STEVENS: Lower a Flag in Long's Honor And Raise Expectations For a Program

UNM coach quits after 11 seasons believing it is the best thing for Lobo football


Rocky Long gave UNM its first bowl victory since 1961 by winning the 2007 New Mexico Bowl.

Nov. 18, 2008

By Richard Stevens Senior Writer/GoLobos.com

It is a week where maybe somebody over at UNM should run over to University Stadium and lower a flag to half mast in honor of what the Lobos have lost, now that Rocky Long is riding off into a sunset of his own choosing.

But you know what would happen, don't you?

Long would walk over there in that oh-so-familiar stride of his and tug the flag all the way back to the top of the pole.

That's simply the way Rocky Long looks at his self-imposed, semi-retirement from football. He doesn't see it as a day of mourning. He sees it as an opportunity for Lobos to take a stride forward that he didn't believe the program could take with him as the leader.

He doesn't see it as a cloud of gloom settling over his Lobos. He sees it as a new sunrise promising a brighter day.

Oh, you can't help but get the feeling that Long was kind of tired of all the trappings and the demands that come with being a head football coach at the major-college level. And the season of 2008 seemed to hit Long awfully hard. At his core, Long is an X and O kind of guy. He might be just as happy fingering out a play in the dirt as he is standing in front of the board rooms of college football.

Long is more a baseball cap and shorts kind of guy. In a tie and suit, Long looks like Tom Sawyer being pulled off the river and forced into his Sunday's best. Sometimes as a head football coach, Long looked like a defensive coordinator being forced into a suit that didn't always fit him well.

"I'm an old player that loves to coach," said Long. "I'm not a guy trying to be on ESPN."

Long loves Lobo football, for sure. It's an affair of the heart that won't end. "I'll always be a Lobo," says Long. But you can't help but suspect when Long gets picked up by some school to draw up his plays and motivate players as an assistant coach, Long will be happier than he has been in years.

 

 

Likely, if Long really believed he was the coach to take UNM to the next level, we wouldn't be talking about this right now. Long even said at his press conference on Monday that if his 2008 Lobos had become bowl eligible, he might have stayed as head man.

But Long had other feelings, too. "I'm giving the program a chance to get better," he said. "I want this program to be on top ... and I don't see it happening with me as the head coach." It's easy to believe that Long is sincere is saying he is stepping aside in order for his Lobos to step forward. Long is that kind of person. That kind of Lobo.

"For as long as people talk about Lobo football, they are going to talk about this man," said David J. Schmidly, UNM's president.

Said Paul Krebs, UNM Vice President in charge of athletics: "He is New Mexico football. He personifies what the Lobo football program is all about."

The Lobos program under Long was a program of overachievers, who played with heart and passion and often a chip on their shoulder and always with a fundamental grasp of Xs and Os. They knew how to block. They knew how to tackle. They did it with a fierce determination, an uncompromised spirit, because that's how Long expected it and how Long used to do it as a Lobo quarterback from 1969 to 1971.

Long's accomplishments at UNM are staggering for those who remember what UNM football mostly was before him: a program of so many broken dreams that many Lobo fans quit dreaming, or turned to basketball.

Long is the winningest head football coach in UNM history. He took UNM to five bowls in seven seasons. He gave the school their first bowl win since 1961. You want the complete list of Long's accomplishments, click on the link above this story.

However, another success for Long just might be in what he leaves the next coach. There is a solid foundation of players returning to Lobo football. There is some tradition, some respect and an attitude of what it means to be a Lobo football player. There is a lot to build on to what Long leaves behind, and Long also leaves behind a UNM administration committed to football excellence.

Sure, Long's departure will hit a lot of core Lobo fans in the heart and in the gut. And that's fine. Long did a good job. Long is a special Lobo. He will be missed.

But while it might be fitting to lower a symbolic flag for a short while in honor of Long's departure, you also can't help but buy into Long's belief that maybe this is the best thing for Lobos football. You believe it because that's what Long believes. Has Rocky ever lied to us?

You also believe it because you believe that the University of New Mexico football is much bigger than one man and that Krebs will find his Lobos another good man, another good coach.

Long questioned and criticized some of the shortcomings he sees surrounding Lobo football. But there is much to sell at UNM, much to like about Albuquerque, much to treasure in New Mexico. There are some special, unique things here. Things to embrace even if you aren't a former Lobo quarterback.

You can't help but believe the next Lobo football coach will do just fine and hopefully even better. Which is exactly what Rocky Long is hoping for, too.

Editor's note: Richard Stevens is a former Associate Sports Editor and sports columnist for The Albuquerque Tribune. You can reach him at rstevens50@comcast.net. Previous articles are available at The Richard Stevens Corner

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