McGrane: Recognition Won't Slow Aztecs' Resolve
Jan. 13, 2017
SAN DIEGO -
2016 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Recognition Won't Slow Aztecs' Resolve
Rocky Long had just been introduced as San Diego State's 18th head football coach on Jan. 12, 2011, when he paused briefly to take stock of his emotions.
Said Long: "I'm appreciative. I'm excited. And I'm (even) a little nervous, because I know how good (the program) can be."
If Long had a vision, others, understandably, had difficulty accessing his vantage point. A program having experienced one winning season in its previous 12 generally doesn't scream potential. It's more like an abandoned mine, beckoning coaches to enter at their own risk before burying another beneath an ever growing heap of hopelessness.
Nearly six years later, however, it's clear that Long not only dabbles in clairvoyance, he also can carve a winner out of a fossilized fence post.
When news arrived Tuesday that the Aztecs had finished the season ranked No. 25 in both the AP and Coaches polls, Long, while obviously delighted, was no less determined to resume digging. An accomplishment not witnessed at SDSU in 30 years was certainly nothing to sneeze at, but neither was it a ranking void of merit.
"I think it's a pat on the back to all of the players in our program that they've gotten to a point where everybody else knows who they are," Long said. "I thought we were a Top 25 team at the end of last year, too, but no one else seemed to think we were. I thought that by the end of this season that we were a Top 25 team again.
"I am a little surprised, but not real surprised, because I thought we deserved it. I was a little disappointed last year when I thought we deserved it and didn't get it. I would have been disappointed this year, too, but it wouldn't change anything about the way we run our program."
Where once SDSU did business with a rabbit's foot in its pocket and the hope that Murphy's Law would spare it if only for a single Saturday, the Aztecs now enforce their own law, one capable of exacting a substantial price (see Ward, Greg; University of Houston quarterback). In completing its second straight double-digit win season, SDSU became the first Mountain West school since Boise State (2011-12) to record consecutive 11-win campaigns. In addition to Boise State, only two other MW schools, former members BYU (2006-07) and TCU (2005-06; 2008-11), posted back-to-back years with at least 11 wins.
Consider: Prior to its first winning season in 12 years in 2010, Long's first as defensive coordinator under then-head coach Brady Hoke, SDSU didn't win 11 games in its previous three seasons.
"I think we've been a competitive program for the last six years, maybe seven," Long said. "And I think we'll continue to be a competitive program. What things like (being ranked in the Top 25) really do is build expectations. Sometimes, they're unrealistic expectations. I think some people thought we were supposed to go undefeated when we started the season. As a team, we always want to win every game and you go into every game thinking you're going to win.
"But being in the Top 25 at the end of the year proves that if you just hang in there and keep playing and keep trying, maybe good things will happen for you in the end."
And, more immediately, the future. When the season begins anew in September, the Aztecs will be taking aim at their third straight league title. They will do so having won 21 of their last 24 and 22 of their last 28, numbers that tend to give pollsters pause and opponents the willies. SDSU, which hopes to build on its national profile when it begins playing two Pac-12 opponents per year in 2017 (the team will host Stanford and travel to Arizona State next season), has lost two league games in the past two years.
"Teams that are in (the Group of 5) play money games (on the road) to help finance the athletic department; that's just the way it is," Long said. "I went to Jim (former athletic director Sterk) with a plan of being able to make just as much money at home if we were able to get a Pac-12 school to play us in a home-and-home. And the next few years, that's what we've got. I think that gives us plenty of Power 5 schools to show that we belong. It also gives us money to help support the athletic department financially.
"Most of the Pac-12 has agreed to do it with us. I don't know if people ever thought we'd be playing Stanford in San Diego, but we've got them at home next year. Then we've got Arizona State on the road. The year after that, we flip those two games. I think it's a win-win for everybody. It's a win for our fans, and when you have a good football team, it's a win for your program to get a chance to play those guys."
And a chance to show you can trade punches with teams that might otherwise deem you grist for the mill in the season's early going. Trouble is, the Aztecs no longer play patsy for anyone, and are even less likely to knuckle under when paired against the Pac-12. Of SDSU's 24 signees in the Class of 2016, more than one-third (nine) spurned offers from Pac-12 schools. The Aztecs, given their Top 25 assignation, are not merely flush with credibility, they also present a potential landing spot for recruits heretofore out of reach.
"I think our success the last two years put us way ahead in recruiting before this (the Top 25) even came out," Long said. "In my mind, it doesn't make a lot of difference, because we have most of our slots filled already; people have committed to us. Now, if we can hold on until the first Wednesday in February (National Letter of Intent Day), everything's good. But we only have about three or four more spots that we're looking at, so maybe (being ranked) will help us get a couple of good guys in those spots."
But while player pedigree has the potential to rise with national ranking, so does the risk of poaching. Long said he's already received calls from a handful of head coaches interested in speaking about members of his staff. Every member of the staff, save first-year defensive line coach and former Aztec Ernie Lawson, has been with Long at least two years.
"I hope we can retain all of our coaches," he said. "The continuity of players and coaches staying in your program helps everything get better. Whenever there's a change in your coaching staff --- not that you can't find a good coach out there --- the chemistry of your program changes somewhat. I hope we don't lose any of them, but there's a chance we might."
And a chance they could miss out on the continued construction of a football program deemed worthy of national attention.
"Getting picked anywhere (in the Top 25) puts you in the national spotlight," Long said. "Obviously, we could have been higher had we would won a couple more games, but it's a neat deal. It's probably even more fun now, because it's been so long (Dec. 17) since we've played.
"But it puts football back in the spotlight at San Diego State. Even though there are a lot of great football teams out there, guess what? We're one of the top 25 teams in the country. And we will be all the way up until next season."