(Feature photo courtesy of @SDSUFootball)
It’s been 10 years since he graced the University of New Mexico football sidelines. I still miss him.
Following San Diego State’s 28-21 upset of then-No. 23 Arizona State on Saturday, the SDSU football twitter account fired off the following tweet, quoting head coach Rocky Long.
I already hear the Rocky naysayers in Albuquerque … “Oh, he still had a losing record here (65-69, which Long would be the first to admit; in fact, he did once to the UNM women’s basketball team in 2015); he never won a conference championship.”
College football fans can use a variety of adjectives to describe Long or his teams. Two terms they can’t use are “soft” or “scared.”
The Lobos once were considered the toughest team in the Mountain West. That moniker since has moved on, not coincidentally, to San Diego State.
Long has a 66-30 record at San Diego State. He has guided the Aztecs to double-digit win seasons the last three years. He never has had a losing season at SDSU.
And to those naysayers: So did Rocky learn how to coach in San Diego? Or is it just a matter of more talent in Southern California?
If it’s the latter, then explain how Rocky’s Lobos beat the Aztecs 70-7 during his final year in Albuquerque in 2008. SDSU always has had more talent in its backyard than UNM.
The Rashad Pennys (Seattle Seahawks’ first-round draft pick in 2018), Ronnie Hillmans (who spent six years in the NFL through 2016, four years with the Denver Broncos) and Donnel Pumphreys (on the Detroit Lions practice squad) that SDSU can lure, were named Jarrod Baxter, DonTrell Moore and Rodney Ferguson at UNM.
Only Baxter reached the NFL, as Moore still was not fully recovered from a torn ACL he suffered in the Emerald Bowl at the end of his junior season when he tried to make it to the NFL after his senior season.
Imagine where the Lobo football program might be right now if Long were in his 21st year as Lobo coach.
Not soft. Not scared. And probably with records similar to what the Aztecs are producing now — or at least what the Lobos were producing from 2002-07 when the team averaged more than seven wins per season.
I get that not everything was rosy during Long’s tenure at UNM. His teams were so tough that by the end of the season, they were beaten down and not as successful in bowl games.
The “smash-mouth” offense was viewed as vanilla, serving mainly to protect Long’s signature defense.
Then, there was the small matter of UNM’s NCAA violations in which its assistant coaches were guilty of academic fraud in 2004 and 2005. The assistants assisted one student-athlete and four prospective student-athletes to enroll in and improperly gain course credit from online courses through Fresno Pacific University.
The NCAA football program placed the school on three years’ probation, and that was part of the rift between Long and then-athletic director Paul Krebs.
But it has since been discovered that the UNM athletic department wasn’t exactly a stickler for rules during Krebs’ tenure, either.
It took current coach Bob Davie five years to clean up the three-year mess left by Long’s successor Mike Locksley.
Davie is now finding out how tough it is to sustain success at UNM, which is another reason why letting Long leave was shortsighted.
Davie currently has a 32-46 record with the Lobos. If he can turn things around after taking a step back with a 3-9 campaign in 2017, he could approach Rocky’s 65-69 mark. Davie would need to go 33-23 to catch him.
But even if Davie accomplishes that feat (going 33-23 is no easy task at UNM), can he be considered interchangeable with Long?
According to sports-reference.com, Long’s Lobos played tougher schedules than Davie’s Lobos have. One of the statistics the website uses in displaying a coach’s record is strength of schedule, which is denominated by points above or below average and zero is considered average.
The other caveat is the ability to attract crowds.
Long’s 2005 Lobos hold the record for single-season attendance with an average of 38,341 per game. UNM averaged 29,000 fans or more for eight straight seasons.
Davie’s best year was actually 2013 in which UNM averaged 23,537. The school has said that attendance is down nationally. However, San Diego State’s attendance has risen in each of the last three years, to 39,347 in 2017.
That’s the most at SDSU since 1992 and the Aztecs had a running back named Marshall Faulk.
However Rocky’s done it, if he builds programs, fans will come.
UNM won nine games in 2016 and had its lowest attendance since 1992 — and that was only because it included the New Mexico Bowl crowd of 29,688. Otherwise, the attendance was its lowest since 1991.
It used to be fun going to a Lobo football game and wading through the crowd. Now, it’s depressing counting all the fans dressed as empty seats.
So that’s why I miss Rocky and his “Don’t be soft; don’t be scared” image. And I’ll bet right about now that the Lobo men’s soccer, skiing, beach volleyball, and track and field teams miss him, too.
Greg Archuleta is the assistant editor at Enchantment Sports. He was the New Mexico Lobo football beat writer for the Albuquerque Journal for 12 years and worked as a professional journalist for more than two decades.