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April 5, 2011
San Diego State didn't have to search farther than its own athletic office to find its new coach after Michigan hired away Brady Hoke. The Aztecs selected Long as Hoke's successor so soon that the men held their introductory news conferences on the same day.
"An opportunity that was too good to pass up happened here," says Long, a former New Mexico coach who spent the past two seasons as the Aztecs' defensive coordinator. "It was a very big surprise to me that it happened. I was very content being an assistant coach, but the chance to be a head coach in a program that can be better and better, it's so exciting."
Long, 61, may have been the only person surprised by the news. As Hoke led San Diego State to its first bowl bid in 12 years last season, he emerged as one of the hottest contenders for coaching vacancies across the country. San Diego State's players heard the rumors and occasionally discussed ideal replacement candidates.
"It was kind of unanimous," San Diego State quarterback Ryan Lindley says. "We decided that if [Hoke] were to go, we wanted Coach Long to step in."
San Diego State athletic director Jim Sterk felt the same way, but he wondered whether Long wanted to return to the daily grind that comes with a head-coaching position. When Long stepped down as New Mexico's coach at the end of the 2008 season, he didn't seem interested in being a head coach again anytime soon.
"I want this program to be on top," Long told reporters at the time. "I wanted it to be on top as a player. I wanted it to be on top as an assistant coach. And I wanted it to be on top as the head coach. I don't see it happening with me as the head coach."
Although Long doesn't like to talk publicly about the circumstances behind his departure from New Mexico anymore, Sterk said he discussed the issue with him last fall. Sterk understood that he might need to find a replacement for Hoke soon, and he wanted to gauge Long's interest. During that conversation, Sterk discovered that Long's passion to be a head coach had returned. Long truly believed he could help San Diego State continue its recent momentum.
"That was one of the things we discussed: 'Why did you step away?' " Sterk says. "[I liked] the answers that he gave, the passion that he expressed. He made the comment that we can be the TCU of this league. We can go to a BCS game. We can go to bowls and a BCS game. And that he wanted to coach the next 10 years here if all goes well and if he feels good."
Long is treating San Diego State as a destination rather than a steppingstone. He's grateful for an opportunity that he didn't really expect.
"When I left New Mexico, I didn't think I wanted to be a head coach again," Long says. "Time heals all wounds. ? I'd never thought about being a head coach again, but as soon as the opportunity arose that I could be a head coach again, it came back into my system really fast."
Long takes over San Diego State's program at a critical time. The Mountain West Conference is in a state of transition. The conference welcomes Boise State this season while losing BYU and Utah. TCU departs for the Big East next year, while Fresno State, Hawaii and Nevada arrive from the Western Athletic Conference.
The absence of BYU and Utah and the impending departure of TCU will leave the MWC without its three traditional heavyweights. Someone has to emerge as Boise State's top conference rival. Why not San Diego State?
San Diego State returns Lindley, 2010 MWC rushing leader Ronnie Hillman and five other offensive players who made at least seven starts for a team that went 9-4 and beat Navy 35-14 in the Poinsettia Bowl last season. The Aztecs certainly have reason for optimism.
Long has preached caution by pointing out that one good season doesn't necessarily signal that the entire program has turned the corner. San Diego State's 9-4 mark last season was its first winning record since 1998.
"We have different players, different coaches," Long said. "It takes you about five years to establish a program. This program hasn't been established, even though we had a good year last year."
Long has demonstrated he knows how to establish a program. New Mexico had posted three winning seasons in the 15 years before Long took over as coach. The Lobos went 65-69 in Long's 11-season tenure and reached a bowl in five of his final seven seasons.
The Lobos were 9-4 and won the New Mexico Bowl in 2007 for their first postseason victory in 46 years before staggering to a 4-8 finish in 2008 that led to Long's departure. Even in that disappointing final season at New Mexico, Long led the Lobos to a 70-7 demolition of San Diego State.
That shellacking helped Long garner the immediate respect of San Diego State's players as soon as he joined Hoke's staff in 2009.
"He's a real personable guy," Lindley says. "He's a guy you get along with really well. At the same time, he's still the authority figure. If you screw up, regardless of who it is
San Diego State safeties coach Danny Gonzales played for Long and coached alongside him at New Mexico, working his way up from a graduate assistant to a full-time staff member coaching safeties, punters, kickers and long snappers. Gonzales believes Long has the same enthusiasm he possessed during his most productive years with the Lobos.
"He's really excited to have another opportunity to be a head coach," Gonzales says. "He's energized. He worked his tail off to build what we built at New Mexico. That fire in his eyes is great to see. He's willing to try to do it again."
Long may be coaching with a similar style, but he's not the same guy who helped rebuild New Mexico's program. Long believes he benefited from his two years working for Hoke. Long now might be poised to deliver better results than he ever produced at New Mexico because he inherits a program that's in better shape and because the past two years have made him a better coach.
"I think people are excited about the program and excited about the success we've had, but people have to be realistic," Long says. "We anticipate continuing that success, but with the change in players and a change in staffs, there's always a learning curve.
"Hopefully with continuity, we can go right past that learning curve and continue on with more success."