San Diego State Not Waiting 'Long' to Replace Brady Hoke
Brady Hoke is Michigan's gain, as we'll explain later, but athletic director Jim Sterk has moved quickly to blunt the loss of the coach who three weeks ago guided SDSU to its first bowl victory since 1969.
Hoke's defensive coordinator, Rocky Long (right), will be announced Wednesday as San Diego State's new football coach. Long's contract will run several years, a message to potential recruits that Long is here to stay at Marshall Faulk U.
"It should be a seamless transition," said high school coach John Carroll, a Long admirer whose powerful Oceanside Pirates sent five players to SDSU a year ago, and count Junior Seau among their alums.
Beyond his defensive prowess, Long was a lead recruiter for an aggressive Aztecs staff that has made inroads in California the past two years. He also was a defensive coordinator at UCLA, Oregon State and Wyoming.
"Rocky Long, he's a defensive genius," said former University of San Diego coach Kevin McGarry, who was a volunteer assistant to Hoke in his two seasons at SDSU.
Can Long cut it as a head coach?
Consider this: By transforming New Mexico into a bowl winner and a .500 program, Long achieved a coaching miracle that matches, or exceeds, Hoke's fix-it work at either Ball State or SDSU.
Long's .485 winning percentage over 11 seasons with the Lobos is the school's best from its past five coaches. Among those five was Dennis Franchione, who would rise to Alabama and Texas A&M after going 33-36 before Long succeeded him in 1998.
Sterk knew he had no chance of retaining Hoke if Michigan came calling.
Long was a fairly obvious candidate to succeed Hoke. But first, Sterk had to ascertain that Long still had enough fire in his belly for the head job.
In November 2008, Long stepped down at New Mexico, saying he preferred to work somewhere else as a defensive coordinator. He suggested that a flashier recruiter was needed in Albuquerque. "I'm an old player that loves to coach," he said. "I'm not trying to be on ESPN."
Sterk, I'm told, pressed Long on his willingness to return to head coaching. He came away convinced that Long very much wants to run the show at SDSU.
Think about it. To which place would you rather recruit: SDSU or New Mexico?
Long will need to decide on an offensive coordinator to replace Al Borges, who will move with Hoke to Ann Arbor. Borges, a former Auburn offensive coordinator, did great things at SDSU. Among those who will vouch for him is TCU coach Gary Patterson, whose sharp defense allowed 35 points to the Aztecs in November.
But finding bright, go-getters to coach offense at San Diego State isn't akin to luring surfers to Ann Arbor.
The Aztecs' coaching lineage on offense includes artists such as Don Coryell, Joe Gibbs, John Madden, Ted Tollner and Sean Payton. And, Long already has a bright quarterbacks coach in Brian Sipe, the former SDSU and Cleveland Browns star who will tutor NFL prospect Ryan Lindley for a third year.
The more difficult coaching challenge at SDSU is to meld an able defense. The Mountain West Conference's offensive diversity borders on extreme, placing a premium on a defensive staff's know-how and nimbleness.
Long, who will turn 61 this month, has schemed against every offense out there. In the Poinsettia Bowl last month, his defenders held Navy's powerful option attack to 14 points.
Whether Long can sustain the exceptional chemistry that the Aztecs enjoyed under Hoke will be among his primary tests.
Fresh off a 12-1 season at Ball State in 2008, Hoke inherited the leftovers from a 2-10 team that had lost 70-7 to Long's Lobos the previous year.
The Aztecs improved so much since, they were almost unrecognizable.
In his first team meeting, Hoke ejected two players who wore hats into the room. He quickly instilled a no-excuses mindset among his players.
Hoke also assembled a coaching staff that clicked to an extent that awed McGarry, who preceded Jim Harbaugh at USD and compiled a 39-37 record there in seven-plus years.
"The whole staff is just really, really quality football coaches," McGarry said. "The thing that makes it unique is, there isn't an ego in the room. They are all on the same page. There is no infighting, even when things aren't going well. It's a unique blend of personalities that makes it work.
"Coach Hoke is the guy that makes it happen," McGarry added. "Boy oh boy, he is something to watch. He always stays on message. There is no ego to him."
Michigan fans skeptical about Hoke fret that he was the school's third choice -- or not -- after Harbaugh and Les Miles. They point to his 47-50 record in eight years at Ball State and San Diego State.
To be sure, Hoke faces potentially steep challenges.The defensive talent is thin. Unlike Long, he'll inherit personnel not fitted to his preferences. The spread offense run by former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez is anti-ethical to Hoke's smashmouth sensibilities.
But more important are the building blocks -- tackling, blocking, discipline -- and Hoke did wonders in those areas at SDSU.
Improved toughness and fundamentals were the driving force behind SDSU's rise from 2-10 to 4-8 to 9-4 this year.
Michigan fans will soon discover that Hoke improves their chances of defeating their chief tormentor, a man who likewise espouses the old-school values and stays on message to the point of parody.
A fellow named Jim Tressel. He happens to admire Hoke. Endorsed him for the SDSU job. In the Aztecs media guide, Tressel calls Hoke "one of the very fine coaches in this land." People underestimated Tressel, too. He had won at Youngstown State. So what, the skeptics said.
Tressel went 6-1 against Lloyd Carr, the Michigan coach under whom Hoke served as a defensive line coach. Against Rodriguez's three Michigan teams, Tressel enjoyed an average victory of 33-8. The Ohio State M.O. in those three victories was simple. Tackle well. Pound away with the run. And wait for Michigan to make mistakes and crumble. Which Michigan did. Funny, that's also what Tressel's first Ohio State team did at Ann Arbor in 2001, a victory that awoke the slumbering rivalry. Hoke was there, coaching for Carr. He appreciates the brutal simplicity of what OSU did on that gray afternoon.
Two trifling predictions: In Ann Arbor next November, Michigan and Brady Hoke will be within 10 points of Ohio State when the game clock expires, and Rocky Long and San Diego State will notch the school's second consecutive winning season, last done here in 1995-96.