What Rocky Long Meant To San Diego State
Long left a lasting legacy with the Aztecs
Rocky Long did amazing things.
San Diego State head coach Rocky Long abruptly stepped down recently and a few of our Aztecs writers wrote about what Long meant to this football program and university during his time as arguably the most successful coach in San Diego State history.
Rocky Long has taken this program to a level of competitiveness that the fanbase has been hungry for since taking over in 2011. Unfortunate to him see leave the program that he has rebuilt.
This author’s favorite moment during his tenure is the 2012 victory on the Smurf Turf at Boise State. After Boise State joining the league in 2011, the Aztecs got their first shot at the national darlings in Boise. Boise State was the 19th ranked team, and here comes the gritty little Aztecs.
In a game that would feature the most polarizing Aztec running back, Adam Muema, and his 127 yards of rushing. The Aztecs played the style of football that would define Rocky Long’s tenure and this last decade: run the ball downhill and trust your stout defense. The Aztecs won that game and it was a tone setter for that program.
Rocky Long will be revered as one of San Diego State’s all-time great coaches. To some, he will be known simply as THE greatest. To others, he will be recognized as the first Don Coryell- caliber legend.
Long achieved some truly remarkable milestones. The Chinese say, “failure is the mother of success,” and after Long essentially fired himself from the University of New Mexico, he went to work at SDSU as Brady Hoke’s Defensive Coordinator. Hoke, before departing for the University of Michigan, helped elevate the Aztecs. Rocky Long did not merely build on that momentum.
Long cemented winning, and turned Aztecs football into an institution where a nine-win season would come to be considered “disappointing.” He was responsible for three Mountain West Championship victories in a league that powerhouse Boise State calls home. He also managed to deliver the Aztecs to TEN STRAIGHT bowl games- a feat that is simply extraordinary for any program anywhere. The Aztecs have had an entire decade of winning seasons. In addition, over the past five seasons, Long handily delivered four 10+ win performances.
Now, he has again elected to exit his position against the wishes of everybody around him. This may be in no small part to Long’s desire to always do it his way- period.
Long can take credit for SDSU’s monicker “Running Back University” and during his tenure he has turned out several great tailbacks including NCAA all-time career rushing leader Donnel Pumphrey; and Seattle Seahawk Rashaad Penny. Under his leadership, SDSU was the first football team in NCAA history to produce a 2000-yard running back and a 1000-yard running back in the same season. Long was big into the running game, and it was no secret to opposing teams that the Aztecs fully intended to go right down the middle.
Long also returned the fullback to key relevance, inspiring other programs rethink the significance of the position.
Long was also a gambler, It would be an understatement to say he was gutsy. Most coaches make decisions from the head or gut: Long drew decisions from the head, gut or groin, making calls that occasionally defied sensibility- sometimes with great results.
He had a very aggressive record of going for fourth-down conversions. For better or worse on a few occasions, Long risked a game loss by going for a two-point conversion for the win- instead of a near-certain tie into overtime. The Aztecs lost against Wyoming in 2016 during a game that could have been tied- to Aztec fans’ horror.
Fans lambasted that Long must have had plans after the game and didn’t want it to go into overtime, but this simplified the extreme stress of playing during a heavy snowstorm in Laramie where the 7,215′ elevation had many key players sucking oxygen from tanks in the biting cold. Laramie may very well be THE harshest environment to play football in the NCAA. Even with the failed gamble, the Aztecs found redemption one month later against Wyoming in the ’16 Mountain West Championship- again in Laramie.
Rocky Long put a high premium on expectations for special teams. Kickers like John Baron II and Matt Araiza brought both distance and Lou Groza- caliber accuracy, which made their production “business as usual,” while Pumphrey, Penny, Damonte Kayzee and Jamaal Washington all managed to impress with kickoff returns for touchdown often a few times per season apiece.
Long’s ultimate signature was and will always be an elite defense. His signature 3-3-5 defense is now being studied and adopted by other universities. At the end of this season, SDSU had the #5 ranked defense in the nation.
That defense manifested through a combination of powerful line defense constantly forcing tackles for loss; a stellar secondary disruption game, and an expectation that defense needed to contribute points in the game. In a 2016 game against Cal, where seasoned grad-transfer quarterback Davis Webb threw for 522 yards, the Aztecs’ scoring defense was the difference-maker. Momentum transforming pic-sixes definitely put the Aztecs over the top.
While Rocky Long was a supremely talented coach-commander, other programs well understood that money wasn’t his primary motivator. Otherwise UCLA and other struggling and wealthy programs would have poached him long ago.
It was also evident after games that Long is a coach’s coach. He was beloved in the Mountain West (except by Bryan Harsin) and his progress has been seen as a model for Mountain West coaches in emerging programs. When he lost he always lost graciously, never showing bitterness.
At the same time, he was horrendously feared in the Pac-12, where he steered the Aztecs to a 5-1 record over the last four seasons against Cal, Arizona State, Stanford and UCLA.
In fact, during early 2018, San Diego State was jokingly ranked #4 in conference by the Pac-12.
Rocky Long embodies the essence of what it is to be a football coach, and it is an absolute certainty that his legacy will live on in the players and coaches who had the great privilege of being in his ranks.