New Mexico coach is a defensive specialist with ties to Corvallis
When he was at Oregon State as a member of Jerry Pettibone's coaching staff from 1991-95, Rocky Long was respected as the engineer of the Beavers' aggressive, gambling 3-5 defense.
These days, Long has added an important extra Ñ bowl game coach Ñ to his rŽsumŽ.
In his sixth year as head coach at New Mexico, Long has established a program that is considered among the elite of the Mountain West Conference. The Lobos, 8-4 overall and 5-2 in the conference, will play in the Las Vegas Bowl for the second straight year when they face the Beavers on Wednesday.
'I'd like to think our program has a pretty solid base,' says Long, who turns 54 next month. 'It's not close to where we want it to be, but some kids in our program have been overachievers. It's a bunch of guys who love to play football and play hard and have developed their skills to where we are a competitive team.'
Long has returned to his roots. He was a wishbone quarterback for New Mexico from 1969-71 and served as an assistant at the school for three years at the beginning of his coaching career.
That was a long time ago. Oregon State coach Mike Riley first came into contact with Long when the Lobo coach was at OSU as defensive coordinator under Pettibone and Riley was offensive coordinator at Southern Cal. The Beavers lost regularly, but not because their defenses didn't get the job done.
Long then moved on to serve in the same position at UCLA in 1996, and the two were the finalists for the OSU head coaching job in 1997 Ñ a job that went to Riley.
Since then, Riley has grown to admire Long.
'There are a lot of defenses out there Ñ Bear, the 4-6, the 3-4 Ñ but not too many named after a coach,' Riley says. 'When you're talking about his defense, everyone calls it 'Rocky Long's 3-5.'
'He's an outstanding coach and has done a great job with that program. The history of the New Mexico program is similar to that of Oregon State. Rocky is a great fit there. They are breaking new ground all the time.'
A rough start
Like Oregon State, New Mexico has had its share of 4-7, 3-8 and -2-9 seasons over the last 40 years. Dennis Franchione brought some respectability to the program, taking the Lobos to the 1997 Western Athletic Conference championship before giving way to Long.
The Lobos went through some rocky times early in Long's tenure, making gradual improvement while going 3-9 in 1998, 4-7 in 1999 and 5-7 in 2000. They broke through at 6-5 in 2001, then went 7-7 last season, including a 27-13 loss to UCLA in the Las Vegas Bowl.
From 1962-2002, the Lobos made it to only one bowl game. Now they are looking at back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since the 1940s.
This season, New Mexico started 1-3, including a 23-13 loss at Washington State. The Lobos finished the season by winning seven of eight, the only blemish a 37-35 defeat against Nevada-Las Vegas.
'We played pretty well the last half of the season, except against UNLV, when we had six turnovers,' Long says. 'We lost the conference championship by a total of five points (including a 10-7 loss to Brigham Young).'
Long works closely with defensive coordinator Osia Lewis, the former OSU linebacker and assistant coach who spent the previous six seasons at Illinois.
'We are running the same scheme we ran at Oregon State Ñ three down linemen, three linebackers and five defensive backs,' Long says. 'We blitz and stunt and play man-to-man coverage most of the time.'
Long employs a multiple-formation offense that features tailback DonTrell Moore. The 5-11, 215-pound sophomore rushed for 1,438 yards and 19 touchdowns this season after being honored as the conference's freshman of the year and first-team all-MWC in 2002.
'DonTrell has a lot of talent, and he is continuing to mature,' Long says. 'He had a couple of great games for us where he broke some tackles this season, and he ran tough close to the goal line. He's not anywhere close to what he can be the next couple of years, but he's the key to our offense.'
Oregon State's Steven Jackson, who ran for 1,396 yards and 15 TDs, will be a good match for Moore.
'He's as good a running back as there is in the country, and probably better than almost anybody,' Long says. 'He's so big and strong, has great speed, and he's tough. He will take some hits and keep on running.'
Two physical teams
New Mexico will devote plenty of attention to Jackson, all the while mindful of the OSU passing game behind quarterback Derek Anderson.
'What opponents have tried to do the second half of the season is take Jackson away, and Derek has done such a great job connecting with those two terrific receivers (James Newson and Mike Hass) and tight end (Tim Euhus). You're hurting yourself by concentrating only on the running game. We'll try to contain Jackson and keep the score down to where we have a chance to win.'
Long says it's a good matchup, but he considers Oregon State the favorite.
'They are a lot bigger than we are,' he says. 'Mike and his staff have done a great job with that team. I like the way they play. They are very physical and play extremely hard. The talent level is a concern to us. We consider ourselves a physical team, but we're going up against another physical team that is bigger and stronger than us.'