USC's first 1,000-yard runner lives on in record books

nwhite@thestate.com November 9, 2008 

  • About Kevin Long

    AGE: 53

    BORN: Clinton

    EDUCATION: Clinton High School, 1973; USC, 1980.

    PLAYING HONORS: Led the team in rushing in 1975 with 1,133 yards, the third-best season in USC history ... posted a career-high 160 yards against N.C. State on Nov. 1, 1975 ... eighth all-time in rushing with 2,372 yards. ... Played for the New York Jets from 1977-81. Also played in the USFL from 1983-85 with Chicago and Arizona. ... Inducted into USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002 and the S.C. Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003.

Kevin Long still remembers something Clarence Williams told him when the two met as freshman running backs at USC in 1973:

The Gamecocks football program had never had a 1,000-yard rusher in a season.

The race was on. It started slowly but hit its stride in 1975, when the pair joined forces as junior starters in new coach Jim Carlen’s split-veer offense guided by senior quarterback Jeff Grantz.

Long cracked the plateau first, against Wake Forest in the season’s 10th game. Williams got there one week later against Clemson, capping a 7-4 season that led to a Tangerine Bowl berth.

“We were aware of it. We were thinking about it,” Long said. “I was just blessed to get there first.”

Long finished the season with 1,133 yards on 190 carries. Williams ended with 1,073 on, appropriately enough, 190 carries.

When his USC football career ended in 1976, Long left as the third-leading rusher in school history with 2,372 yards, which ranks eighth today. And his 1975 total of 1,133 yards is third on the single-season list 33 years later, trailing the final two seasons put together by Heisman Trophy-winning tailback George Rogers in 1979 and ’80.

The Clinton native make his mark beyond USC, however. He went on to have a eight-year pro career in the NFL and USFL that included a 954-yard season with the New York Jets in 1978 and of 1,000-yard seasons with the Chicago Blitz in 1983 and the Arizona Wranglers in 1984. His honors include induction into the USC Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002 and the South Carolina Athletic Hall of Fame in 2003.

Yet he always stayed grounded in South Carolina, buying a home in the Harbison area in 1980, the year he finished his degree in health and physical education at USC. He and his college sweetheart and now wife of 31 years, Frankie, have raised three grown daughters, Latifah, Alisa and Salia.

A truck driver with Atlas Food Systems and Services in the Carolinas for the past 11 years, Long is rooted in his adopted home. He has a grown son, Kevin, living in Clinton, with a different mother.

He remains close with many of his former teammates, and his memories of wearing the garnet and black will never fade.

“I’ll always be a Gamecock,” Long said.

BORN TO RUN

Long’s career as a running back almost didn’t come to pass. When the all-black Bell Street High was integrated with Clinton High, Long came to his new school projected to be a lineman.

But the young sophomore had grown up with the notion of running the football, not blocking for those who would.

“I always felt in my heart I wanted to be a running back. I can remember seeing Jim Brown on a black-and-white TV, and I said, ‘That’s cool. I want to do that.’”

Legendary Clinton coach Keith Richardson installed Long on the offensive line, an assignment at odds with Long’s assessment of his running skills.

“He couldn’t see it, but I could,” Long said. “I was a heck of a pulling guard, but I didn’t see it as my position.”

Long decided not to play football his junior year. Instead, he ran track to show the coaches his running ability. An assistant coach who worked with both the football and track teams recruited him back to the football squad for his senior season in 1972, with Richardson willing to give him a look in the backfield on the condition he agree to move back to the line if it didn’t work out.

Richardson chuckles at the memory now.

“It worked out great — for everybody,” he said.

Did it ever.

Long’s running helped lead the Red Devils to the first of Richardson’s six Class 3A state championships. The coach never will forget the play Long made in scoring the game’s only touchdown in the semifinals against Pickens. As he broke past the line of scrimmage, a Pickens defensive back waited in a crouched position to make the tackle 10 yards downfield. Long hurdled the player without breaking stride en route to the end zone.

“That’s the most famous play in Clinton football history,” Richardson said.

ONE MORE HURDLE

Still, that did not cement Long’s place as a college running back. The Naval Academy was the only school to offer a scholarship until USC entered the picture late in the process. That came about because Long did not have transportation to go to Sumter for a physical required by the Navy. The USC coaches offered, and he accepted.

It was not until he arrived in Columbia in the fall of ’73 that he discovered coach Paul Dietzel wanted him to play linebacker.

Long said he was “too young and stupid” to know better, but he protested. That earned him a spot in the backfield — on the scout team for the first 1½ years of his career.

Midway through the 1974 season, after an 0-5 start, Long finally got his opportunity and rushed for 109 yards in a 10-7 victory against Mississippi. He followed with 96 yards in a victory against North Carolina, but the 4-7 final record cost Dietzel his job after nine up-and-down seasons.

Carlen entered the picture in 1975 and vowed to put his best players on the field. Although not deep, the offense was filled with playmakers and the offensive line was one of the best in school history. When Carlen realized Long was not in the game to start the season opener against Georgia Tech, he found his back on the bench and directed an assistant to make the change.

Running the split veer with Long at strongside halfback and Williams on the other side behind Grantz, the choices were all good. Long ran the dive plays, Williams took the pitches, and Grantz kept it when those options were not there. Speedy wideout Phillip Logan gave Grantz a deep threat when he wanted to throw.

“They fit just perfect together,” Carlen said.

Grantz loved having all the pieces of the puzzle, especially the dependable and versatile Long, who could run the ball with power but was deceptively fast as well. He also was an excellent blocker and could catch the ball out of the backfield.

“He was just consistently good. He wasn’t flashy, but he was always there,” Grantz said. “He did everything the way it was supposed to be done.”

Carlen said the low-key Long was most special, however, because of his team-first attitude.

“He worried about the other back getting his yardage. He worried about the offensive line getting enough credit. He worried about the quarterback getting his plays,” Carlen said. “He was the most unselfish guy — totally unselfish.”

After his record-breaking junior season, Long’s production dropped in 1976. He had 749 rushing yards for a 6-5 team — not how he wanted to go out but good enough for the New York Jets to draft him in the seventh round.

BIG-CITY MOVES

Long never will forget his first plane trip to New York City, when he saw the Manhattan skyline and took the limo ride to the Jets’ offices.

“I’m sitting in the back wishing every friend I ever had in the world could see me,” he said.

It was the start of five solid seasons, from 1977-81, with the Jets. He rushed for 2,190 yards and caught 74 passes for 539 yards. He also scored 28 touchdowns in 73 games.

He remembers the grueling training camps each season when he had to prove he belonged.

“I was going to make it or die trying,” Long said. “I held my own.”

Most of all, he loved competing against some of the best players in NFL history, especially in big conference games vs. great teams of the day such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders.

A deal that sent him to the Chicago Bears. He immediately entered the doghouse of coach Mike Ditka, whose style Long found overbearing and distasteful. He was “overjoyed” to be cut at the end of training camp.

But opportunity came calling again in the form of another legendary coach, George Allen, who had signed on with the Chicago Blitz of the newly-formed USFL He liked veteran players and had heard good things about Long, who instantly liked Allen as much as he disliked Ditka.

“(Allen) was the best coach I ever had,” Long said. “He was a great human being. There was something special about him.”

Long rushed for 1,022 yards and 12 touchdowns in 1983. When the team moved to Arizona the next season, he kept on running, finishing with 1,010 yards and 15 touchdowns. The following year, Frank Kush, another hard-nosed coach, took over, and Long’s production dropped to 284 yards in his final professional season.

There was no question where he was headed from there — back to South Carolina.

HOME SWEET HOME

Long has carved out a life in Columbia that he loves. Always fascinated as a young boy with trucks, he obtained his commercial license and started driving.

“It was a Godsend,” Long said. “It fit what I wanted to do, and it paid well.”

He enjoys his job delivering food products because of the flexibility and the satisfaction it gives him.

He still found time to coach his daughters, two of which were star performers. Latifah attended Georgia on a track and field scholarship, while Alisa went to College of Charleston to play volleyball.

“I wanted to save my best for my children,” he said.

And he never forgot his friends. When his old backfield mate Williams, who had gotten mixed up with drugs, was murdered in Columbia in 1994, Long helped the family through tough times.

“Clarence was a good, decent human being. But things happen in people’s lives, and you don’t know why,” he said.

That is the Long his old USC teammates remember best.

“Kevin is a big-time solid citizen,” Carlen said. “He is one of the most humble people. He does an awful lot for a lot of people.”

Grantz said his feelings about Long have never changed. The two run into each other at the occasional USC function or game.

“He’s the same Kevin — a great guy. You can’t help but like Kevin.”

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