Rock Steady: Rocky Long is in it for the Long Haul
Aug 30, 2013
SAN DIEGO -
Rock Steady: Rocky Long is in it for the Long Haul at SDSU
By Mick McGrane
If the sky wasn't falling at San Diego State in the final days of 2010, it was fast losing its grip.
Amidst the wailing and gnashing of teeth elicited by Aztec football fans convinced they'd finally emerged from a desert of despair, Brady Hoke bid adieu.
Hoke, an everyman who couldn't harbor ill will if facing a flogging, had just guided SDSU to its first winning season and first bowl game since 1998. If he hadn't achieved savior status he was well on his way, swaying even the most defeated of fans to follow him in a march on mediocrity.
As with all things too good to be true, however, reality rustled up a rude awakening when Hoke announced on January 11, 2011, that he was leaving to become the head coach at Michigan.
But if Hoke's revelation left many reeling, it didn't necessarily prompt an inordinate amount of panic behind closed doors. In less than 24 hours, Rocky Long, then serving as Hoke's defensive coordinator, had been handed the keys to the Aztecs' future.
"In my mind, the hiring of Rocky was critical," said Aztecs quarterbacks coach Brian Sipe, who was hired by Hoke prior to the latter's first season at SDSU in 2009. "And it wasn't just because we needed continuity at the time. I thought Rocky had been instrumental in Brady's success, in building a tough football team. That's Rocky's (modus operandi). And having been a fan around here for a long time, I thought it was something the program desperately needed, something that was started with the hiring of Brady. But being able to hang onto Rocky, he was just the logical choice for the job."
He certainly was in the eyes of SDSU Athletic Director Jim Sterk. Long, the only person interviewed for the position, had spent 11 seasons as the head coach at New Mexico before leaving the Lobos in 2008. Persuaded by Hoke to school the Aztecs on the sorcery of his signature 3-3-5 defense, Long was reunited with Hoke after the two had coached together at Oregon State in the early `90s.
"I just thought he was the right guy to continue to the upward momentum of our program that he had been a part of and invested in," Sterk said. "I had put together a short list of people I might talk to, but once he told that he would be interested in staying and that he would like to take over, that short list became a one-person list. I didn't feel like we needed to talk to anybody else."
Nor did SDSU players. Though far from bereft of a sense of humor, ala the ever-affable Hoke, Long, in the words of offensive coordinator Bob Toledo, is a "man's man," a coach who will endure the mandatory media appearances but whose passion lies purely in the game.
"It was huge having him stay," said senior safety and tri-captain Nat Berhe. "When you already have a coach on your staff like Rocky Long, coaches like that don't come around often. He's a great coach who teaches you discipline and teaches you self-worth. He's hard on us, but he's hard on us because he's basically getting us ready for the real world.
"He's going to pull the best out of you no matter what, whether it's by yelling or screaming or just giving you that look. He knows what he wants done and he wants it done fast and physical. That's the only way you can try and please him."
Long, who led the Aztecs to their first Mountain West title last season, enters the 2013 campaign as the winningest coach in conference history and the league's reigning Coach of the Year. After being pegged to finish fifth in the league in last year's preseason media poll, the Aztecs merely closed the regular season by winning seven straight games, matching the longest streak in program history since 1980-81. Last season's Poinsettia Bowl appearance marked SDSU's unprecedented third consecutive trip to a postseason game.
If Hoke's exit is still a topic, it's being discussed among a decided few.
"One of the very first things he told us (after Hoke left) was that nothing was going to change," Berhe said. "Just because Coach Hoke was gone didn't mean anything. Coach Long took over with the mentality that this was now a winning program, and he's done a great job of continuing that winning tradition."
Said senior defensive tackle Jordan Thomas: "As soon as I heard that Coach Hoke was leaving, I really thought to myself that I could see Coach Long staying. And as players, we knew that the program was only going to continue to go up and up.
"I think he's been successful just from the fact that he stays humble. He coaches his teams like you're No. 2, like you're always chasing something and you need to keep that chip on your shoulder. The biggest problem with any team is getting complacent, because that's when you start to lose games. That's what keeps you going, that's what pushes you to keep getting better."
Aztecs first-year offensive coordinator Bob Toledo, who hired Long to serve as his defensive coordinator during the former's first season as head coach at UCLA in 1992, spent his first year away from football in 2012 after five seasons as head coach at Tulane. Toledo said he would never have returned to the game had he been approached by anyone other than Long.
"He's not here to impress anybody and he's not going to try to pacify people," said Toledo, who served as Long's assistant head coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at New Mexico in 2006. "He's going to tell it like it is. And it's obvious he's not looking for other jobs. He's not hung up on the money. He doesn't care about making $3 million. That's not a priority to him. He's a very loyal guy who just loves coaching football."
Specifically, defensive football. As was the case with Hoke, who also coached the Aztecs' defensive line, Long relishes his role of continuing to serve as the team's defensive coordinator. During its seven-game win streak last season, SDSU ranked fifth in the nation in allowing just 4.7 yards per play while limiting opponents to 19 or fewer points five times.
"What he's been able to do over the years is surround himself with good people, with good assistant coaches, but he's always handled the defense," Toledo said. "And that's a problem for some coaches. They're either a great offensive coach or a great defensive coach and all of the sudden they become a head coach and turn (their previous duties) over to somebody else. Rocky has done a great job of making it clear that not only is he the defensive coordinator, but he's also the head coach. I think some coaches forget what it was that allowed them to become a head coach in the first place."
Sipe, a native San Diegan who is regarded as one of the greatest players in the history of the program, quarterbacked the Aztecs from 1969-71 before embarking on a 12-year career in the NFL. He was inducted into the Aztec Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural class in 1988.
"We're lucky from the standpoint that Rocky's invested in this place," Sipe said. "We didn't hire somebody who's looking for a stepping stone. He's very steady in who he is. You always know where you stand with him. He demands performance and he demands toughness. He demands preparation. He's always reminding our players that the worst thing you can be on a football field is soft. He's not a finesse guy. But he's also about being a stand-up guy on and off the field. You have to be accountable to the guy who's playing next to you.
"Maybe you can call that old-school, but I've been around football a long time, and that seems to be the hallmark of all of the great teams that I was ever a part of or competed against. I feel confident that he's going to get the job done around here. I don't know what the replacement for Rocky Long would like."
Not that Aztec fans are overly eager to find out.