McGrane: Continuity Fortifies Aztecs' Stronghold
Feb. 3, 2017
SAN DIEGO -
2016-17 Mick McGrane Features
McGrane: Continuity Fortifies Aztecs' Stronghold
In addition to the running back who dazzled with 4,000 career yards, the quarterback who rebuffed a rival late in the game and the offensive lineman from Canada who spoke French while not speaking to coaches, there was also this bit of news from San Diego State's signing day:
There will be no emptying of desks in the Aztec football offices, officially grinding a heel into the very soul of Signing Day 2017.
Signing Day. The culmination of college football's annual dive into deception, where opponents use myriad and unsavory ways to pilfer a potential recruit, including suggesting that the coaching staff with which he's about to sign is being torn asunder.
It happens where success is sewn into a program's fabric. It happens where winning is part of the woodwork, where the champion has a chin of stone.
You have it, they want it.
By head coach Rocky Long's count, at least three SDSU assistant coaches were targeted as potential hires by other programs following the Aztecs' second straight Mountain West title run. Yet in a world where Power 5 money makes a mockery of those struggling to keep stride, none of the unidentified three coaches was lured overboard. Maybe none was a match. Maybe the timing was poor. Maybe Alabama really isn't all that.
Or maybe, just maybe, the grass on this side of the fence is growing increasingly green.
"I think we have as good, or better, of a coaching staff than anyone in the country," Long said. "We have young, enthusiastic guys and we have old, mature, experienced guys who fit really well together. I don't think anyone would leave our coaching staff unless they were going to get a big raise or going to get a promotion to a higher position. They're not going to leave to get the same job someplace else. But the more success you have, the more those pay raises and the more those opportunities arise.
"We had three guys get interviewed for other jobs and they were very qualified for those jobs. They didn't get the job this time, but that doesn't mean it's not going to happen more often."
Two weeks ago, while SDSU athletic director John David Wicker was in the process of presenting Long with a five-year contract extension, 21 of the nation's 128 FBS teams, including two from the Mountain West, were in the business of conducting exit interviews. It's a business where nothing is as permanent as change. Wanna be a football coach? Buy a disposable suitcase.
At SDSU, however, Long, whose deal runs through 2021, is in the midst of becoming the longest-tenured head football coach since the legendary Don Coryell (1961-72). Only two Aztec coaches --- Claude Gilbert and Ted Tollner --- have lasted more than seven seasons since 1973. Long will enter his seventh next season.
"Football is hard to enough to win, but if you're constantly changing people on your staff, it only makes it that much harder," said associate head coach Jeff Horton, who also serves as offensive coordinator and running backs coach. "The continuity of the systems you run, the players knowing you as a coach, knowing what makes you tick and what ticks you off, the more of a routine you can stay in the better you become. If you're in a constant state of flux with new coaches, new ideas and new terminology, all of those things can become a hindrance in trying to be successful.
"I've been on a lot of coaching staffs in 36 years (2017 will be his eighth at SDSU), but this is an extremely close staff because it starts at the top. With Coach Long, you always know where you stand. He's brutally honest. Whether you're a coach or a player, you know what he expects and he's not going to talk in circles. He's going to get right to the point."
Which, on the surface, would seem anathema to today's athlete, where the fragility of egos routinely threatens to crack a program's core. Instead, Long, his staff, and, most notably, his players, have made it cool to be tough in a world that covets coddling.
"Where you really find out the truth about a program is when (recruits) visit and you put them with your players," Long said. "If they fit in with your culture, if they fit in with your players, they're going to have a great chance to succeed. If they don't fit in with your players, they don't usually come here. Just because there's a five-star guy out there who we're recruiting, he might not fit in, mostly because he didn't fit in with our players or our players didn't think he fit in with our team.
"What we're getting with our recent success is that we're getting into homes that we weren't able to before, and we're getting similar kids. We have very good young men in our program. We have very few issues and very few problems. They are kids that come here with the right attitude. They want to work hard, they want to get better and they want to get a degree. A lot of times, that's not the guy that's on ESPN, because those guys want something else. We don't always get those guys, but what we do get are guys who want to be good football players and want to be part of a team."
One directed by a staff that has won 22 of its last 28 games, has muscled its way into the Top 25 for the first time in 30 years and has posted consecutive 11-win seasons for the first time in the program's 94-year history.
And one that will begin the 2017 season intact for the third straight year, save former Aztec defensive lineman Ernie Lawson, who joined the staff as the team's defensive line coach last season.
"Most head coaches won't admit this, (but) head coaches have very little to do with who we get in recruiting," Long said. "Because of rules, (head coaches) can only see (recruits) one time off campus and then see them when they come for their official visit. Assistant coaches can see them once a week. They develop personal relationships with recruits. Recruits get comfortable with coaches. If you lost a really good coach and recruiter who had a great relationship who had a great relationship with the recruit, chances are you're going to lose the recruit, too.
"Our football program is very stable. We've been good for a long time. The coaching staff is very stable; we lose very few coaches. The kids in our program attract kids who are like themselves and, because of that, we have less likelihood of people jumping from us after they commit than other people do.
"If you have a bad year, you're not going to have near the success in recruiting. But if you have a kid who has gotten comfortable and friendly with a coach he can trust, and it's coming up to signing day and that coach leaves, there's a real good chance that kid is going to go someplace else."
Not now. Not for the foreseeable future. And, if Long's staff has its way, not until they've grabbed hold of a much higher rung on the ladder.
"When we were at the (American Football Coaches Association) convention last month, I can't begin to tell you how many people stopped and talked to us about how much they love the way we play football --- defensively, offensively, special teams," Horton said. "They'd say, 'Man, you guys play football the way it's supposed to be played.' When we're out recruiting we're hearing a lot of high school coaches tell us that they really like our style, that they like the things we do.
"It's the success of our kids that's allowing us to take that next step. The last two years, winning games and winning championships and winning bowl games has helped us take a step up into being a Top 25 team. If (the staff) can continue to stay together and keep moving in the direction we are now, why can't we climb even higher?"