PHOTO: Rocky Long has much to smile about as coach at San Diego State, especially when he thinks about the program behind him. But does his record with the Aztecs translate into where the Lobos would be had he stayed at UNM?
By Mark Smith
Editor in Chief
It seems like an obvious case of “Be careful what you wish for.”
Or maybe it’s an example of “Be thankful for what you’ve got.”
I just know that many– if not most — Lobo football fans long for the days of Long.
After back-to-back 3-9 seasons, you can’t blame them.
But to examine the present state of the struggling New Mexico Lobo football program, it’s probably a good idea to remember the past before rushing into the future.
Heck, Rocky Long is a UNM graduate, a former Lobo star and a good guy to deal with.
His Lobo football programs set all-time home attendance records, he was active in the community and he has the most wins of any coach in program history.
But he also has the most losses of any coach in program history.
Long was 65-69 in 11 seasons at UNM.
He was 1-4 in bowl games.
We all know that the Lobos have flopped since Long’s departure in 2008.
The Long era was far better than the Mike Locksley-Bob Davie decade, which is a combined 36-87. Both Locksley and Davie were hired by former UNM athletic director Paul Krebs.
But were the Long-years the best the Lobos could ever achieve?
If you answer “Yes,” then mediocrity is the glass ceiling for Lobo football.
If you answer “No,” then maybe you can understand how Krebs – and a huge number of fans and boosters – likely felt back in 2008.
At his UNM goodbye news conference, Long said he was agitated with plenty in Loboville, including the “damn fans.”
He said that he was not the “right person to lead the program to newer heights.”
But is there such a person?
And while we’re at it, is Long the right person to lead San Diego State, the team he’s coached the past eight years, to new heights at that school?
We may never know – at least, on the record – all the reasons for Long’s separation from New Mexico.
Did Long get fired, simply resign or get forced out?
Since Long received a $750,000 buyout, I tend to dismiss the “simply resign” possibility.
Still, Long has never spoken publicly about leaving.
Krebs has said little on the record, except that Long left on his own accord.
After his Lobo coaching days, Long became defensive coordinator with Brady Hoke at San Diego State — a program that was in ruins for three seasons under previous coach Chuck Long, going 9-27. (For simplicity’s sake, this will be the only mention of Chuck Long).
Hoke turned the Aztecs around in just two years. After his second season in 2010, in which he led the team to a 9-4 record and a win in the Poinsettia Bowl, he was hired as head coach at Michigan. Rocky was promoted to head coach at SDSU.
Long stepped into a nice situation. It was far from a rebuilding process, and he wasn’t taking over a program that had lost scholarships because of NCAA violations – like Locksley had to do after taking over for Long at UNM.
And Long has made the most of it, compiling a sparkling record of 71-34 thus far at San Diego State.
But watching SDSU nosedive at the end of this season — and knowing that Long is just 3-4 at the school in bowl games – I started pondering about what “new heights” he’s reached at San Diego State.
Would UNM be giddy about going 71-34 with seven bowl games the past eight seasons? Absolutely.
But would Long have gone 71-34 with seven bowl appearances the past eight years had he stayed at UNM? Only if the Lobos dropped to Class 6A – and avoided putting Cleveland High on the schedule.
Sure, the Aztecs and Lobos play in the same conference.
But Long has a few more advantages now than he did a decade ago.
Something tells me it’s a tad easier to recruit kids to America’s Finest City than to Breaking Badlands.
Especially the ones who owns cars.
Or the ones who don’t like getting shot at strip clubs on their recruiting visit.
OK, that last point is a wash. While the shooting did occur in Albuquerque, it happened during Long’s time as UNM coach.
There’s little doubt that Long has been rock solid at SDSU. He’s never had a losing season. His Aztecs had back-to-back 11-3 campaigns, both including bowl wins, in 2015 and 2016. Last year, they were 10-3 with a bowl loss, then roared into this season ranked in the top 25 of the coaches’ poll.
It has been an excellent run, indeed. But has he reached “new heights” at San Diego State? Hardly.
In a 20-season stretch from 1961-80, the Aztecs were a combined 165-45-4 under Hall of Fame coach Don Coryell (12 years), and then Claude Gilbert (eight seasons).
“Air” Coryell also led the Aztecs to three bowl games, back in the day when it took a glossy record to get to one of the country’s few bowls.
How glossy? The three bowls came during a four-year period in which SDSU was a combined 41-1-1.
In other words, a smidgen better than “bowl eligible.”
This year, Long was loaded and expected to have the Aztecs pounding on the Big 5 doors for a possible big-time bowl against a big-time powerhouse in the postseason.
The Aztecs were hammered 31-10 by Stanford in their opener, but then reeled off six straight wins to go 6-1 overall and 4-0 in the Mountain West. One of the victories was against Boise State – the only league loss for the Broncos lost all season.
Even after the Aztecs were upset 28-24 at Nevada in their next game, they were 6-2 and still in control of their path to the league title game.
As Lobos fans know, San Diego State erased a 23-14 deficit in the fourth quarter at New Mexico to beat the Lobos 31-23 on Nov. 3.
What they might not know, is that was the Aztecs’ last win. They ended the regular season with consecutive losses to UNLV (0-6 in the MW at the time), Fresno State and Hawaii. They are 7-5 and waiting for their bowl bid this weekend.
Kiss that major bowl bid goodbye.
So as Lobo fans long for Long, they might be well served to take a deeper look into the good-old days, and realize those actually were the mediocre-old days.
Ultimately, it’s easy to say the UNM program was in far better shape under Long than it has been in the 10 years since he’s been gone. But where it would be today, had Long stayed, is impossible to know.
What’s important now, is for school administrators, fans, boosters, players and every logical person in the Duke City to honestly gauge what heights the program can reasonably attain – and then retain.
This has been one of the worst decades in the history of Lobo football. But it’s not like we haven’t seen bad ones before. What we haven’t seen, is a decade of dominance. Ever.
Maybe the best the program can achieve is mediocrity. And at least get enough fans in the stands to cover six-or-eight rows for the TV cameras.
So maybe that should be the goal the next time a new coach is hired – whether it’s this season or years down the road.
And one thing’s for certain — if it truly is mediocrity you’re looking for, Long was your guy.
But he damn well ain’t coming back to this program again.
Mark Smith has worked in New Mexico sports media for four decades, and is one of the New Mexico’s most decorated sports journalists in history. Smith has won more than 30 combined awards in print, television and radio. He is the editor in chief of Enchantment Sports. Contact him at mark.enchantmentsportsNM@gmail.com.