LARAMIE – Rocky Long could still be the head coach at San Diego State or enjoying retirement.
Instead, the 71-year-old former New Mexico quarterback and head coach is back at his alma mater as the Lobos’ defense coordinator.
Long’s decision to leave the Aztecs after an impressive nine-year run, which included three Mountain West Conference championships and nine consecutive bowl appearances, didn’t surprise Wyoming’s Craig Bohl.
Bohl, who went 1-3 in head-to-head matchups with Long’s SDSU teams, said his longtime friend tipped him off about his desire to be a defensive coordinator again before stepping down as the Aztecs head coach following the 2019 season.
When Jake Dickert, now Washington State’s interim coach after this week’s firing of Nick Rolovich for non-compliance with a vaccination mandate, left as the Cowboys’ defensive coordinator that same offseason, Bohl did not consider trying to lure Long back to Laramie.
“Rocky and I have the same passion for defensive football, but it’s a 180-degree difference,” Bohl said. “It would be like water and oil. He and I are great friends. If you hired us on the same staff, we’d be throwing cussing lines at one another and it would ruin our friendship. So we’re better just keeping where we’re at.”
Bohl and Long split two classic matchups in 2016 with UW winning 34-33 during the regular season and SDSU prevailing 27-24 in the MWC championship game.
Long, a UW assistant from 1981-85 under Al Kincaid, compiled a 65-69 record in 11 seasons (1998-2008) as New Mexico’s head coach before leaving to be Brady Hoke’s defensive coordinator for two seasons (2009-10) at SDSU.
After taking over the program when Hoke left for Michigan, Long posted an 81-38 record (51-20 in the MWC) with the Aztecs. Hoke replaced him after the 10-3 finish in 2019.
When Danny Gonzales, who is also a New Mexico alumnus, was hired as head coach he was able to get Long to return as defensive coordinator.
“I was lucky and I had several opportunities,” Long told the Athletic last season. “When coach Gonzales gave me a call and wanted to know if I was interested, I thought about it overnight. It seemed like the perfect fit. When I was coming out of high school, no one else recruited me. No one else gave me a scholarship. No one else thought I could play, except New Mexico. It was kind of a nice thought that maybe I could give back.”
During Long’s final season at SDSU the defense finished second nationally in points allowed (12.7 per game) and fifth in yards allowed (287.8 per game). New Mexico was 125th in scoring defense (37.2 ppg) and 129th in total defense (485.7 ypg) out of 130 FBS teams in 2019.
The Lobos started the Gonzales era 0-5, but Long's defense made life miserable for Bohl’s offense during a 17-16 victory over the Cowboys last season in Las Vegas, which snapped New Mexico’s 14-game losing streak and 20-game MWC losing streak.
Entering Saturday’s rematch at War Memorial Stadium (1:30 p.m., Stadium), Long’s unit is giving up 28.7 points (86th) and 362 yards (56th) per game.
“They're willing to do everything and they’re very intelligent about what they do, it’s not just a bunch of smoke and mirrors,” UW offensive coordinator Tim Polasek said of preparing for Long’s unique and time-tested 3-3-5 scheme. “It seems like Star Wars when you're watching tape.”
UW’s quarterback play feels light years away from getting the program back in contention. Sean Chambers and Levi Williams are competing in practice this week for the starting spot against New Mexico.
The Cowboys (4-2, 0-2 MWC) have not scored in the last six quarters, but the Lobos' (2-5, 0-3) anemic offense is giving Long’s side of the ball even less support.
“Their defense is a gap-cancellation defense, where they have a lot of guys that cause all kinds of disruption, and nobody knows this defense better than Rocky,” Bohl said. “He is back in the saddle and he is being disruptive. I’ll look forward to shaking his hand before the game.”