BANGOR, Maine — Nobody who knows Jonathan “Gabby” Price is surprised he has immediately rejuvenated the downtrodden Husson University football program or that he won’t take credit for it.
In his second stint at the Bangor-based school, Price has guided the Eagles to a 5-3 record this fall entering Saturday’s game at Norwich.
Husson had gone 3-27 in its previous three seasons and 7-32 since Price left following the 2008 campaign.
There are now more than 110 players wearing Eagle colors after the roster had dipped into the 60s and 50s during Price’s absence.
“There is no doubt in my mind that he was going to turn the program around and I thought he’d turn it around right away,” said former Husson athletic director Bob Reasso, who hired Price a year ago before leaving to coach soccer at Pfeiffer College in North Carolina.
“Gabby has a lot of passion. He’s a great football coach and an even better man,” said Reasso.
Reasso said it is “very easy for student-athletes to gravitate toward him. His passion is contagious. I believe Gabby could win anywhere.”
Westbrook High School football coach Jeff Guerette said Price gets kids excited to play football.
“He was a huge influence on my life,” said Guerette, who played center for Price at Bangor High. “He holds his players to a high standard. He’s a perfectionist. But you would do anything for him. He forms great relationships with his players.”
John Bapst High School football coach Danny O’Connell, who also played center at Bangor for Price, said he recommends Husson to his players.
“You know they’re going to have a positive experience and that they will be treated right,” said O’Connell. “He has assembled a great staff and they go about it in a way that gives the kids a hometown feel.”
For Price, it isn’t so much about X’s and O’s. He has assistant coaches for that.
It is about the person and his individual development on and off the field.
“He cares about people. He has had a relationship with every player he has ever coached. He has changed the whole culture here,” said Nat Clark, who played tight end for Price at Bangor and has been on Price’s coaching staffs at Husson and Bangor High.
Price is hard-nosed, intense and competitive.
“If they’re keeping score, you want to win,” said Price matter-of-factly.
His players get an earful if they make a mistake as his voice resonates through the Winkin Complex.
But he also praises his players just as loudly and hugs them after games.
“He brings something bigger to the table,” said Husson standout senior nose guard Ernest Wiggins. “It’s not just about football, it’s about relationships. He’s more into people and he’s friendly. He’s an all-around good guy on and off the field.”
Wiggins also called him “sociable” and pointed out that Price even engages in conversation with the freshmen.
“That’s something I never had as a freshman,” he said.
Senior wide receiver Devin Sherman said not only does Price take a vested interest in all of his players, “he also knows a lot about each of us.”
Another Price trait is his humility. It makes him uneasy to talk about his accomplishments.
“It is a credit to the players and the assistant coaches,” he said. “The attitude has been terrific. A lot of people have been involved in building this program.”
Price insists on his players being accountable for their actions on and off the field and he wants them involved in the community and the school.
Husson University basketball coach Kissy Walker teaches a sports psychology course and has several football players in her class. She asked them what makes Price successful.
“He gets them to believe they can win and to believe in themselves. It snowballs,” said Walker. “He gets them to buy into his program and they know he’s always going to be there for them.”
It was Seamus O’Brien, the former owner of a Seamus’ Market on Stillwater Avenue in Bangor, who gave Price his nickname because O’Brien liked legendary actor Gabby Hayes, who was known for his work in westerns.
Price acknowledges that he envisioned coaching as his ideal job way back at Garland Street Junior High School.
“In my junior high yearbook, I wrote that I wanted to be the football coach at Bangor High School,” said Price, who realized his dream in 1976.
The 64-year-old Price starred in football, at quarterback, and baseball, at catcher, at Bangor High and played fullback at the University of Maine. Former Bangor High assistant coach and assistant principal Norris Nickerson said coaching was “Gabby’s calling.”
In two stints as the head coach at Bangor High — 1976-85 and 1992-2000 — he guided his alma mater to a 129-52-1 record and two state Class A titles.
The most influential man in Price’s life was former Bangor High football coach Gerry Hodge.
“Gerry taught me so many great things and one of the things I respect the most was his passion for the game,” said Price. “I thought it was a little weird how much I cared about the game but I figured it wasn’t that weird if your coach had the same passion.”
He succeeded Hodge as the head coach at Bangor.
Former Bangor Superintendent of Schools and Husson administrator Jim Doughty was another man who had major influence on Price.
Doughty hired Price to help conduct a feasibility study about re-instituting football at Husson to try to “raise the male enrollment.”
The study showed that it was a smart decision to add football and Price was hired to coach the team.
“I think Jim just wanted to keep me busy,” quipped Price.
After a winless first season in 2003, Price’s teams showed steady improvement and the rosters swelled to more than 100 players as they went to the ECAC Bowl in 2008 and wound up 7-3, but administrative changes at the school prompted Price to leave. Price went 19-10 over his last three seasons during his first stint at Husson and 25-28 overall in six seasons.
“Some of the things that had changed weren’t acceptable to me and I couldn’t see our program improving,” said Price, who had become a successful businessman, owning or co-owning a number of establishments.
“If we ever got a big order to fill, Gabby would come in and help us,” said Shane Stacey, who worked for Price at Fairmount Market for nine years. “And he treated us all like family.”
“He always thanks us just before we leave work,” said Barb Cyr, who has worked for Price at the Corner Store for 30 years.
“Gabby and his wife, Mary, have done so much for this community and nobody knows about it [because they don’t want it publicized],” said T.J. Tremble, who works at Fairmount Market.
Despite keeping active in business, Price missed coaching and said he was going to return to coaching in some capacity this year. Sean Murphy stepped down as Husson’s football coach and Reasso reached out to Price.
“People gravitate to what makes them feel good about themselves and most of us need people and need to be wanted by people,” said Price. “I really enjoy working with young people.”
There is no retirement in sight for Price.
“I hope to stay around as long as they’ll have me,” he said.
An earlier version of this story misspelled Westbrook High School football coach’s name as Jeff Guerrette. It is Jeff Guerette.