I’ve been a fan for a l-o-n-g time. When people ask me if I remember Don Coryell, I answer in the affirmative, along with the fact I have recollections of attending games coached by Paul Governali who preceded “Saint Don,” as well as Bill Schutte who gave way to Governali. I’ve been around for awhile. I’ve seen every other head coach, their teams and most of the games played since Coryell took his high octane offense to the NFL’s St. Louis Cardinals, becoming their head coach in 1973.
While there is always a lot of attention and respect given to Coryell’s offensive genius in the passing game, it should not overshadow the fact that he had some outstanding defensive teams thanks to the efforts of coaches like Claude Gilbert, Ernie Zampese and John Madden, to name just a few who made their marks on Aztec football decades ago. Those Aztec defenses were tough, quick to the ball and hit hard enough to intimidate less tough opponents.
The succeeding years have mostly represented a long dry spell for Aztec football. Of the nine Aztec head coaches since Coryell left for the NFL ranks, five: Doug Scovil, Denny Stoltz, Ted Tollner, Tom Craft and Chuck Long left with losing records. Gilbert, Al Luginbill and Brady Hoke posted winning records, but Luginbill was only six games over .500 in five seasons, despite having Hall of Fame running back Marshall Faulk on the roster. Hoke, who is credited with bringing toughness and resolve back to Aztec football was only one game over .500 in two seasons at the helm.
It may well be that Hoke’s greatest contribution to Aztec football was the hiring of Rocky Long as his Defensive Coordinator. Long took over the reins in 2011 after Hoke unceremoniously bolted for his “dream job” at the University of Michigan, which later turned into a nightmare for Hoke and Wolverine fans.
Long on the other hand is comfortably on his way to a fifth straight winning season and fifth post-season bowl game as Head Coach of the Aztecs where he remains the Defensive Coordinator. Coming into this season with a 32-20 record, Long’s Aztecs stumbled to a 1-3 non-conference record that included road losses at Penn State and California and a disappointing overtime loss at home to the University of Southern Alabama.
Since then, the Aztecs have been perfect, running their Mountain West Conference record to 6-0 and a stranglehold on the Conference’s Western Division, with games at UNLV November 21, and at home November 28 against Nevada remaining on their schedule. With a win in either, they will earn a berth in the Mountain West Conference Championship game that will be played December 5, at the home of the conference team with the highest national ranking following the regular season.
While there is little suspense in the Western Division where the Aztecs are favored to remain undefeated, there is considerable suspense in a Mountain Division where Air Force has one loss, a game ahead of Boise State and New Mexico with two losses each. Tension will be high Friday when Air Force travels to Boise State for a game that could determine that division’s champion.
The Mountain West Conference Championship will be held December 5 at the home of the Division Champion with the highest composite ranking from four polls at the end of the regular season schedule.
The key to the Aztecs season has been the emergence in conference play of a stifling defense, solid special teams and a methodical offense built around a strong running game and efficient passing game. It is a winning combination that dominates time of possession which allows the defense to rest while steadily wearing down opponent’s defenses and keeping their offenses on the sidelines.
Key to much of this is the toughness of Aztec players who punish opponents with explosive hits, and the physicality of their approach is evident on both sides of the ball as well as special teams.
This is a tough Aztec team that reflects its coach. It’s Rocky Long football and Aztec fans are beginning to catch on to a Head Coach whose record with the Aztecs stands at 39-23 (that is a winning percentage that trails only Coryell and Gilbert), and a team that has been getting better and more confident with each game.
Those same fans will be justified to go on the warpath if the championship game is scheduled for anywhere other than the Aztecs home turf.