SAN DIEGO — Rocky Long is one of the good guys.
And because of that, BYU's bowl game against San Diego State will be an intriguing matchup for Bronco Mendenhall, who was once Long's defensive coordinator at New Mexico, where the pair developed a blitz-happy 3-3-5 defense that spawned Loboback sensation Brian Urlacher.
Few college coaches understand Long better than Mendenhall. Likewise with Long interpreting Mendenhall. Their mutual respect and friendship is as solid as they come.
SDSU athletic spokesman Mike May confirms how Long’s personality stands out.
He’s loyal. Long had an offer from Brady Hoke to go with him to Michigan as the defensive coordinator, but turned it down because he didn’t think it would be “fair” to have the student-athletes go through another coaching change.
Long is humble. “He is the least-assuming head coach I have ever been around,” said May.
He's an honest Abe. “There is no spin with Rocky Long. He tells the student-athletes, the media and anyone else he encounters exactly what he thinks.”
Long has game. “He still serves as the defensive coordinator, and the turnaround his unit made in midseason is nothing short of amazing.”
I joined Long in a golf foursome back in the early days of the Mountain West Conference, when the league did such things with coaches and reporters during the football media days. It was a blistering-hot July at a resort outside of Las Vegas.
He was obviously an athlete, a former quarterback at New Mexico and the CFL. Bobby Knight tried to talk him into playing basketball at Army. He has to be an active weightlifter; you could tell by his golf swing. He was a little muscle-bound with his swing.
I found Long intriguing, highly competitive, extremely friendly, refreshingly honest and upfront. Forced golf outings with sportswriters were often the last thing coaches wanted to do at these shindigs, and they later nixed it, but that morning with Long was memorable because he made it that way. He told me if I was ever in Albuquerque and looking for a round, he’d hook me up at the famous Paa-ko Ridge course on the east side of the Sandia Mountains.
Golfers who get along with other golfers say such things. It would be tough for anyone not to get along with Long.
Definitely a good guy.
Since that time, naturally, I took more interest in Long. It was after that golf event Long ripped off the most successful run of any New Mexico coach in 40 years. And he did it with Mendenhall at his side. That included a Lobo win in Provo.
When Long resigned at New Mexico, he stated he wasn’t the man to take the Lobos to the next level. What he meant, but was too good a man to explain, was he was not getting the support he needed from a basketball school. So he moved on as defensive coordinator at San Diego State.
Since that time, Long has become the winningest coach in the MWC and earned coach-of-the-year honors for his work this season that stands 9-3 with a seven-game win streak heading into Thursday’s Poinsettia Bowl against BYU.
In SDSU’s nine seasons before Long, the Aztecs were 38-80 (.322) and had zero bowl appearances and zero winning seasons. Since Long came three years ago, SDSU is 26-12 (.684) and has been to three bowl games with three winning seasons.
Several times leading up to this bowl game, reporters have asked Long about a rivalry with BYU, about the wave of hate some in San Diego have for the Cougars. Time and time again, Long has refused to bite.
"I'll get this out sooner or later,” he told reporters at one of his weekly interviews. “I was born in Provo; my mom and dad both graduated from BYU. My dad played football and ran track at BYU. What makes you think I could even hate them? My mom and dad would hate me.”
In SDSU, the Cougars will face a team with a Long trademark. The Aztecs are tougher than the beach-boy party crew they’ve been in the past. They hit harder, tackle better and get nasty with the 3-3-5 that can give a quarterback fits. This has carried over to offense, where BYU may face the best run attack it's seen this year, including at Notre Dame and Georgia Tech and in Provo against ranked Utah State.
Long’s transference of toughness from his defense to offense will give BYU plenty to think about come Thursday night.
It will be an interesting challenge for Mendenhall’s defense, ranked in the top five nationally in total defense and rush defense.
But what are a few stats among friends?
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.