RCW: The Man Behind the Wins
Some call him Skip. Others can call him Dad. Most know him as Ritch Price, head coach of the University of Kansas baseball team. Price took over the position in 2002 and has been etching his name into the list of all-time greats for the Jayhawk baseball – and athletic – program ever since.
Move forward to Saturday, March 4, 2017. The matchup in Hoglund Ballpark is between the Kansas Jayhawks and the Northwestern State Demons. Senior pitcher Stephen Villines trots out to the mound in the top of the ninth with an 11-6 lead for the Jayhawks. Any win is important, but this game in particular is on the verge of being special. Securing it would be win number 439 in Price’s time at Kansas, making him the winningest coach in program history. Despite a late push from the Demons, the sidearmer was able to close out the game, freezing the batter for the final strike, and out, of the game. The Jayhawks celebrate on the field, as the Gatorade-soaked Price officially has the most wins in program history.
The landmark win came amidst Price’s 15th season at the helm of Jayhawk baseball; making the title even more impressive due to the fact that it took previous record-holder Floyd Temple 28 years to reach.
Biff Temple, son of Floyd, was raised around Jayhawk baseball. Both of the Temple men knew from the start that Price would be a tremendous fit to the environment and legacy that Floyd had implemented.
“What my Dad saw from Coach Price was a tremendous love for the university as well as the baseball program,” said Biff. “Both of them are outstanding ambassadors of the university and I think that is very important to have that pride. Dad also saw that Coach Price has a very real commitment to his players both on and off the field and that was important to him as well. I know for a fact that Dad would be very proud of the fact that Coach Price surpassed his ‘all time winning record’ because of how much respect he had for him.”
“Winningest Coach in History” is a name that comes with a tremendous amount of effort and respect. Yet, those who are close to him know that his biggest success does not lie solely in the win column, rather in what he does for the young men that come through the program. One person that has been impacted by Price both on and off the field since day one – literally – is Ritchie Price, son and assistant coach to the elder Price.
“I was very happy for him because I know how hard he works,” said Ritchie of his father’s accomplishment. “In the coaching profession, to an extent, your job can consume you. So I see the sacrifices that he has made and that my mom has made at the same time. There has been a number of things throughout life that he’s missed because he was working, whether it was (for) me or my brothers, so to achieve something like that means even more knowing the sacrifices that our family has made through it all.”
Price’s direct family isn’t the only one that he has been a father figure for. One family that Price treated as if they were his own was the Kuntz’s. Rusty Kuntz is currently the first base coach of the Kansas City Royals, and his son, Kevin, played baseball at KU from 2010-13. Rusty was sold on Price after the first time they met, which was during the recruiting process of his son.
“When you talk to Coach Price, you can hear and feel the passion – each ballplayer who comes into his program, he is going to treat them as his own son,” said Rusty. “He allows them to grow and develop, but with a certain amount of restrictions. He makes sure they don’t get out of line. They go to class and pass their classes. He is on top of all of that. As a parent, that is all you can ask for. When you turn over your son to Coach Price, you know he is going to be taken care of. It’s not a surprise that so many players out of the University of Kansas get drafted, because they know how to play the game. It’s all due and reflected on Coach Price.”
From Kevin’s perspective, Skip’s lessons on the diamond resonated most.
“He has influenced every single player he has ever recruited or has ever played for him,” Kevin added. “You can’t really ask for a better guy to be your manager. He really is a player’s manager. Everything he does, he does for us. He brings that passion and that fire every day he comes to the ballpark and it really rubs off on his teams every year. He makes us want to work that much harder and play that much better for him.”
Kevin Kuntz is one of the many players who Skip has impacted. Coming out of high school, Frank Duncan wasn’t the most sought after prospect. Multiple small schools in California reached out to the right-handed pitcher, but the San Francisco native received no interest from bigger schools in bigger conferences, until Price came along.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today if not for Skip, and I full-heartedly believe that,” said Duncan. “I didn’t have many opportunities out of high school, and then Skip came in and watched me throw bullpen and came to my house later that night. He gave me an opportunity to walk on at Kansas and that’s something that changed my life forever.”
Taking a chance on Duncan worked out tremendously for Price and the Jayhawk baseball program. In four years at Kansas, Skip was able to turn Duncan from a bullpen pitcher to an All-Big 12 First-Team starter and a 2014 draftee of the Pittsburgh Pirates. Through all of the accolades and successes that Duncan had on the field, Kansas Athletics photographer Jeff Jacobsen remembers him for his off-the-field efforts, which were a result of Price’s installations.
In 2012, Jacobsen joined the Jayhawk baseball team on its trip to the Dominican Republic. Though Coach Price arranged a few games against Dominican talent, he also organized for the team to do charitable work in its free time at various orphanages and communities.
“Frank Duncan, one of the players who never wanted to leave the orphanage, is now playing Triple-A baseball and has been highly honored for his charitable work in his team’s home city. That doesn’t surprise me,” said Jacobsen. “The seeds of that commitment likely came from his parents, but they blossomed by playing baseball for Ritch Price at KU.”
From Jacobsen’s perspective, Duncan wasn’t the only one who was affected by the trip. To him, it meant the world to Skip to see his players bonding with these young children.
“There were times in the Dominican where I thought Skip might burst with pride. Not for all that he did to make the trip possible, but out of pride in seeing what it meant to everyone who was blessed to be there. The same could be said about the trip in 2016 (when the team returned to the Dominican) even though the weather did not cooperate the way it did in 2012. Knowing Skip is already planning for the learning experience that taking the team to Cuba in 2020 will be is one of the ways he continues to pump me up.”
“Even though Skip no longer wears a uniform shirt, and even though I am a lifelong New York Yankees fan, whenever I hear someone say ‘2’ I think of Skip first. Never (Derek) Jeter. Skip will always be ‘2’ to me,” Jacobsen admitted. “Skip loves to yell at the start of a workout that, ‘It’s a great day to be a Jayhawk.’ Skip really believes that, and I have been truly blessed by the Lord to hear that cry for so many years and to grow to know that man behind that cry. I will always be proud to be an unabashed fan of Ritch Price, Skip and ‘2’.”
One person who has been with Skip for every game, practice or trip to the Dominican during Skip’s time as coach is Ryan Graves, associate head coach for the Jayhawks.
“He gave me my career, he took a chance on me,” added Graves with a smirk. “I was basically straight out of pro ball and had one year of experience as a junior college coach, and he had a job that didn’t pay very much and he took a chance on me. And he has let me grow. Over the years as a pitching coach, I’ve made a lot of mistakes but he’s allowed me to grow as a coach and hung with me when I probably wasn’t quite ready to be at the Division I level. He coached me along and gave me a chance. And I think I owe my whole career to him as far as coaching is concerned. Obviously, I’ve been with him for 18 years because of the person he is and the coach he is, and obviously I want to do everything I can to help us do some great things here at KU.”
In terms of personal lessons, Graves was quick to mention that Price has taught him how to be professional and control your emotions. Graves claimed that he “may run a little hotter than Coach Price in certain situations,” but Price has shown him how to control himself and become a better coach as a result.
Many coaches who have coached alongside Price have developed a tremendous amount of respect for him. Rob Walton, on the other hand, has a unique relationship with Price: Friends coaching opposing teams.
Walton has been the pitching coach for the Oklahoma State Cowboys since 2012, but has a history with Price that dates back to at least 2004, when Walton was coaching at Oral Roberts (2004-12) and faced Price, who was already leading the Jayhawks. In 2008, Walton was named head coach of the 2008 USA Baseball National Team for the World University games in the Czech Republic, and was asked to help pick assistant coaches for the team.
“Ritch was the one guy I wanted,” said Walton. “Just the fact of who he was and the energy that he brings, I thought we would be a good fit. There’s nobody that I enjoy being around more in the college baseball community than Ritch. He’s like a brother I’ve never had. He’s as good as it gets.”
Together, the duo led Team USA to a 30-0 record, earning an FISU (Fédération Internationale du Sport Universitaire) gold medal when all was said and done. One of the memories that Walton cherishes came in the middle of a scoreless extra-inning ballgame against Team Japan with a gold medal on the line. Walton had a lot of prior success with pinch running and pinch hitting in the tournament, and in the 13th inning, the score was still knotted at 0-0 and a decision had to be made. The debate was if a pinch runner should replace the catcher that was at second, but Walton was curious if Price thought it would be a good substitution. Immediately Price responded, “I’m not giving you any advice, you’ve been on a roll.” The dialogue went back and forth and Price refused to jinx Walton’s prior success with his own advice. Walton pleaded for Price’s opinion and promised him that this decision was not going to ruin the game. Ultimately, Price gave in and voiced that he did not think the runner should be replaced.
“Those were my original thoughts as well, but I just wanted to hear it from him. He didn’t want to pinch run, and neither did I, but I needed to hear it from him. At that moment it was kind of funny,” Walton concluded.
Skip’s advice tends to leave a lasting footprint on all of his players and staff, and 2006 team captain and outfielder for the Jayhawks, Matt Baty, shows just that. Baty was a freshman during Price’s first year as head coach in 2002-03. Every year, Price’s work ethic and recruiting ability progressed the team to a point where the Jayhawks took home the title of 2006 Big 12 Champions – its first conference championship in baseball in over 50 years – during Baty’s last year on the field.
“I am who I am today because of Skip,” said Baty. “He instilled toughness, he instilled integrity, a workman-like mentality and a professional mentality (in me). You didn’t go to the ballpark and he’s telling you what you have to do to get done, he just expected you to act like a professional. And I take that into my workforce today. I don’t micromanage my staff, I expect them to do their job. A lot of that is instilled as a former baseball player of Coach Price’s.”
“By the time you’re a senior, you’re ready to go out in life because he instills those intangibles that only Skip can put in you,” added Baty. “He holds you to a high standard, he expects certain things out of you. The guy is first class in everything that he does. He’s just a stud. He’s one of the nicest human beings in the world, one of the best fundraisers I’ve ever been around and he’s one of the most personable men I’ve ever been around. Every one of my teammates would run through a brick wall for him, and that says a lot. You can’t say that about all of your coaches, but I’d run through a brick wall, just like my teammates would, for that guy.”
Another person that Price has left an impact on in the workplace, and life, is Mike Cummings. The Assistant Director of Communications for the Kansas City Royals has known Price for 11 years. Six-and-a-half of those years were spent as the sports information director of the Kansas baseball team, meaning that Cummings spent nearly all of his time with the Jayhawk program and Coach Price. During those years, Price’s wisdom rubbed off on Cummings the same way it does for many that come in contact with Skip.
“He’s definitely one of a kind,” said Cummings. “He’s the type of guy who is always very positive. Any time you’d have a meeting with him, you’d get that same energy. Maybe if you weren’t having a good day or dragging a little, he’d pump you up. And any time you’d do anything for him, he’d get excited about it. I think coaches like that, and people like that, are the ones you’re willing to work with. Those are the type of people that you’re willing to go above and beyond for. It was a great experience for me to work with him for my first six-and-a-half years having a full-time job and working in this business.”
“Obviously, the milestone he got is a testament to the hard work that he’s put in,” said Cummings of Skip’s coaching career. “I think that (hard work) is something that he demands of his players. He’s somebody that goes out and works hard and tries to get the best players he can to come to Kansas and in return he wants to get the best out of them that he can. There are lots of different examples of players that went into that program and left much better, not only as players and student-athletes, but as people. It’s an important time for a lot of people in the 18-22 (year-old) range. I think that’s something that Ritch is really good at, he kind of teaches them how to go from high school boys to men when they leave the Jayhawk program.”
Coach Price has completely rejuvenated the Jayhawk baseball program. Though he will always be remembered for the number in his win category, it is clear that those who know him will remember him for the success he has in the “coach-player relationship” category. The past 15 years have been doused in wins in both of these fields, but when asked about Skip’s future, all of those who know him are certain that it will be successful, no matter what aspect it is in.
“I truly believe that we can be a top-25 program every year here,” said Baty. “I believe Skip knows the process and has the talent to do that. I want him to double up. I want his all-time winning record to be unbeaten because he has so many wins here. And I think he can do that here.”
“I couldn’t imagine him not being on the baseball field every day,” said Graves, with a chuckle. “I hope he coaches for as long as he wants. My job, and Ritchie’s job, and our staff’s job, is to try and do everything we can to get back to where we’ve been. We want to get back to some NCAA Tournaments for him, we want to have some Big 12 Tournaments (appearances) and finish toward the top of the Big 12, all for him. Ritchie and I have been around this program for a long time, but you can tell that the longer the players are here, the more they want to (have the mindset of) ‘Hey let’s do it for our team and we want to have success, but we want to do it for Coach Price.'”
“I hope he sticks around for a long time and wins 400 more games at KU,” added Cummings. “I want to congratulate him and wish him continued success. I’ve definitely enjoyed following them (the Jayhawks) the last couple of years and seeing where the program is at. Hopefully he’s on to bigger and better things because that’s what I think his goal is every year — to improve on what they previously did.”
“When it’s all said and done and we all retire, we all go, ‘It’s the games that you can’t remember but it’s the relationships that you carry with your players.’ And he has that. The wins and the money don’t mean anything, it comes down to those relationships,” said Walton.
When asked about who Ritch Price truly is, Duncan gave a statement that possibly best summarizes who Skip is and what his legacy will be:
“He’s a golfer. He’s a family man; a loving father and husband. He’s a role model. He’s been a tremendous mentor and he’s helped me realize that there’s more to what we do than baseball. You treat people in the first-class manner like he did. You give people the love and support that he did and ultimately it will come back to you. That’s the most important thing in life, is that you make sure you foster relationships with the people around you. That way, whether you’re having a good or bad day at the field, everyone is in it together and having fun. And that’s kind of the ultimate thing that I think that Skip is going to be remembered for.”