Tuesday, Dec. 5, 2006 | San Diego State’s disappointing football season reminds me of one of my favorite stories as a sportswriter. A handful of golf fans tagged along with Lee Trevino for a practice round at the late, great Tournament of Champions at La Costa in 1981.

Trevino, chatting amiably without about a dozen fans, reminded us that no matter how bad things look or sound, “It could be worse.”

Trevino had hit a tee shot into the fairway that was nice, but nothing special for a man who won six major championships, including stopping Jack Nicklaus’ bid for a grand slam at the 1972 British Open. As the ball soared from the tee, an old bird with a beehive hairstyle began chirping with a screeching voice, “Beautiful shot! Beautiful shot!”

Trevino calmly turned to the rest of us, still holding his driver, and said, “It co-u-ld be worse! It co-u-ld be worse! I could be married to her.”

No matter how bad San Diego State’s 3-9 football season is graded, it could have been worse. Chuck Long could have been Tom Craft.

Don Coryell couldn’t have won with a team that lost its two tight ends (Eric Miclot and Lance Louis) in spring football, its quarterback (Kevin O’Connell) in the season opener, its elite running back (Lynell Hamilton), its senior safety (Reggie Grigsby) and other injuries. And, oh, yeah, a weak offensive line that must be beefed up for this program to advance to bowl games was not exactly a solid foundation to build upon.

If you scoff at that notion, remember that when the Chargers’ drafts went bad in the early 1980s and the Air Coryell stars aged, the Chargers were 22-34 under Coryell from 1983 until his resignation/dismissal in 1986. You don’t win without players.

If Craft had been coaching SDSU’s 2006 team, The San Diego Union-Tribune, with its agenda-based coverage against Craft, would have been at the Aztec Athletic Center doors leading a mob with pitchforks and lanterns in a scene out of “Young Frankenstein.” Remember the “Feasting on a cupcake” headline when the Aztecs routed San Jose State in 2005?

Long, admirably, tried to make the transition from Craft to his team a smooth one. He kept three Craft assistants, including Thom Kaumeyer, a confidant of Craft’s. Long knew that his players liked playing for Craft. His effort at a smooth transition was unique – usually new coaches come in, blow out everything old and talk about a new attitude in town.

But as it turned out, Long walked into a whirlwind made more turbulent by the dysfunctional nature of a football program. Long inherited a program that had people working against Craft on the inside of the athletic department and people on the outside that backed former SDSU assistant Ken Delgado while holding a grudge against Craft.

When the season went terribly wrong, Craft backers angrily expressed their opinion the program was going backward. That’s not surprising. But Long also got hit from the other side when fans glad to see Craft gone were angry because they weren’t able to say “I told you so” if Long had won with Craft’s players.

But now this is Chuck Long’s team. Now it’s OK to talk about the new attitude and new leadership.

I do wonder if Long’s assistants tried too hard to make some of players fit as square pegs into round holes in new systems, such as a 235-pound speed rusher Antwan Applewhite at defensive end trying to bull rush 300-pound plus tackles.

But matching a head coach with a new program isn’t as easy as Urban Meyer made it look at Utah when he won Mountain West Conference titles with Alex Smith, the first pick of the NFL draft in 2005, at quarterback.

Look at Dirk Koetter. He won at Boise State, but he never fit it in at Arizona State and has been fired. Dan Hawkins was promoted to replace Koetter and Boise kept winning. But now Hawkins is coming off a 2-10 season at Colorado, with losses to Division I-AA Montana State and a Colorado State team that SDSU beat. Meanwhile, Boise keeps winning with new coach Chris Petersen, who was promoted.

I asked El Capitan High quarterback Ryan Lindley, a CIF Player of the year candidate and a recruiting coup for Long who committed to the Aztecs last month, about the outlook of incoming recruits. He already began his own recruiting efforts with recruits he meets at games. Among the San Diegans are Mira Mesa wide receiver Markques Simas and Hoover safety Todd Doxey.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of guys, and they like the system and see this as a positive situation where they can come in and possibly play when they’re young,” Lindley said. “I think Coach Long has a close-knit staff, and they have good relationships with the players. Another thing I like about Coach Long, is I think he is in it this for the long haul.”

After the Aztecs beat Colorado State Saturday in their season finale, Long promised SDSU fans that things will get better here. He hasn’t thrown up his hands in frustration. It’s too early to judge a coach with Long’s resume at Iowa and Oklahoma on a season ruined by injuries and program that may finally be escaping its dysfunctional past.

Correction: An earlier version of this story had the year of Alex Smith’s draft as 2004. The correct year 2005.

Tom Shanahan is voiceofsandiego.org’s sports columnist. He is the media coordinator for the San Diego Hall of Champions. You can e-mail him at toms@sdhoc.com. Or send a letter to the editor.

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