I like Rocky Long. I understand the new San Diego State football coach and agree with him most of the time. But when he repeats the popular refrain about BYU having a huge advantage with its older players, it rings as a worn-out excuse.

Maturity is an advantage, no question. But it is also a dangerous alibi.

Long is a good man and a great coach. SDSU is lucky to have him. He grew up in Provo, and when he left New Mexico's program, you can see how now it sorely misses him. At a MWC football media day years ago in Las Vegas, I played golf with him and my admiration and respect for him grew even more.

Last week, a reporter asked Long about playing BYU in the future. He said he'd like to give it a rest, and that SDSU shouldn't make it easy for BYU to schedule as an independent to punish it for leaving the league.

Long then told the reporter he believed the Cougars had an unfair advantage by playing older players who'd served on missions and welcomed the break from playing them.

There is no such thing as an untrue opinion. People have a right to believe what suits their perspective, and having older, mature players is a benefit.

But I disagree managing missionaries is an easily achieved comfort. Sometimes it is a disaster and a huge gamble.

"If it is such a huge advantage, why don't others do it?," asks former BYU receiver Chuck Cutler, whom Ty Detmer credits for catching his first touchdown pass in 1988.

Why not send players to work in the Peace Corps for two years or recruit more LDS players? Why? Perhaps it is because they can't risk players leaving for any amount of time.

Cutler has witnessed firsthand what a two-year absence does to an athlete. Their muscles become weak, their body flabby and their desire to play wanes. Missionaries are encouraged to exercise, but it is spotty and inconsistent at best. They do not go to Gold's Gym.

Cutler served an LDS mission to Ecuador from 1983-85 and played with Detmer from 1985-88. Upon returning home from Ecuador, Cutler had been nauseated for some time, so long that he had become used to it. His first year back, he couldn't gain weight. After a year of trying to figure out why, doctors discovered he had a tape worm. Once it was treated, he put on weight and could play again.

Cutler recently finished service as president of the Texas San Antonio Mission, where Utah State basketball player Brady Jardine and BYU tight end Mike Muehlmann once served. Cutler's own son walked on at BYU after a mission and, like others, said it took a year before he felt like an athlete again.

"When I talked to people in San Antonio, people would ask me, 'How do you get people to do this? They pay for it? They come out two years?' " he said. "It's not easy. Frankly, it is really remarkable and I dare any other school to do it.

"Take 19-year and 20-year-old kids, who are pretty much self-absorbed with life like most that age are, that everything resolves around them and for two years it becomes the exact opposite. Everything is about serving others. You don't think that does something in building character?

"Whether people agree or disagree with our faith, doing that for two years is incredible what it does to a person. Forget football. Forget any other sport. To learn life is more than just about themselves, that it is about others, that's priceless. Forget football."

Cutler says if it is all that important of an advantage, then by all means, major college coaches should do it. They should be clamoring to do it and incorporate it into their programs.

Why don't they do it? They can't take the risk.

In my opinion, this "mature" issue that surfaces so readily smacks more of an excuse for failure of football programs that regularly compete against BYU. It is an excuse to their bosses, their fans and the media. In the heat of a third-quarter gap-control battle in the trenches, it gives a SDSU player an excuse: "Coach said he's older, I'm at a disadvantage so if I get beat, it's understandable."

It's a tune that's become old and sour.

To accept this premise is to swallow that losing to BYU can't be coaching failure, recruiting failure, strategy failure, facility failure and conditioning failure — it has to be because BYU has athletes an average of 1.4 years older.

Give me a break.

It didn't effect Utah State's Gary Andersen the night of Oct. 1 in Romney Stadium when the Aggies beat the Cougars 31-16.

If an athlete plays football five years after high school without interruption from the game, in my opinion, it is a bigger advantage in conditioning, continuity, health, chemistry, recruiting, coaching and digesting x's and o's in a program.

Maturity is one factor, but not the biggest. I submit BYU has witnessed this in Jimmer Fredette and predict it will benefit QB Jake Heaps just as it did Gifford Nielsen, Steve Young, Robbie Bosco and Marc Wilson.

Did BYU's maturity explain the failure of MWC schools Air Force, San Diego State, Wyoming, New Mexico, UNLV and Colorado State to consistently win league championships while playing against each other the other 99 percent of the time the past dozen years? Nope.

BYU is 24-7 against Air Force, 27-7-1 against SDSU, 44-30-2 against Wyoming, 15-3 against UNLV and 45-14-1 against CSU. The lopsided records started in the early 1970s when BYU didn't deploy very many returned missionaries.

In the late 1970s, there was a different excuse hatched among WAC rivals. It was as real and as useful to fans and bosses as the maturity excuse used today during "BYU week" by MWC opponents this past season.

The excuse back then was that BYU offensive linemen were, gulp, holding. It was blatant. It happened on every play. BYU taught it, officials ignored it. It was a huge part of what coaches told the media, fans and bosses as to why BYU won. It was alleged to be a huge advantage and the reason BYU won 10 straight WAC football championships. The maturity excuse didn't filter through the Rockies until around the early 1990s.

BYU O-line holding. Yep. It wasn't cross-eyed secondaries or inept zone or man coverages, it was holding.

It caused a backlash in the league and Cougar games would be routinely littered with a parade of flags as a result of the outcry from WAC coaches. Funny thing is, Jim McMahon relished a 1st-and-20 or 3rd-and-25 because defenses back then had no clue how to defend Doug Scovil's passing attack and McMahon wanted to get in his 380 yards before the fourth quarter. The Cougars won at an unprecedented rate in the WAC. They must be doing something for an advantage — holding.

BYU's maturity never got in the way of Air Force on Sept. 11 when the Falcons beat the Cougars 35-14.

The good news for Long and other MWC coaches is they don't have to use this excuse any more. It ended last November.

It will be a good and timely separation.

BYU takes its maturity elsewhere and new MWC brothers Fresno State, Nevada and Boise State will fill the void. SDSU, the way is now clear for a football championship, just get by young and immature Boise State to become king of the castle.

Let the era of excuses in the MWC come to a torturous and welcome end.

e-mail: dharmon@desnews.com