sure to follow Miner Illustrated on Twitter at @minermaniac for more up-to-date news and information about UTEP.