From Sept/Oct. issue of FORE Magazine
Over Time, Golf Has Grown on San Diego State’s Long
By Tod Leonard
If San Diego State’s Rocky Long had not become a head football coach, golf would probably still be a total mystery to him.
Except for occasional outings with his dad when he was a kid growing up in Provo, Utah, Long never had much time for the game. He went from being the star quarterback at the University of New Mexico to the Canadian Football League and World Football League, and then on to assistant coaching.
When you’re an assistant, a darkened film room is your common workplace. You can only dream of having the time to come out of that cave and play golf.
Plenty of guys go entire careers in that mode, but Long got his big break in 1997 when he returned to New Mexico at age 47 to be the Lobos’ head coach. For head coaches these days, playing golf is essentially a job requirement, to build rapport with boosters and play in fundraising tournaments.
Talk about rocky. Those first few outings in Albuquerque were pretty rough for the golf-rusty Long.
“The people I played with those first few times were really nice guys. They were tolerant of me,” Long recalled. “But it was really, really embarrassing. You consider yourself to be an athlete, and you watch those guys on TV and it doesn’t look like it should be that hard. But it was a whole lot harder than I anticipated it was. If you’re a competitor and you’re embarrassed and find out you’re not any good, you either don’t do it or you start practicing.”
Long hit the range and began playing as often as he could from late spring through August. The quality of his golf game rose with his triumphs on the football field, as he became the most successful head coach in New Mexico history. In 11 seasons, he led the Lobos to five bowl games. They went to three straight bowls in 2003-05, a school record, and were bowl-eligible for seven straight seasons, also a record.
During that time, “the golf bug hit me,” Long said. “I really started enjoying it.”
He had a handful of friends with whom he played. Long and the trainer and equipment man would go out at sunrise and be back in the office by 9. He often played Twin Warriors GC, a spectacular high-desert course near his home.
“I think a lot of your enjoyment with the game has to do with playing better,” Long said. “When you play better you can challenge yourself to try things you weren’t able to do before. The thing I really like about golf is that you’re not competing against anybody but yourself.”
Golf also provided some interesting connections. “I played with a governor or two, several NFL football players,” he said. “Most of that was in tournaments.
“I feel really comfortable now in scrambles. You can go 18 holes, hit three or four good shots, and let everybody else do the rest. (He laughed.) I can contribute to the team now, so I’m not nearly as embarrassed.”
Long, 61, is well-known for being a straight shooter, and when his Lobos went 4-8 in the 2008 season he essentially fired himself, saying he wasn’t the right man to lead the team anymore. He was far from finished with coaching, though. Only a few weeks after his resignation, Long accepted the defensive coordinator job on head coach Brady Hoke’s staff at San Diego State.
The Aztecs had been awful for so long that some critics in San Diego wondered if the football program should exist at all. But Hoke’s group produced a remarkable turnaround in two years, with the Aztecs going 9-4 in 2010 and winning their first bowl game since 1969, as they defeated Navy in the Poinsettia Bowl.
Hoke bolted for his alma mater, Michigan, in January, and Long accepted San Diego State’s head coaching job one day later.
“You see this hair? This is not a stepping stone for me, I’ll promise you that,” the gray-haired Long said at the announcement of his promotion. “If I’m honest with myself, which I usually am, this is going to be my last coaching job. I hope it lasts 10, 15, 20 years.”
The job has put him back on the golf course, too. He said in San Diego he loves Torrey Pines the most, though he plays much of his golf at Riverwalk in Mission Valley because it’s on the way to campus.
What’s the best course he’s ever played? There was no hesitation.
“I’ve gotten to play Pebble Beach a couple of times,” Long said. “It’s an unbelievable course. Even with me chasing my ball out there, the history makes you feel like you’re doing something special.”