San Diego State coach is a straight shooter

Rocky Long uses a no-nonsense approach to coaching

bmurphy@idahostatesman.comDecember 20, 2013 

San Diego State coach Rocky Long was recruited to play basketball at Army by Bob Knight. Instead, he played quarterback at New Mexico and left as the school's all-time leading rusher. His style, though, may have some Knight influence. "He's very upfront and honest and he's going to wear it on his sleeve. He's not going to BS or pacify you, and that's one of the things I like about him. He's a man's man," offensive coordinator Bob Toledo said.

It took one meeting for Nat Berhe to figure out that Rocky Long was a different type of coach.

Berhe was working out in his high school gym when Long, then San Diego State's defensive coordinator, stopped by for a recruiting visit. He wore cowboy boots.

"Who is this guy?" Berhe said.

Long delivered his pitch and then told Berhe he liked him as a player. Before he left, though, Long couldn't resist a bit of coaching.

"The next time I come in here, I don't want to see you just doing curls," the coach said.

Berhe was stunned.

Five years later, neither Berhe — a first-team All-Mountain West safety — nor anyone associated with the Aztecs is surprised by Long's direct approach.

Promoted to head coach after the 2010 season, the 63-year-old Long will tell you how he sees it, whether you like it or not.

"He doesn't pull any punches, doesn't try to be anybody he's not. He is who he is," San Diego State assistant head coach Jeff Horton said. "He's going to tell you exactly what he thinks whether you're a player or coach. He's not going to blow smoke at you."

That direct approach has served Long well in his second act as head coach.

He took over for Brady Hoke and has led the Aztecs to a share of the 2012 Mountain West title and three consecutive bowl appearances, including Saturday's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise. Hoke left for Michigan after two seasons in San Diego with Long as his defensive coordinator.

It is a second act Long never thought would come after stepping down in 2008 after 11 moderately successful seasons at New Mexico, his alma mater. The Lobos have struggled mightly since his departure.

"I didn't think I was ever going to be a head coach again," said Long, an innovative defensive coordinator who honed his unorthodox 3-3-5 defense at UCLA, Oregon State and Wyoming.

Long planned to follow Hoke to Michigan, but when San Diego State Athletic Director Jim Sterk offered him the top job, Long felt an obligation to players like Berhe and the program. Long recruited nine of the Aztecs' 18 current seniors. They had just began their time in the program.

"I made promises to families that I would be there while their son would be there. I could see (the program) getting better. I didn't want to leave them in a lurch because the program was going in the right direction before I became the head coach and if you brought in a head coach from some place else, it would disrupt that whole process," Long said.

So he stayed.

And has built the Aztecs into a formidable Mountain West program, an accomplishment at a school that had just three bowl appearance between 1970 and 2010.

"We're getting better. We want to be like Boise State where people know us nationally like they know Boise State. We're working in that direction," Long said. "We're getting a little bit better. We've got a long ways to go."

Long's straight-talking ways - and the Aztecs' back-to-back victories against Boise State - have ruffled some in Boise, particularly when he called for removing Bronco Stadium's famed blue turf.

"I think they ought to get rid of that blue turf. I think it's unfair," he said in April 2011.

Three months later, the Mountain West banned Boise State from wearing all-blue uniforms on the blue turf.

"He's no fluff at all," San Diego State offensive coordinator Bob Toledo said.

Despite the frigid temperatures this week in Boise, Long had his team practice outside Wednesday and Thursday. Long wore shorts Wednesday. Some of his players had never seen snow before, and Long is trying to convince them that the weather is not an issue.

"Football is very basic to him: it's blocking, it's tackling. Who is going to be the toughest football team? He constantly preaches that the team that plays the hardest the longest is going to win the football game," Horton said. "That's what our program is built on - being tough and physical. Just like him. He's a tough, physical guy himself. He always talks about the worst thing you can be is soft."

Long can still bench press 300 pounds and often stops by the weight room with players. In an era of CEO coaches, he is an in-the-trenches coach.

"I love playing for coach Long. He coaches hard-nosed football, old-school type football," fullback Chad Young said. "He preaches toughness and shows it out there himself."

Said Toledo, the former head coach at UCLA: "He's a defensive coordinator being a head coach."

At this point in his career, Long is coaching with a certain freedom. Freedom to tell players, coaches, media exactly what he thinks. Freedom to go for it on fourth-down 35 times this season, more than any team in the country beside Cal. Freedom to do things his way.

"It's a lot more fun the second time around. I can remember going to the first bowl game I ever went to as a head coach," said Long, who took New Mexico bowling in 2002. "I was so uptight and so nervous."

He's been anything but this week. Something those players who have been in the program the longest have noticed.

"He's smiling, messing around. He's having a good time," Berhe said. "Yeah, that's different."

Long has made a career on being different - his defense, his approach, his bluntness. He's not going to change now. He is who he is. Take it or leave it.

Brian Murphy: 377-6444, Twitter: @MurphsTurph

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