Former Iowa coach Hayden Fry famously dubbed quarterback Chuck Long "destined for greatness" after spring practice in 1982, before Long had started a game for the Hawkeyes.
Fry turned out to be right, but it was a statement from one of Long's other coaches that foreshadowed his long-term future in the sport.
Long was midway through his record-setting career at Iowa when he returned to his high school, Wheaton North in suburban Chicago, to assist with the school's summer football camp. Jim Rexilius, Wheaton North's Hall of Fame coach, noted the way Long taught and interacted with the players.
"After one camp, [Rexilius] said, 'You know, you oughta think about getting into coaching when you're done playing,'" Long recalled. "He knew I still had some years of playing, but he must have seen something in me.
"That’s when the first bug was put in my ear."
Nearly three decades later, Long is well into his coaching career. He's entering his second season as offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach at Kansas. Long has made previous coaching stops at Iowa and Oklahoma, and served as San Diego State's head coach from 2006-08.
Rexilius might have planted the coaching seed in Long, but the quarterback didn't give it much thought as he proceeded to set Iowa, Big Ten and NCAA records during a spectacular career in Iowa City. It was only toward the end of an unremarkable NFL career that Long considered a future in coaching.
"The decision was which level to stay at, and I always enjoyed the collegiate level," Long said. "I wanted that. You make more of an impression at the collegiate level than you do at the professional level."
Long made a lasting impression at Iowa.
He still holds team records for passing, completions, touchdown passes and total offense for a game, a season and a career. His Big Ten records for both passing yards (10,461) and total offense (10,254) lasted 15 years, and he recorded 27 games of 200 passing yards or more. Long won the Maxwell Award (player of the year) in 1985 and finished second and seventh in Heisman Trophy voting in his final two seasons as a Hawkeye.
The former Iowa star is part of ESPN.com's Simply Saturday series, a weeklong look at 50 players who achieved record heights in college but didn't necessarily flourish at the NFL level.
Long recently took some time to discuss his playing and coaching career.
How much did college coaching have to do with your time as a player at Iowa?
Chuck Long: It definitely did. We had a great staff, and it was one of the best times in my life, being a collegiate football player and a student. The times we had at Iowa, the way we turned it around and were part of the building blocks at that school, the coaches made such an impression on me during that time, and I wanted to turn around and give that back. And I've enjoyed it ever since.
Were you putting feelers out there at the end of your NFL career about getting into coaching?
CL: Not really. I was ready to go through the entire year without being in football at all. This was springtime of 1995. I was prepared to go all the way through until January, until the [AFCA] convention. I started to research a little bit and ask people I knew all about coaching, but not real heavily at that point. I always had in the back of my mind that I was going to get picked up again in the NFL [laughs], but what happened was Hayden Fry had an opening in the middle of the summer, which is rare.
We had a mutual interest. I wanted to get into coaching and he wanted to get me into coaching at some point. And in the middle of the summer, it was hard for him to hire somebody else off another staff. So he broke me in. He hired me as the secondary coach. I coached the defensive backs for my first three years. I really admired him for doing that. He took a chance on me, hired me in the middle of the summer, and we had some good teams, good success.
What was it like coaching defensive backs after playing quarterback your whole career?
CL: If there's a defensive position that's more natural to me, it's that one. I learned a lot being on that side of the football. I just wanted to get in. Some of the advice I'd received was, 'Hey, don't worry about what you coach, just get in.' So I had that in the back of my head. That was an avenue to get in.
What has it been like going from assistant coach to head coach and now back to coordinator?
CL: It's been great for me. I've really welcomed being a position coach again after being a head coach. There's so much on that head coach's plate that doesn't deal with X's and O's, probably 80 percent of it. That part, I don't miss. I'm glad to be back to play calling, to game planning, to coaching quarterbacks full time in terms of the football aspect. So I welcomed it again. I do aspire to be a head coach again at some point in time, but I'm not in a hurry.
When you're a head coach, you just don't get around those players as much, like you want to. There's times where you feel alone out there. I like being the mentor again. That's my strength and I'm glad I'm playing to it right now.
Are there lessons you can take from that first head-coaching stint?
CL: Having gone through it, I would ask some different questions initially before I take a job. That's going to be really important to me. There's some things I know what to look for in taking the next job. You learn from any situation, whether it's negative or positive. I certainly learned from that, but again, I'm excited to be back as an assistant. I'm in no hurry. The right job has to come along; I'm not going to just take any job.
How often do people come up to you and ask you about your playing career at Iowa?
CL: Ever since I've been at Kansas, I've been asked about it a lot more; I'm getting a lot more letters about it. I think because there's a lot more Iowa fans in the Kansas City area, being a little bit closer to Iowa. And I'm able to go back there because I'm not very far away, and that's been good. And as you know, the stories grow [laughs]. It goes from four touchdowns to five touchdowns. I think I'm up to six or seven touchdowns in one game.
You're not correcting them, right?
CL: Yeah, I don't stop them. I just let it grow.
What stands out most about your time in Iowa City?
CL: The first thing was just being part of the building blocks of that program, turning something around that had been dormant for 20 years prior. That was a special time. Going to all the bowl games, beating Texas in the first Freedom Bowl in 1984. It stands out basically because of Hayden Fry. Hayden's from Texas, and that was one of his great victories. We felt it when we won, and we did it for him.
And my senior year, we won a Big Ten championship and we went to the Rose Bowl. That was always a dream of ours when we were freshmen together. And then we beat Michigan, we were No. 1, they were No. 2, on a last-second field goal in Kinnick Stadium. That was really for the fans, as loud as they were the whole game. What it was like afterward, I'll never forget. And then going to the Rose Bowl that year. Those were the big moments.
When you talk to your players now, do you talk more about your time at Iowa or your time in the NFL?
CL: I mix it up and tell them certain stories, certain examples I had in those times. Experience is a great teacher, and so I use those experiences to tell them, "Hey, even though things have changed over time, some things remain the same." You've still got to be disciplined in the things you do. It all gets back to fundamentals. We all hear that word and teach that word, but it always gets back to that.
Was it really different for you coming to Iowa as a lightly recruited player versus the NFL, when you were a No. 1 pick?
CL: Oh, sure. I've always lived for the moment. I set goals, but I just try to take each day and make the best of it. Coming out of high school, I was not highly recruited, and I worked hard at it. I worked hard at teaching myself the game of football when I went to Iowa, and I tried to do it with humility. And when you do it with humility, you work harder. As soon as you get cocky and think you know it all, then so-and-so creeps up on you and beats you out. So I always went with that approach.