Sweet Home grad finishes as all-time winningest Kansas baseball coach

By Benny Westcott
Of The New Era/Lebanon Local

On May 22, Ritch Price retired after 20 years as the University of Kansas’ winningest baseball head coach in the program’s 132-year history.

“I’m a Jayhawk for life,” the 67-year-old said in a statement.

However, long before he made it to America’s heartland, he got his start in the sport somewhere else: as a Sweet Home Husky.

Born in Medford, Price moved with his family to Pinole, Calif., when he was barely a year old. About a decade later, they relocated to Astoria, then, finally, Sweet Home, when Price was in the eighth grade. His father Richard became the principal at Sweet Home High School while his mother Theo taught first grade in the district.

In 1974, Ritch Price graduated from Sweet Home High School, where he excelled on fields and courts, playing second base for baseball coach Paul Dickerson, quarterbacking the football squad under Bruce “Bear” Davis and serving as point guard for Felix Wilkerson’s basketball team.

“I was fortunate enough to play all three sports in high school, and I absolutely loved it,” he recalled. “I have believed my whole coaching career in the value of playing multiple sports in high school. When you get to college and focus on one sport, it makes you a better athlete and prepares you to be a better college player, when you finally focus on that one sport.”

Ritchie Price (14) lets a long shot go in an upset basketball win over Vancouver Evergreen in January of 1974. File photo

“It’s one of the greatest thrills of my life, because I had a chance to play all three sports at Sweet Home High, and obviously be successful at it,” he added, “but more importantly than that I got to play for three great coaches that helped me prepare to be a really good college coach. I’m deeply indebted to all three of my high school coaches. I love those guys.”

Price loved playing for Dickerson, who he called “as good a high school coach as there was in the country.” From Davis he learned toughness, preparation, how to compete and overachieve, and how to fight through injuries and adversity. He described Wilkerson as a good tactician who paid attention to detail and taught the offensive and defensive teamwork necessary to be successful.

After high school, he spent two years at Linn-Benton Community College, where he played second base for the Roadrunners, making the All-Oregon team as a freshman and winning Rookie of the Year and Gold Glove Awards honors. (He’ll enter the LBCC Athletics Hall of Fame for his accomplishments on the diamond in September.)

Price then competed two more years at Willamette University, graduating in 1978. Nine years later, he earned a master’s degree in physical education from Cal State Hayward.

Even after Price’s playing days were over, he knew he wouldn’t stay away from the game he loved.

“By the time I could walk, I had two dreams,” he said. “One was to play professional baseball, and the other one was to be a coach.”

That determination may be hereditary, as Price’s grandfather, father and two uncles were all baseball coaches.

“I kind of grew up in a baseball family,” he said. “I love the relationship that I had as a player with my other teammates, and I love the relationship with the coaches that I had. They made a huge impact on my life, and I wanted to have that opportunity to do the same, and to follow in their footsteps.”

His coaching career began while he was still attending Willamette University. Dickerson, who’d helped guide him as a young athlete, let him lead the Sweet Home High School American Legion team when he wasn’t playing college doubleheaders. There, Price immediately found success, taking that group to a state American Legion B Championship during his junior year of college. That stint helped land him his first full-time coaching job at Phoenix High School in Medford (1978-81), and then at Jasper High School (1982-83) in Jasper, Texas.

From there he oversaw a small whirlwind of programs: Menlo College (1983-86) in Atherton, Calif., De Anza Community College (1987-94) in Cupertino, Calif., where he was also the athletic director; and California Polytechnic State University (1994-2002) in San Luis Obispo, where he transitioned the Mustangs into a Division 1 program.

When the University of Kansas head spot opened, Price jumped, fulfilling his dream of becoming a head coach at a Power Five conference school.

However, there was a small catch: Kansas wasn’t exactly a baseball powerhouse at the time. The Jayhawks had suffered through five straight losing seasons.

1974 Valley Division All-Star Ritchie Price, left, is shown with, from left, Terry Lutton, Rod Perkins, Mike Thrash and Lon Zitek. File photo

The year before Price’s arrival, Kansas had finished at 9-37, including a dismal 1-26 record in the Big 12 conference. The program was performing quite miserably, especially compared to another that seemed to grab all the attention.

“(Kansas) has been a basketball school for 100 years,” Price said. “It’s going to be a basketball school for the next 50 years.”

(In fact, the team just won its sixth national championship this past April).

Remarkably, Price righted the ship, leading the team to a Big 12 championship in 2006 just four years after taking the head coaching job. He would lead the Jayhawks to two additional NCAA Tournament appearances over his 20-season tenure, more than they’d achieved in their first 112 seasons.

“I believed that if I went there and worked hard and put a good plan together, I could turn the program around, and I was able to do that,” he said.

Price became the all-time winningest coach in program history on March 4, 2017, with a 11-7 win over Northwestern State. That 439th victory broke the legendary Floyd Temple’s record, which had stood for 35 years, nine months and 27 days. (Temple coached the team from 1954 to 1981.) Throughout Price’s two decades, the Jayhawks went 581-558-3 (.510). Those wins accounted for more 29% of the program’s 2,001 victories in 132 years.

Price was the longest-tenured coach in the Big 12 Conference at the time of his retirement, managing over 250 more league games than any of the other eight head coaches. His 20 seasons matched another Big 12 giant’s stint: the University of Texas at Austin’s Augie Garrido, who led the Longhorns from 1997 to 2016.

Over those two decades, Price mentored players to 114 all-conference selections, 161 academic all-conference honorees, 75 professional contracts, two Big 12 Newcomers of the Year (Jordan Piché in 2013 and Ben Krauth in 2015), two All-Americans (Don Czyz in 2006 and Tony Thompson in 2009) and one National Stopper of the Year (Czyz in 2006).

He amassed 798 wins during his 28 years coaching at the Division 1 level and coached in more than 1,500 games. He earned his 700th win on April 8, 2018, with a 17-3 victory over then-No. 5 Texas Tech. His 600th career victory came April 26, 2014, with a 10-2 domination at Baylor, before following it up the next day with an 8-5 win over the Bears to pick up his 1,000th career win among all his stops in 44 years at the Division 1, junior college and high school levels.

In 2008, Price was named an assistant coach for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team, where he shepherded such future major leaguers as Stephen Strasburg, Mike Leake and Mike Minor. He helped lead the Americans to a perfect 24-0 record in international play, making it the only collegiate national team to ever go undefeated. It won the Harlem Baseball Classic and its third straight FISU World Championship. The Team USA club also defeated Cuba twice that summer, marking the first time an American team had accomplished that feat.

Price prides himself on being a high-energy, positive coach who tried to pump players up every day.

“The game’s hard to play,” he said. “You look at guys in the big leagues that hit .300; you make $5 to $20 million dollars a year, but you fail 70% of the time. I think the reason I’ve been successful and was able to last over 40 years is relationships with players and being a player’s coach.”

“I think I’ve enjoyed coaching more than being a player,” he continued, looking back on the scope of his athletic career. “I loved playing, but you have such a bigger impact on kids’ lives as a coach. When I was a junior college coach for 11 years, kids would come there to play who did not have a scholarship out of high school. A lot of them needed to improve academically in order to transfer to a four-year school. They needed to get bigger and stronger and improve their skill set. I had a chance to help those guys improve as a player, but also get acclimated academically and prepare to be successful in life.”

And the impact Price had on his players became apparent when well-wishes poured in after he announced his retirement.

“The emails and text messages I got from former players are really humbling,” he said. “You feel honored when you’re done to have been associated with all of those young men.”

And some of those young men were – and are – his own. Price and his wife, Cindy, have three sons: Ritchie, Ryne and Robby, and one grandson, Ryan. The second generation played four seasons for their father at Kansas before being drafted to the majors. Ritchie played in the New York Mets organization and is in his 10th season as an assistant coach at KU. Ryne served two seasons in the San Francisco Giants’ organization and is a heavy equipment operator in Overland Park, Kan. Robby played five years in the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization and now fights fires in Lenexa, Kan.

Price said the greatest highlight of his career was coaching his sons and watching them chase and ultimately realize their professional dreams. He also relished the game’s sense of community.

File photo

“I love the relationship that players have with other players, and between players and coaches,” he said. “We all have the same goals, and then we all have the same experiences; the highs of winning, the lows of losing and winning championships and chasing your dreams. You get to share that from one generation of players to the next.”

“I grew up with Willie Mays as my idol,” he continued. “Then I look at my grandson right now, who’s growing up watching Mike Trout play, and Mike Trout being his idol. For most of us, our dad coached our Little League teams and taught us how to play catch and hit. And you get to pass that on from one generation to the next. All three of my sons were fortunate enough to play professional baseball, and now my grandson has that same goal. He’s trying to beat his dad and uncles. I think that’s what makes our game special.”

Despite his passion for the sport, Price knew it was time to hang up his hat.

“You want to go out of this game while you’re still good at it,” he said. “I watched so many coaches in California, a bunch of my mentors, stay too long. I wanted to go out while I was still good at my job and the players that play for me thought I was good at my job.”

Price has returned to Sweet Home several times, including to speak at the high school’s Athletics Hall of Fame banquet.

“I’ve been back several times to look at the facilities,” he said. “I’ve always thought that Sweet Home has amazing facilities for a small high school.”

Price has found a place in many storied halls as a result of his athletic and coaching achievements. He was inducted into the Sweet Home High School Athletic Hall of Fame in 1974, the NWCA Hall of Fame as a player in 1998 for his two seasons at LBCC, and the California Community College Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame in 2008.

Despite his travels from diamond to diamond, Price has never forgotten where he came from.

“I’m really proud to be from Sweet Home,” he said. “I’m proud to be a Sweet Home High School Husky graduate. I love following my alma mater, and I thank God every day that that’s where I grew up, and that’s where I got to play high school sports.”