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Tuesday, Dec. 26, 2006 | San Diego State football coach Chuck Long gave me a tour the other day of his office at the Aztec Athletics Center, one that I’m sure all his recruits receive on campus visits.
There are pictures from Long’s Iowa playing days with head coach Hayden Fry and assistants that included Barry Alvarez, later Wisconsin’s head coach. There are photos of Long as Oklahoma’s offensive coordinator visiting the White House with the Sooners as national champions. There is another picture with Long and former President Clinton.
But the two images that caught my attention were the one of Long with Don Coryell and the one of Long with Claude Gilbert. Long says the two photos of former SDSU football coaches from the Aztecs’ glory days are positioned to face him each morning as he sits down at his desk and to stare at him as he’s working late.
“We have good tradition here, and I’ve embraced it,” Long said. “Those pictures remind me of where we want to take this program. There are a lot of alums in this city – more than in any other situation I’ve ever been in – and people who take pride in the Aztecs. I’ve felt that from day one. I wanted to take over a program that had not been successful. I didn’t want to take over a program just to keep it going.”
Those pictures, and they’re positioning, tell me Long is here to stay to turn SDSU football around. Ever since Gilbert was fired in 1980, every coach the Aztecs have hired either wasn’t up to the challenge of Division I-A football or threw up his hands in exasperation at the hurdles and stumbling blocks that had them perceive SDSU football as a minor-league situation.
The only exception would be Tom Craft, who had people working within SDSU’s athletic department to undermine him from the day he was hired, and he faced an agenda from The San Diego Union-Tribune in its coverage against him.
The fan reaction Long experienced from last year’s disappointing 3-9 season was a unique double-whammy because there are two camps in San Diego: One is upset Craft got fired and Long didn’t have a better season. The other is happy Craft got fired but upset they couldn’t say, “I told you so.”
But a year later, Long has put that unhappy split behind SDSU football. It’s his program now. Anyone who has been around Long knows that positive energy oozes from the man, and I don’t see the unique environment he’s encountered slowing him down.
“People have asked me about fans getting on me,” Long said. “That’s their passion. I’d rather have that than none at all. Even though things got heated at (a late-season) luncheon, they’ve all come back to me saying they want to help. Fred Dryer said, ‘What can I do to help you?’ They want what’s best for the program and the coach to do well.”
I knew this season was lost from the moment quarterback Kevin O’Connell was injured in the season opener, but actually it was lost sooner than that. The Aztecs were designing an offense built around two strong tight ends, Eric Miclot and Lance Louis, but they suffered season-ending injuries before the end of the spring.
I know all the clichés that football is a game of overcoming injuries, but the cliché doesn’t cover players lost to 17 surgeries on a roster that was thin to begin with.
Why SDSU football can’t win is a puzzle – “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” as Winston Churchill would have said if he were an Aztecs fan.
I remember visiting with a former SDSU assistant on Ted Tollner’s staff that had moved on to another job. We were on the sideline of a Morse High football game as he scouted talent and he gave me reasons why SDSU is such a tough place to win. My memory can’t recount for you what he said, maybe because it is such a riddle.
But what I notice more than anything else from Long, is he’s trying to unwrap that riddle. He said he did his research before he took the job and now that he has spent a year on campus, he’s planning his own solutions.
Visiting his office was a chance to ask about the additional changes he believes still need to be made, but Long emphasized he still plans to win next year. He said he’s not retreating to a rebuilding plan.
One mistake Long said he made was not choosing his words better when talked about the Aztecs needing to be tougher.
“We have tough guys, but it hasn’t always shown itself on the field because they’re thinking instead of reacting,” he said. “As our guys get comfortable with our system and they’re playing on instinct, you’ll see improvement. Once we get the system down, you’ll see the toughness come out.”
Long said the Aztecs’ “strength and conditioning program is excellent” under John Francis, and it was inaccurately reported in the Union-Tribune that the football team doesn’t work on improving its speed with track coach Rhan Sheffield.
But he said he is making changes in the Aztecs’ players’ meal plan. He said he saw the players breaking down physically, because they’re not eating properly and benefiting from the strength and conditioning program. He’ll make breakfast mandatory and have players meet with a nutritionist.
He doesn’t like how SDSU football isn’t part of the campus. The players stay on a dorm at the edge of campus, and he wants them to move to a dorm in the middle. Coming from a Big Ten school as a player and a Big 12 school as a coach, Long wasn’t familiar with a commuter school such as SDSU.
“I don’t think our students know who are players are,” Long said. “That surprised me. When I was at Iowa, I felt you knew the students and the students knew you just by the way the campus was set up.”
Other areas Long discussed was offseason conditioning and his responsibility to develop more leadership on the team. He says the development of defensive end Antwan Applewhite, who struggled early in the year but ended leading the Mountain West Conference in sacks and making first-team All-MWC, is an example of players adapting to his system.
“It’s not too tough to win here,” Long said. “It’s ‘why’ has it been tough. We’ve been addressing that. We haven’t accomplished the ‘why’ yet, but we’ll get there.”
The legacies of Don Coryell and Claude Gilbert were staring straight at him as he spoke.