SAN DIEGO — Rocky Long says any flack Bronco Mendenhall gets for playing a certain quarterback or any player is understandable and comes with the job.
But, as expected, the San Diego State coach, MWC Coach of the Year, and Bronco’s former boss at New Mexico, stands up for and relates to Mendenhall. The two friends face off against each other Thursday night in a bowl game.
When Mendenhall stuck with an injured senior Riley Nelson in losses at Utah and Boise State, many questioned his intelligence, saying loyalty blinded him. For this game, Nelson has been told James Lark will start, but he could see playing time.
Long, whose 9-3 San Diego State Aztecs face the Cougars Thursday in the Poinsettia Bowl in Qualcomm Stadium, says being blind has nothing to do with such a decision, it's knowledge of seeing players up close and personal every single day.
“I don’t think there is a coach anywhere at this level who is going to bend to public opinion. You are going to put the best guy out there who gives you the best chance to win. I don’t think there are any personality deals involved. We do the same thing.”
Long said people have opinions on whom they think is best, but a coach knows his players better than anyone. “Who knows better than him? He knows who his best quarterback is. He knows who can make plays, knows the offense, can execute, he knows a lot better than the other guy making an opinion.”
The hardest part of coaching, says Long, is coaches are so involved in trying to get a team over the hump that they can’t believe they get questioned about decisions. “Thing is, coaches know their players so well that you can’t believe that someone who doesn’t see your players except for three hours on a Saturday has that strong of an opinion. I can see it. It wears us all out at times, especially when things don’t go as well as a fan base believes it should.
“You try to explain why and they don’t realize how hard you work, how much time you spend and how much you feel for those kids. I mean it goes with the business. That’s why he gets paid so much money.”
Laughing, Long says he told Mendenhall he gets paid too much, “because he gets paid more than me.”
Long also had an opinion on USU's coaching vacancy.
That Wisconsin hired USU coach Gary Andersen, who has no ties to the Big Ten or Midwest, is no surprise to Long. “In fact, it’s a surprise he’s lasted this long there.”
Long said Andersen’s body of work has been outstanding. “I think the athletic director (at Wisconsin), being a former football coach, is going to hire the very best person he can.”
Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at email@example.com.