SAN DIEGO — These are interesting times for San Diego State's football team.
The Chargers have bolted for the Los Angeles suburbs, leaving the Aztecs as the only major football team in town.
Beyond the next few seasons, the Aztecs aren't quite assured of having a place to play. The city is debating when to tear down aging Qualcomm Stadium and it's not clear how many seasons, if any, they can play at Petco Park, the downtown home of baseball's Padres.
No worries. Coach Rocky Long, as old school as they get, takes what he's given and carries on.
Eager to step up and fill a gap left by the Chargers, the Aztecs have adopted the slogan, "One City. One Team."
It might be hokey, but it's true.
"Honestly, I think there are true NFL fans in this world who couldn't care less about college. I think there are some true college fans in this world who couldn't care less about the NFL," Long said. "What we're going to try to capture is the real football fans that like all football. We would like to attract the people who want to go see a good product and a competition and have a good time out in the tailgate lot and all that, and they don't have to drive three hours to do it."
Long, 67, has the Aztecs on a roll. They're coming off consecutive 11-3 seasons that included Mountain West Conference championships and bowl victories.
They finished in The Associated Press final poll for the first time, at 25th. They've played in seven straight bowl games.
Among their key losses is D.J. Pumphrey, who set the FBC all-time rushing record with 6,405 yards. However, Rashaad Penny is expected to be a bruising replacement. He ran for 1,018 yards and 11 touchdowns last year.
"I think the expectation level goes up," Long said. "We are going to be a very talented football team. We're not near as experienced as we were last year. And experience in college makes a huge difference. I think our talent is continuing to go up, but right now we don't have the eight guys who are in NFL camps. We have a bunch of redshirt freshmen who will probably be as good as those guys, but they're not as good as those guys when they're 18 years old."
Long received a five-year contract extension a week after the Chargers left town. He doesn't sound worried about the program's direction.
How big is this season?
"It's a critical position on what Aztec football will be," he said. "I don't think it's a make or break deal. I think San Diego State's always going to have a football team. But if you want to play at a top level, the next four or five years are critical to prove that we belong. I'm concerned with our inexperience this year, but the next two years after that, we're going to be as good as we ever will. And last year we proved we can play."
The Aztecs are trying to schedule games against at least one and sometimes two Pac-12 teams per season. This year those games are on consecutive Saturdays, Sept. 9 at Arizona State and Sept. 16 at home against Stanford.
Last year, SDSU beat Cal at home.
"We want to compete against those guys," Long said. "We think we can have a home game for our fans that they're interested in, plus actually give us an honest chance to win the game, instead of flying 3,000 miles to play Penn State. There's a method to our madness, We want to compete against those guys and eventually prove that we belong with those guys and we want to play at home sometimes against those people."
Never shy to express an opinion, Long thinks some Power 5 conferences will expand in the future, and he'd like SDSU to be in position to at least be considered.
"If you give them the image that you can compete and play with them on limited resources compared to what they have ... with a city like San Diego, when they start negotiating TV contracts, we might be an attractive addition to a league," Long said.
In the meantime, the Aztecs have to figure out a stadium solution. They believe they can build their own stadium, preferably at the site of Qualcomm Stadium. There's also the chance they can partner with a proposed Major League Soccer team, but talks have broken off.
"My thought on that is I have no say-so and I have no influence so I just have confidence in the people who are in charge that we 'll have a nice place to play when it comes time," Long said.