McGrane: Aztecs Have Taken the Long Way Home
Nov. 27, 2015
McGrane: Aztecs Have Taken the Long Way Home
By Mick McGrane, @GoAztecs Senior Writer (@MickOnTheMesa)
Prior to his football team's meeting with San Diego State in September of 2011, Army athletic director Boo Corrigan mentioned to head coach Rich Ellerson that the Aztecs might be ripe for the picking in light of Brady Hoke’s departure to Michigan.
Ellerson, a man whose coaching career spanned 37 seasons in both the collegiate and professional ranks, was quick to provide his boss with a measure of insight.
The Black Knights were game, but Ellerson's words proved prophetic. San Diego State won 23-20, marking the second of Long’s 40 career victories at SDSU heading into Saturday’s regular-season finale against Nevada.
With a spot in the Mountain West championship already reserved and the potential to complete their first 11-win season in 46 years, the Aztecs are now the spitting image of Long. Where once it simultaneously served as punching bag and punch line, doormat and dupe, SDSU now does business with a purpose, unmoved by challenge and unyielding in approach.
In exchanging resignation for resolve and surrender for a sneer, Long’s Aztecs enter Senior Night having won seven straight, matching their longest streak since putting together a 10-game run in 1976-77. In 93 years of football, SDSU has opened conference play 7-0 exactly never.
And while it’s clearly a testament to talent, it is no less a reflection of Long, who tolerates lack of effort and losing seasons much the way a wolverine would welcome a home invasion.
Keep in mind that this is a man who, according to Sterk, used the descriptive “San Diego State Soft” in providing his boss with an initial impression of his new charges.
“He thought the program needed to get to tougher to move forward, and one of the things he wanted to do was bring (former Aztecs quarterback) Adam Hall back as our strength and conditioning coach,” Sterk said. “He wanted to instill that toughness in our players.”
In that regard, Long, who is unlikely to ever surrender his dual role as defensive coordinator, has taken brie cheese and turned it to brick. During a run that has seen SDSU win nine straight league games the Aztecs have outscored the opposition 326-97, averaging 36.2 points while ceding 10.8. They own the longest FBS streak in the nation in having won five straight by at least 23 points.
“Rocky told me when he took the job that he really thought that we could become the next TCU,” Sterk said. “Now, the future is unknown, but we’ve shown that we’re one of the best teams in the Mountain West. Rocky and his staff have done a great job of evaluating talent and getting the most from our players.”
Consider: In its last 30 MW games, SDSU has lost five times. Not since 1974 have the Aztecs, whose nine-game win streak against league opponents is the third-longest active streak in the FBS, posted an undefeated conference season. No MW team has run the table in league play since 2011.
Sterk, who served as Athletic Director at Washington State from 2000-10, had a pair of 10-win teams under coach Mike Price in 2001 and 2002, the latter earning a spot in the Rose Bowl.
“One of the things that I kept thinking about when we hired Rocky was how Mike Price always said he hated coaching against him,” Sterk said.
Few don’t. Long’s 102 career MW wins are 35 more than the league’s next active coach (Air Force’s Troy Calhoun). He has led the Aztecs to four bowl games in four seasons (most in school history) and is only one win shy of posting as many victories at SDSU as the program’s three previous coaches (Tom Craft 19, Chuck Long 9 and Brady Hoke 13) combined. Long and Calhoun will meet in the MW Championship game on Dec. 5, with Long having bested his Air Force counterpart four straight times and five of the last six.
And in an age where the jettisoning of college coaches is becoming as frequent as that of their NFL brethren, SDSU, after more than a few failed attempts, is clearly comfortable placing its fortunes in Long’s capable hands.
“You saw the way New Mexico struggled after Rocky left,” Sterk said of Long, who resigned in 2008 after posting a school-record 65 victories. “You have to be careful changing things for the sake of change or you might end up worse off. We didn’t need to change what we were doing when we hired Rocky; we just needed to improve on the things that were already in place.
“I’m sure Rocky will probably tell me when he’s ready leave long before I tell him. He’s become a very important part of what we’re doing and I hope he’s here for a very long time.”
Rocky Long, it would appear, even after 16 seasons as a head coach, is just getting started.