HILLSBOROUGH Every morning, Ernie Price showed up to work and greeted his secretary with a song.
Not any particular song, just something he makes up on the spot.
“She says I’m the happiest person she’s ever seen,” said Price.
Price had learned to savor the moments at Orange High School with those closest to him.
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A little over month ago, Orange baseball ended its regular season against Cedar Ridge on a Friday night. The next day, there was a conference meeting to discuss the upcoming Big-8 baseball tournament, followed by a softball game that night.
On his way out the door Saturday morning, Price’s 10-year-old daughter Avery asked her father “Where are you going?”
“Daddy’s gotta go to work,” said Price.
With tears in her eyes, she responded “I’m gonna have to call Mr. (departing Orange principal Jason) Johnson.”
“Why?” asked Price.
“I’m gonna have to tell him to find somebody else to do this work. I miss you.”
That was when Price realized nine years as an athletic director was enough.
“It broke my heart. That’s when it hit me the time is right.”
Quietly, Price broke the news to his staff. Interviews with various candidates started on June 16. It took little time for the committee that included baseball coach Dean Dease, wrestling coach Bobby Shriner and girls basketball coach B.J. Condron to choose Mike McCauley for the job. McCauley, a member of the Orange faculty and who had coached football under head coach Pat Moser at both Graham and Orange, had been serving as assistant athletics director for the Panthers.
The Orange County School Board gave its final approval on June 27, and Price closed the door on his OHS for the last time on June 30.
So why retire when Orange is at its strongest in years? The biggest factor his years of coaching experience. Instead, it was the experiences he missed out on long ago.
His oldest daughter, Danielle, is now 32. In the late ’90s, she swam in high school, but Price rarely saw her because he was coaching football, basketball and baseball at Stanford Middle School.
“When I had my other two daughters, I vowed I wasn’t going to do that to them,” said Price.
His middle daughter Chloe, runs cross country, track and field and is a cheerleader at Stanford. Price has spent much of the past year running back and forth just to see his daughter while attending to his regular duties.
He acknowledged there were rumors about taking the Athletic Director job at East Chapel Hill, where longtime A.D. Ray Hartsfield is retiring.
“That’s what everybody thought,” said Price. “All three of my girls have been great and everybody have been supportive about it. I’ll miss the folks here. It’s bittersweet.”
Price leaves after a banner year for Orange athletics, which featured Big-8 conference championships in football, wrestling, baseball and softball. The boys’ basketball team captured a conference tournament championship for the first time in over 30 years.
Under his watch, Orange has grown competitive in sports where they once struggled, namely soccer. In 2012, coach Michael Kelsey was dismissed at midseason. Assistant Palmer Bowman, in his first year, was asked to take over the team on short notice on a Friday.
The following Monday, Price’s phone rang. Someone told him Bowman had held a practice on a Sunday, something forbidden by the NCHSAA. It’s subject to a $400 fine.
Price immediately self-reported the infraction to Que Tucker at the NCHSAA offices in Chapel Hill. 15 minutes later, Bowman showed up to Price’s office holding a checkbook.
Price made Bowman promise as long as he never practiced on a Sunday again, he would pay the fine. Not only did Bowman keep his word, he led Orange’s girls soccer team to its first-ever victory over Chapel Hill the next season. The following fall, Orange’s boys team also beat CHHS since the program started in 1987.
After graduating from Livingstone College in 1986, Price started his career at Grove Park Elementary School with the Burlington City Schools (it was a decade before the merger with Alamance County Schools). He started coaching at Broadview Middle School.
He eventually returned to Hillsborough, where he had graduated from Orange in 1982.
In fact, the lessons Price learned at OHS may lead him to his next chapter in life. As he graduated from Orange, he worked with a mason teacher named William McPherson in construction to help him make sense of geometry.
“I remember sitting in class trying to figure out what all these angles meant and what the relevance was,” said Price. “I never did until I started working in construction. Then it just clicked. I told Dean (Dease) the other day, every day I left work, I could see something tangible that I had accomplished.”