Rocky Long

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A Smooth Ride All The Way

The road was never Rocky for SDSU's Finest Football Coach

Chris Ello
January 09, 2020 - 11:21 pm
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Let's get this out of the way first: Don Coryell was a brilliant football man who put San Diego State football on the map in the 1970's. Without him, the following story could not be told. He no doubt was one of the greatest SDSU coaches ever. 

But so was Rocky Long.

As news of his "for now" retirement announcement earlier this week sinks in, do not forget that. Argue if you must, but I think the job Long did was more remarkable than even Coryell. And that's saying a mouthful. Coryell competed at a time when there were no Power Five conferences to dominate the landscape of college football. He was able to put together a powerhouse because his passing game was years ahead of everybody else's. 

Long, meanwhile, competed at a significant disadvantage. Say what you will about the success of Aztecs football over the last decade, and the victories it was able to pile up over the likes of Cal, Stanford and UCLA. The Mountain West simply is not part of the major leagues. But Long helped make it feel that way.

In nine seasons, he went to a bowl game every single time. He won 81 games, to average nine victories per season. And he coached his team to 10 or more victories in four of the last five seasons, something only a handful of other coaches in the nation can claim. He did all of this just a few years removed from a time when SDSU football was one of the worst programs in the country.

Long knew about that first-hand. In fact, the most embarrassing Aztec defeat during the doldrum years was administered by Rocky's New Mexico Lobos, 70-7, in 2008. The Aztecs trailed 49-0 at halftime that day, and Long went so deep into his roster, trying to keep the score down, that my broadcast partner that day, Ted Leitner, couldn't even find the names of the Lobos playing listed anywhere on his scorecard.

The team wrapped up '08 with a 2-10 mark, finishing off the career of Coach Chuck Long (no relation...oh my goodness, could you imagine?), who won a total of nine games in three seasons, the same number of wins Rocky would average per season just a decade later. Brady Hoke, who took over this past Monday for Long, also was the guy who took over for Chuck Long in 2009. Hoke hired Rocky away from New Mexico to be his defensive coordinator. After a season of 4-8 and one of 9-4 which included a win the Poinsettia Bowl, Hoke took off for his "dream job" at Michigan.

Rocky was left here to mind the store. Seems he did just a tad more than that. Under his watch, San Diego State has become the finest college football program in the State of California (only Stanford also has been to nine straight bowls), and one of the best on the West Coast. If you think of college football -- and take out the haughty Power Five group -- the schools you think of now are Boise State, the Aztecs and maybe Memphis or Central Florida. It's really quite an amazing thing that he has accomplished. 

And it included the following games, the five biggest wins during his tenure (as selected by me):

Aztecs 39, Nevada 38 (OT)....In 2012, Long's second season, the Aztecs had yet to score a top-of-the-marquis type of victory away from home. They'd snapped a years-long losing streak to Pac-12 schools the year before by defeating Washington State. But that had been at home. In Reno, Nev., the Aztecs trailed all night before rallying with a late TD and field goal to tie it, 31-31. Nevada scored on its first possession of overtime, and so did SDSU. Then Long did something quite risky: he went for two points and the win right there. Got it. And the Aztecs had that first taste of belief.

Aztecs 21, Boise State 19....Just two weeks after the win in Reno, an even bigger fish was caught. Playing on the blue turf in Boise where the Broncos never lost, SDSU stunned the home team when Calvin Lockett brought back the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown. But this was Boise State, and they were ranked No. 19 in the nation. They would come back to lead 13-7 at halftime. The Aztecs answered on a TD run by Adam Muema in the third quarter and one by Walter Kazee in the fourth: 21-13. With 5:35 left, Boise scored, but the Aztecs protected the lead by stopping the two-point conversion. You still knew the Broncos had time to pull it out, but Long never game them the chance. SDSU ran 11 plays and the remaining time off the clock to pull off the upset.

Aztecs 27, Air Force 24....In the final game of the 2015 season, SDSU made its first appearance in the MWC Championship game, hosting the Falcons, who would lead 7-0 early and 17-10 in the third. After SDSU tied it back up, a freshman by the name of Rashaad Penny would enter the game -- even though wasn't supposed to -- and carry the ball across from 28-yards out to put the Aztecs up 24-17 early in the fourth. Air Force was tough, though, and they came back to tie. So it was left to kicker Donny Hageman, whose 46-yard field with 5:10 left made it 27-24. The game was now in the hands of Rocky's defense. And soon thereafter the title would be there as well.

Aztecs 34, Houston 10....The 2016 Las Vegas Bowl turned into a showcase for Rocky Long's defense, as well as for running back D.J. Pumphrey, who would rush for 115 yards and break the NCAA career rushing record. After spotting the Cougars a 10-0 first quarter lead, SDSU slowly but surely and dominantly took control. By the time is was over, Long's defense had completely stopped a Houston team that had posted a pair of Top 5 victories earlier in the season. The total? Seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss and a pick-six by freshman corner Ron Smith that put the game away by the end of the third quarter. The Aztecs would finish the season ranked No. 25. Rocky Top!

Aztecs 20, Stanford 17....The Cardinal had the national ranking (No. 19) and a Heisman Trophy hopeful in running back Bryce Love. The Aztecs had Penny and Long's defense, which smothered Love and kept SDSU in the game until the fourth quarter. Stanford led 17-13 when SDSU began its game-winning drive with six minutes to play. Halfway through the drive, the lights went out at Qualcomm Stadium. Darkness prevailed for nearly a half-hour before play resumed. When it did, Christian Chapman finished the march, tossing an eight-yard TD to tight end David Wells for the victory with :54 seconds left. It was the kind of gutty, hard-fought win that Long's teams would be known for.

And always remembered for, as well.