SAN DIEGO, Calif. -- There have to be 85 big-time scholarship players who want to play at San Diego State. No, make that 85 really big-time players.
Whatever the Penn States, Oklahomas and Floridas can offer in tradition, San Diego State can offer in lifestyle. That's code for the San Diego's motto that no one disputes, "America's Finest City."
|San Diego isn't exactly a tough sell, Aztecs QB Kevin O'Connell says. (Getty Images)|
"The school sells itself," said junior quarterback Kevin O'Connell. "I've been a host for recruits. Normally those trips are in December. We take them to the beach in the day, then we take them to the campus."
They call it Montezuma Mesa, where the San Diego State campus sits above beautiful Mission Valley. That's really about all recruits need unless they want, you know, winning football.
You can argue that USC, UCLA and Miami have the same environmental and social advantages. True, and they've exploited them to the max.
San Diego State hasn't won a bowl game since 1969. It has played in only one bowl since 1992. It has watched three Heisman Trophy winners sprout from local high schools (Marcus Allen, Reggie Bush, Rashaan Salaam) and go elsewhere. The school's coaching legacy includes Don Coryell, John Madden and Joe Gibbs.
It plays in a stadium that has hosted Super Bowls.
All that and only one winning season in the last eight. Chuck Long is the program's fifth coach in the last 20 years.
What in the name of Sea World is going on? Doesn't anyone want to play here?
"I don't know," said Long, who arrived from Oklahoma in December. "I've always felt that this was a gold mine for a while."
For real estate, sun seekers and vacationers, yes. For winning football, no.
Long isn't the only one scratching his head.
"We've always been so close," said Aztecs defensive back Terrell Maze, a Santa Monica native. "A lot of people say (the city) is a distraction. Then you look at teams like UCLA, USC, they have a distraction too. It's like a mystery to a lot of people, myself included."
Long's mere presence is an indication that things are going to change. San Diego State doesn't seem like a bad fit for him, just a curious one. First, it's a program west of the Rockies. Long grew up a Midwest guy, finished second in Heisman voting in 1985 to Bo Jackson. Coached a Heisman winner (Jason White) at Oklahoma.
Second, San Diego State is not in a power conference. The former Iowa quarterback could have gone anywhere to seek his first head-coaching job. He chose a mid-level program in the Mountain West.
The fact that Long took this wandering program indicates there's more to it than sun and surf.
One insider put it this way: San Diego State wasn't good in the past because it wasn't, for whatever reason, serious about football.
It was content playing in the WAC and now the Mountain West but not necessarily winning it. In their own town the Aztecs were diminished by the Chargers and from time to time, the Padres.
Twenty-nine years ago, Florida State came out here just when the Seminoles were rising to prominence. They spent the day before the game at the San Diego Zoo. Florida State lost the next day by 25.
Is it surprising that the key to the upset was an overabundance of sun and cotton candy?
"I moved here 12 years ago from the East Coast," said O'Connell who is from Carlsbad, Calif. "It was right after the Marshall Faulk era. They were beating up on people. It was a pretty big-time program, then it dropped off at the end of the 90s."
With Long, maybe that is changing. The 43-year old is linked at the hip with athletic director Jeff Schemmel, an administrator with an extensive legal background. Let's hope he doesn't need it. San Diego State came off a two-year probation in 2005 after being caught for having improper out-of-season practices at a local beach.
That should surprise no one. The beach part, we can believe. This is a school that seems to have so much to offer but those distractions ... Sportswriters in this town have referred to it in the past. It's hard to concentrate on covering games when all around you is fun and games.
"It just felt right," Long said. "It hit all the right buttons. All the questions were answered."
Future Hall of Famer Tony Gwynn coaches baseball and can be used as a recruiting resource. Maze has dined at his house. The facilities are state-of-the-art.
Long received a nice allowance for his assistants. It takes a minimum of $1 million per year to put together a good staff these days. With that money he was able to attract veteran assistants Bob Elliott and Del Miller.
At one time in his career, Elliott was considered one of the best defensive coordinators in the country. Miller, the offensive coordinator, is entering his 27th year.
Long declared all jobs open, then ran the ball about 80 percent of the time in the first two spring practice scrimmages.
"You establish your toughness by running the football in the spring," Long said. "It's about identity."
There's the buzzword. San Diego State football doesn't have much of an identity. It is the school of Faulk, yet the Aztecs have averaged 84th nationally in rushing in the last six years.
It is a school with a great coaching tree. Long is the seventh coach since Coryell left after the 1972 season.
"I've never had a problem with guys not listening," Long said. "I think they're even more interested now."
Long is deep in tailbacks. He particularly likes redshirt freshman Atiyyah Henderson, a shifty 5-foot-9 Florida native who reminds Long of Quentin Griffin. Griffin ran for more than 1,800 yards as a senior at Oklahoma.
But Long is known mainly as a quarterback guru. The magic seemed to diminish last year when Rhett Bomar, and the Sooners, started slowly.
"We threw it too much (in the spring)," Long said. "It took us a while in the fall to get it back. I learned from that mistake. We gained toughness and started to win."
So, move over beach bums and get used to getting hit in the mouth. Reaching for an identity is better than having no identity.
"Every year there's those expectations, this-is-the-year type deals," O'Connell said. "It just seems like ... as soon as that first hiccup starts to come, here come the excuses."
No one is picking San Diego State to win the Mountain West. But it is a place that could become a powerhouse. Think of Long's power running game in what has largely been a finesse conference.
"It lets you know," Maze said, "our potential is ready to explode."
Just like always.