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Aztecs Take the Long Road Back to the Top

Head coach Rocky Long has brought the Aztecs back to the top.
Head coach Rocky Long has brought the Aztecs back to the top.

Dec. 18, 2012

SAN DIEGO -

From a guest writer to GoAztecs.com

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 spans 35 seasons in both the collegiate and professional ranks, was quick to provide his boss with a measure of insight.

Said SDSU athletic director Jim Sterk: "He told Boo, `No, you don't understand. Rocky Long may be better than Brady Hoke. Trust me, he's going to have those guys ready to play us.''

The Black Knights were game, but Ellerson's words proved prophetic. San Diego State won 23-20, with Long's signature as a defensive wizard etched on the outcome.

Positioned at the Aztecs' 25-yard line during the course of a final drive that had consumed the better part of nine minutes, Army was turned away, stymied by a defense that before Long's appointment by Hoke as defensive coordinator in 2008 had ranked 115th and 113th, respectively, in the nation the previous two seasons. With the game in the balance, SDSU, on four consecutive plays, broke up a pass, recorded a sack, forced a fumble and watched a desperation heave by quarterback Trent Steelman fall harmlessly incomplete.

Rocky Long, who had maintained he had no aspirations of resuming a career as a head coach following 11 seasons at New Mexico, was 2-0 as Hoke's successor and the Aztecs were en route to playing in a bowl game for the first time in consecutive seasons in their 43-year history of Division I football.

Now, as San Diego State (9-3) prepares to square off against BYU (7-5) in Thursday's San Diego Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, it does so having not only secured its first conference title since 1998, but as the owner of a seven-game win streak, a mark tied for the fourth-longest active streak in America. It is the first time in the 90-year history of the program that the Aztecs have garnered three consecutive bowl bids.

"This isn't a team anymore that goes into games thinking, `Well, we might be able to win,' and that's no disrespect to any of the coaches that were here before because obviously you always talk about winning. But now, winning is a true expectation," said SDSU wide receivers coach LeCharls McDaniel, who in three stints and 12 seasons with the Aztecs is working under his fourth head coach.

"The culture here has changed 100 percent; it's been like a 180 degree turn. Rocky has given this program stability in terms of the discipline that had been here previously with Brady. The kids that had been here knew what was demanded of them in terms of helping the program grow and get better. The entire group believes now, not just some of the group, not just part of the group. What Rocky's brought together and what Brady brought together is the toughness of an overall team. You better be a tough guy if you expect to get on the field, and that permeates throughout this whole team. Rocky exudes toughness in everything he does."

Including the art of negotiating. When Long was contacted by the newly-hired Hoke to join his staff at SDSU four years ago, the former was acutely aware that his suitor was also a defensive coach, with Hoke having spent a combined 10 seasons as a defensive line coach at Oregon State and Michigan prior to becoming the head coach at Ball State in 2003.

"I knew I wanted to keep coaching, but I thought my time had played out (at New Mexico) and I didn't think things were moving in the right direction," said Long, who has never been part of a seven-game win streak as a head coach. "I had two or three offers, but at the time I didn't want to be a head coach. I wanted to be a coordinator and I wanted to do it with someone I trusted. Brady and I were buddies. But, obviously, we had to have a little discussion at first because he was a defensive guy and I was, too, so we had to figure out if I was going to run the defense or he was going to run the defense. When he assured me that I would run the defense, it seemed like a natural fit."

Said Hoke: "Looking back on that first visit we had --- and you couldn't even call it an interview --- I made it known to him right away that I wanted to run his style, I wanted to run his defense and I wanted him to run it. The only thing that I told him was that I wanted to coach a position, and I didn't even know what position that was going to be (Hoke coached the team's defensive line). But there was never a question about who was going to coach the defense.

"Just having him on our staff was great because he knew the league. Obviously, he's always been known as a great defensive coach, but he's also always had a great demeanor and a great relationship with the kids. It didn't surprise me at all when he was named the (Mountain West) Coach of the Year this season. I knew that he would only continue to build on what we started and that the program would keep moving in the right direction."

Not that Hoke lacked for tenacity in his efforts to lure Long away from SDSU.

"I was almost more concerned about him (leaving for Michigan) after Brady left, because I was hearing that Brady was still talking to him and trying to convince him to go," Sterk said. "But I felt good about Rocky. I think he would have told me if he was thinking about (leaving), but he never was thinking about it. I think he really felt a dedication to the student-athletes that he'd started with when he initially came to San Diego State. The program was well on its way to turning the corner and the culture of the program was changing, but Rocky would always say, `This isn't done yet; we're not there yet. This needs at least five years to mature and grow.'

"So when I thought about what we should do with the position, it kept coming back to Rocky being a big part of why we'd had so much success. He had been a head coach. The staff and the student athletes believed in what he was doing and I really believed he would be the best person and that we wouldn't miss a step moving forward."

Hoke announced his decision to leave for Michigan on Jan. 11, 2011. Within 24 hours, Long, three years removed from beating the Aztecs 70-7 in his final season at New Mexico, was named the 18th head coach in SDSU history.

"I didn't necessarily believe there was a lack of talent here, I just thought that the coaching philosophy and the kinds of kids you were recruiting had to match up, and I'm not sure that the kids who were being recruited here matched the personality of the offense and the defense," Long said. "You had to start recruiting players who could flourish in the systems you wanted to run.

"When Brady first got here, I think there was a real lack of confidence. And there's no way of turning that around other than to have success. It was minimal at first. We won four games (in 2009). The next year we won nine. We had a large senior class in that second year, but the senior classes since then have dwindled some. Some of that is expected when you have a turnover (in coaching staff), and a lot of kids left when Brady came in. But those kids who were freshmen when we first came and are now seniors, this senior class is as team-oriented as I've ever been around. It's never been about them; it's always been about the team doing well. When you have that kind of leadership, that's as good as it gets."

Only one other Aztecs' coach (Claude Gilbert, 1973-80) has amassed as many victories in his first two seasons (17) as Long, who says this will be his final stop in a coaching career that began 40 years ago as a graduate assistant at New Mexico. "When I get to the point where I think I've done enough or I've had enough, I'll know it," he said. "Either that or (SDSU) will decide for me. It kind of works hand-in-hand."

If Rocky Long's accomplishments to date are any indication, the only decision remotely forthcoming will involve extending his stay.