For many people, San Diego is a vacation destination; a place to enjoy the sun and beaches and unending attractions and excellent food. As one of America’s most-livable big cities, it’s easy to understand why those who vacation there often want to move there.
For football coach Rocky Long, a life’s-journey through remote regions and desolate detours gave little hint that he would someday be a big name in the glistening jewel by the sea. Along the way, his area codes were not in places like the 619 or the glam of Hollywood’s 310, but rather in places like 801, 505, and one with no U.S. area code at all.
He was born in the middle of winter near the center of Utah six months before the Korean War. He was a star prep player who was genuinely thankful for a scholarship offer to play for a struggling football team at the University of New Mexico.
Despite being named Player of the Year in the Western Athletic Conference, American professional football had no place for Rocky Long. Instead, he left the country and played for a short time in Canada and one year with the Detroit Wheels of the WFL. He spent the next 13 years as a position coach in New Mexico, Wyoming, Canada, and Texas before finally getting his first big break.
In 1991, Oregon State hired Long as defensive coordinator where he served until 1995. While the opportunity was in the center of his dreams, Corvallis, Oregon was in the center of nowhere. And, its population was less than one-tenth that of Albuquerque. Corvallis is a charming town but its lack of an airport for direct out-of-state flights explained much of why Oregon State had among the weakest recruiting of all college teams and why the Beavers had totaled just twelve conference wins for the twelve prior seasons.
During Long’s five years as defensive coordinator, the overall roster didn’t get better and the Beavers finished last in the conference four times. So, if there wasn’t a glorious turn-around and he wasn’t the head coach, then why are we even talking about Rocky Long and Oregon State?
Well, what is not shown in common accounts is that despite being a last-place team, Long’s defense established benchmarks that have never been exceeded, not even in the magical, strong-roster haydays of quarterback Jonathan Smith who is now the head coach.
You see, before Long arrived in 1991, OSU’s defense had given up more than 30 points in 27 of its previous 44 games, or about seven per year.
In Long’s final three seasons, he brought that down to five in 1993, to three in 1994, and then finally—in a shock to everyone—-to two in 1995. That’s just crazy because that 1995 team only won one game.
In the past 50 years, only one other defensive coordinator at OSU produced a defense that allowed 30-or-more points in just two games but that was with a dynamic roster that included future NFL quarterback Derek Anderson and one that dominated Notre Dame in a bowl game. Yet, even that team did not match Rocky’s two-year record of just five, 30-point yields over two successive seasons.
So, how could he possibly do that with a 1-10 team?
Well, Rocky Long is seldom accused of being conventional and when he applied that to his defenses, he caused sheer agony for opposing offensive coordinators. He had players standing who normally would be in three-point. Second-level players stunted and wandered as if they had no positions and just for good measure, his players called out false defensive signals and pointed with no apparent purpose. Opponents were simply at a loss to know what was happening or who to block and before they could figure it out, Rocky sent blitzes, some of which had never been seen, and all of which were too disguised and diverse to be predicted.
So impressive were his results that UCLA lured him to the 310-glam where he served as defensive coordinator for two years.
He was offered the head coaching position at New Mexico in 1998 and his team set records for the most consecutive bowl games and of his 11 seasons, Lobos teams were eligible for bowls seven straight years.
It was enough for Brady Hoke to coax Long to San Diego to become the Aztecs’ defensive coordinator. Two years later, he was named head coach and after always being in a great place but a not-so-great position or in a great position but a not-so-great place, Rocky Long was finally where he wanted to be.
And, he doesn’t plan on leaving. “I’m content here,” he said recently while adding that no program in its right mind would want a 68 year old coach.
But, while Long may be home, “home” may be gone.
San Diego State University lost its long-time arrangement for SDCCU Stadium (former Qualcomm). For two years, the political football of that stadium has been a dark shadow over the Aztecs’ future and even as late as December of 2017, no one knew if SDSU would have a home after the contract expired in December of 2018.
Can you imagine trying to recruit when you have no site at which to play? That hasn’t bothered Rocky. In fact, most reviews will tell you that his recruiting has been just as good—I think better—in the past two years than in the two years before.
Not long ago, the City of San Diego agreed to a short-term extension for SDSU’s use of the stadium. And in just the past few days, a judge’s decision clears the way for SDSU and a competing soccer organization to put opposing measures on the November ballot to fund the purchase of the stadium site.
San Diego State’s proposed new stadium.
If SDSU doesn’t win the ballot, it will be back to square one: a great team, a great coach, but no place to play.
And even if it passes, the Aztecs will need an alternative site while the old stadium is demolished and the new one constructed. It’s all a bit of a convoluted labyrinth, yet for Rocky—someone who has been on the hard roads and taken on the tough tasks—the potential loss of a place to play doesn’t seem to affect or concern him. Instead, he’s full of his usual confidence and after all he’s been through, he doesn’t seem apt to wither now.
Besides, that isn’t what endears him most to San Diegans. What they love is his high character, honesty, decency, and grit. He’s among the best coaches in college football and certainly among the best of people.
Fans cringe when rumors abound that bigger programs are coming to pitch for Rocky’s services. But you see, those fans have heard it all before. Too many times. Enough times to have come up with a pitch of their own. It goes something like this:
Coach, you’re ours. That other team is just leading you on. They’re just
playing with you to gain leverage for the “real” guy they want to hire.
We’re the ones who love you. We’re the ones who truly want you.
Besides, you said it yourself:
What program in its right mind would want a 68 year old coach?