McGrane: Aztecs Prepared to Assume Center Stage
Jan. 20, 2017
SAN DIEGO -
2016-17 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Aztecs Prepared to Assume Center Stage
"One City, One Team" and, quite possibly, one of the easiest decisions in the history of San Diego State athletics.
On the same day that SDSU rolled out its new aforementioned slogan, a catchphrase introduced eight days following the Chargers' move to Los Angeles, it also announced Thursday that Rocky Long will remain as the university's head football coach through the 2021 season.
In other news of high drama, night is widely anticipated to be followed by day.
What recent Aztec head coaches --- save Brady Hoke --- tore asunder, Long has made right again, demolishing a defeatist attitude, setting fire to futility and serving notice to Power 5 teams that his players are far from impressed by pedigree.
"Obviously, I think it's good for the program that there's stability and, as my contract was coming to an end, it was nice that everyone wanted me back and that they were willing to extend my contract to a point where we can say to every player that we're recruiting now that our staff should stay the same the whole time they're here, even though I know I'll lose a good coach here and there because of what we've done in the past and what we plan to do in the future," Long said. "The only way you can be successful is to have a good staff, and we do. They've done a really good job of recruiting really good players. Obviously, you win when you have talented players who have the right attitude and are coached by really good guys. So, it's nice I get to be a part of it for a few more years."
At a time when Aztec football has seldom been more successful. At a time when the city is absent of an NFL presence for the first time in 56 years. At a time when capturing San Diego's heart is suddenly front and center.
At a time when the timing couldn't be better.
Little more than a month removed from running roughshod over Houston in the Las Vegas Bowl and earning their first AP Top 25 ranking in 39 years, the Aztecs are now the football show in town. They are the two-time defending Mountain West champions, winners of 22 of their last 28 and have won 11 games each of the past two seasons.
Simultaneously, they also are in a position that is wholly unfamiliar, one of having been a college team in a pro town for nearly six decades, of having gone from the glory days of Don Coryell to the seemingly endless struggles endured prior to Long's arrival in 2010, when he served as Hoke's defensive coordinator. The Aztecs were always there, even if only for purposes of the annual SkyShow.
Now, however, lest you're charmed by Los Angeles traffic, the stage is SDSU's and its message is one of simplicity: Come one, come all.
"Number one, it's a sad deal to see the Chargers leave," Long said. "It kind of puts a hole in things as far as the community goes and the way people look at football. But then again, I also look at it as an opportunity. There are a lot of good football fans in this town that may not want to drive (to Los Angeles) to see a football game when they can see a pretty good product right here at home and maybe they'll become fans of our team.
"I think that college football has a lot of things to offer that pro football does not. And it's still a high caliber of football. But the emotional part of the game and the way people get into it is much different than a pro football game. Hopefully, we're going to gain a lot of fans that want to watch football. We're going to put a good product out there, so they'll get to see a winning team. We're the only show in town right now for all of those people who love to watch football, and we plan on that helping us to be better than we've been in the past."
It's not a plan without merit. Only hours after the Chargers announced plans to relocate, the Aztecs sold nearly 500 season tickets. The pro game may be gone, but SDSU's recent run of unprecedented success (the program had never won 11 games in a season prior to the last two years) apparently has not gone unnoticed. The Aztecs, one of just six programs in the country to win a conference title three times in the last five seasons, are also one of just 21 schools nationally and one of only two programs in the Group of 5 to play in a bowl game each of the past seven years.
"I go to a bank where there are five very nice ladies who are Charger fans," Long said. "They asked me what they were going to do now. I said, 'That's simple, you can come watch us play.' They told me they weren't sure how to do that so I said, 'OK, the first game of the season I'm bringing you five tickets. I'm going to tell you how to get (to the stadium), I'm going to tell you where to park and what to do. And after you have a good time, which you will, you have to buy the tickets. They all agreed to the deal.
"I think there's some educating going on. I think there are some people who are pro football fans who know very little about the college game or have little experience with the college game. Well, if they're football fans, and they don't want to drive (to Los Angeles) to see a game, they ought to come check us out one time. If you're really a football fan, you're going to have a good time. And you're going to see good, quality football. It's not NFL football, but it's quality football and you're going to see a lot more emotion. You're going to see kids playing with their hearts on their sleeve. You're going to see things that you don't see in pro football, which are just as much fun if you ask me. But I think it's as much about educating and just getting people to come watch us one time. If we get people to come watch one time, I think our (fan) base will get better and better."
It has every intention of proving itself worthy of its new billing sans the NFL. Beginning next season, the Aztecs will kick off a home-and-home series against four Pac-12 opponents. After hosting Stanford this fall (the Aztecs also will face Boise State at home), SDSU will host Arizona State in 2018; UCLA in 2020; Utah in 2021; and Arizona in 2022.
"One of the big pieces for me is atmosphere," SDSU athletic director John David Wicker said of a prospective new stadium. "If you look at what Viejas Arena became over time with its atmosphere, Steve Fisher was winning games and the program was doing well and then that atmosphere mushroomed into something special. Rocky Long is building something special with our football program. We're winning games, but if you've got a smaller stadium, a San Diego State appropriate-sized stadium, whether that's 30,000 or 40,000 seats, you can generate that atmosphere that gets people excited about being there. It's a different fan today. It's not the days of coming and parking your car, walking in and getting your hot dog and your Pepsi and having a seat and going home. There's so much more that you need to present to the fans to get them to come to the game. Having that stadium will allow us the opportunity to do that."
It would also go a long way in allowing Long and his staff to continue knocking down doors on a recruiting trail that of late has proven particularly productive.
"If the (fan) support stays the same, I'd say recruiting will stay the same," Long said. "But if we can continue to win and the support gets bigger, that would (improve recruiting) dramatically."
At a time when Aztec football has seldom been more successful. At a time when SDSU is the only show in town for the first time in 56 years.
"It's unfortunate to lose the Chargers; it's unfortunate to lose an NFL team," Wicker said. "An NFL team says something about your city. But at the same time, we're excited about our opportunity to be the premiere football program in the city and in the entire county. We're excited for people to have that opportunity to come to the Q and have a great time.
"It's one city, one team. San Diego State football is here and we're not going anywhere."