Former Minnesota Duluth football coach Kyle “Bubba” Schweigert remembers going through resumes in the winter of 2006 when he came across one that jumped out at him.
It was from Phil Longo, who was head coach at NCAA Division I-AA La Salle University in Philadelphia at the time.
The Explorers were on the verge of dropping their football program, and Longo was looking for a home, and he found one at UMD.
“I was surprised he applied for the job at Duluth,” Schweigert admitted. “We brought him out, and he was really impressive in the interview. The one thing that sticks out was he had a certain belief of how he wanted to coach football, and in a system, and that’s how he wanted to play. We met with him, got the opinion of other people on staff, got a little input, and yeah, he was the guy.”
And when Schweigert got a phone call from North Carolina football coach John Bunting, who coached Longo at Rowan University in New Jersey, that really cemented it.
“This wasn’t a guy who just calls,” Schweigert said of Bunting. “Sometimes you get calls where guys feel obligated to call for a minute or two. Bunting talked to me a lot about Phil and what he felt he could do for our program.”
Now, 14 years later, Longo is offensive coordinator at fifth-ranked North Carolina, Schweigert is head coach at North Dakota and the world is in the midst of a pandemic.
Longo, 52, took a break from his busy schedule earlier this week to talk with the News Tribune about his rise to the highest ranks of college football and to reflect on his two seasons with Schweigert and Co. in Duluth.
For Longo, his time in Duluth wasn’t just a job but a life-changer as he met his future wife, Tanya, who was UMD women’s basketball coach. They have four children.
“I’ve got a tremendous relationship with some of the people still there at the university, and I’ve got some lifelong friendships with the coaches I worked with there,” Longo said. “I wouldn’t change anything. Minnesota Duluth was very very good to me, and I’m looking forward to coming to visit next summer. It was nothing but positive for me, and I know my wife feels the same way. We know how wonderful it is up there.”
Dedicated to his craft
You don’t have to be at the highest levels of college football to be dedicated, and most college coaches work ridiculous hours this time of year.
Longo said North Carolina coach Mack Brown tells his team to enjoy the wins, as they’re hard to come by, but Longo admits it’s hard not looking ahead. Just a day after North Carolina dispatched Virginia Tech 56-45 in a Top 20 matchup last week, Longo was still up game-planning for the next week at 1:30 a.m., capping off a 14-hour day.
Never mind his offense had just racked up an incredible 656 yards of offense. There was work to be done.
“It’s over,” Longo said of the Tech game. “A win is a win, it doesn’t matter if you win by one or you win by 50. We’ve got goals for the program that go beyond one week. You try to go home and spend time with your family, enjoy the win, but I won’t lie, I spent a good amount of time on Saturday night getting ready for the next one.”
Longo admits he often takes the job home with him. He’s got a nice setup on his back patio, where he can watch video on his screen and get game-planning done. COVID-friendly before COVID-friendly.
“Coach Brown is great about that,” Longo said. “He’ll let us go. He doesn’t care where we do it. As long as we get it done.”
Longo said his offense hasn’t changed a whole lot since UMD in terms of terminology, alignments, philosophy, but after UMD, he wanted to have a greater emphasis on the run game.
“We’ve probably been more balanced ever since then,” Longo said.
Minnesota Duluth had its best season in Schweigert’s four years with the Bulldogs in 2005 the year before Longo’s arrival, going 8-4 and averaging 30 points per game while playing in the ultra-tough and now defunct North Central Conference.
The Bulldogs made the NCAA Division II playoffs that year, but it was a brand of football nobody around these parts had ever seen, except for maybe on television or in a video game, the type of football that probably had the legendary Jim Malosky pulling out what hair he had left.
UMD threw all the time.
Superman quarterback Ted Schlafke destroyed the Bulldogs’ record book that season, setting program records for pass completions (305), attempts (490) and yardage (3,335). He averaged 278 passing yards per game. He had a UMD record 457 passing yards in a game that Bulldog fans still talk about, a 56-43 home win over South Dakota despite the Coyotes getting 26 carries and 284 rushing yards and three touchdowns from future NFL player Stefan Logan.
“It was crazy football,” Schweigert said.
“That was quite a hoot,” said former UMD wide receiver Greg Aker of Superior, who caught 10 passes for 185 yards and four TDs in that game. “An absolute shootout. It was fun, especially for a pass catcher.”
That spread offense, however, wasn’t without flaws.
In UMD’s 23-12 playoff loss at North Dakota, the offense sputtered and was a bit exposed. Of the Bulldogs’ 79 plays in that contest, only 15 were runs, going for negative 13 yards. And that’s if you want to call those runs. All but one of them was Schlafke; the other was credited as a team rush.
Instead of punching it in, the Bulldogs were going five-wide in short-yardage situations, with no semblance of a running game, other than Schlafke keeping it. UMD’s top back that season had 340 rushing yards, good for 30.9 yards per game.
Schweigert said much of that approach was by design. The North and South Dakotas and the Nebraska-Omahas were operating near the NCAA Division II max of 36 athletic scholarships — while the Bulldogs were still in the 20s, though climbing.
By making UMD a happy place for receivers, and by saving their scholarship money for wideouts, instead of tight ends, the Bulldogs hoped to find a niche to level the financial playing field.
UMD offensive coordinator Dan Ragsdale left for Minnesota State-Mankato that offseason, and Longo was brought in. The Bulldogs went 6-4, passing a lot that first year but eventually returning to earth offensively.
But what happened around that time — stadium and facility upgrades, a renewed emphasis on the running game, excellent recruiting, including honing in on game-changing running back Isaac Odim, helped pave the way for the first of UMD’s two national championships in 2008, with former coach Bob Nielson back at the helm.
“At UMD we had a surplus of receivers, and a fantastic quarterback in Ted Schlafke, but we didn’t have a heavy room at running back, and there wasn’t a tight end on the team, so you try to cater to the personnel you have,” Longo said. “We weren’t able to be in the right personnel when I was there because we didn’t have any tight ends.
“We wanted to be more balanced, but we had a room with eight receivers who could all play and a quarterback who was probably the best runner on the team. We had an offensive line that didn’t know anything other than pass protection. You try to play to your strengths.”
For what it’s worth, Schlafke’s 33 TD passes in that crazy 2005 season are not UMD’s single-season record. Schlafke had 35 in 2008, albeit in three more games, but the Bulldogs were run-first by then.
Bubba always thought big, even if it didn’t completely come to fruition until after he had departed to Southern Illinois-Carbondale, with Longo joining him with the Salukis for two seasons. Schweigert laughed when asked if he pushed for the “Duluth Dome” (or “Bubba Dome”), saying he maybe didn’t go quite that far, but Malosky Stadium went from what he called something that looked like a junkyard, with closed walls, to one of the most inviting places in D-II football, except for opponents, of course.
“There was already a good winning tradition at Minnesota Duluth, and we felt we could recruit to that,” Schweigert said. “I always appreciated all the administrative and community support that we got during that time, and with the improvements, you just got the feeling we could take that program to another level. It’s a really good institution in a good location, where we could recruit a pretty good football team, and that became quite apparent.”
UMD won its second national championship in 2010. One thing easily overlooked with Longo’s arrival was the fact he came with his assistant and buddy, Peter Lue, a highly regarded offensive line coach who stuck around after Schweigert and Longo departed for I-AA Southern Illinois after the 2007 season. UMD became a national leader in rushing yards, going from pass happy to ground-and-pound.
“We had two really really productive years there in terms of recruiting and getting things to where we wanted them,” Longo said. “We were fired up about some of the guys that were coming in, and we were going to expand on the run game, but then we got the call and the opportunity to go to Southern Illinois, and that’s the direction we went. I felt good about the job we did in two years there, and obviously Bob (Nielson) and Co. went on to accomplish a lot. I’m just proud of that whole fraternity at Minnesota Duluth.”
Fast track to stardom
Longo doesn’t forget the path he took to the top level, and that’s one thing that endears him to his former players and peers. He’s the same-ol’ Phil, the tough stereotypical-looking New Jerseyite on the exterior, but soft-spoken and intelligent on the inside.
Longo stays in touch with Bubba, with Schlafke, with former wide receiver Greg Aker, the list goes on.
“That was a really great two years of my life,” Longo said. “It’s fun to watch them all develop in football, and outside of football.”
Longo jokes that Aker is still bugging him for gear.
By this time, Aker already has more gear than Champs Sports.
One of Longo’s mentors is Mike Leach, he of the legendary “Air Raid” passing offense. Longo’s offense combines that style with “downhill running” as Longo calls it, a physical power rushing game.
That’s what Longo’s offense did at Sam Houston State and Ole Miss not long after leaving Southern Illinois, creating a national reputation for him as an offensive guru.
“As successful as he’s been everywhere he’s touched down, I guess I can’t say I’m surprised,” Aker said. “He’s got an offensive motto, ‘Don’t blink,’ because their offensive scoring drives literally are a couple minutes. He’s carried that with him every step of the way, which is pretty cool.”
And that’s what Mack Brown took notice of when he added Longo to his North Carolina coaching staff in December 2018 as offensive coordinator. So far, Longo hasn’t disappointed.
“It’s been a wild ride. It’s been awesome,” Longo said. “As soon as you think you have all the answers, then you stop learning and this game passes you by. I’m around a lot of great coaches who challenge each other every day.”
Schweigert regrets he wasn’t able to answer Longo’s invite this summer to join him and other coaches for a little get together where they wouldn’t just socialize but talk a lot of football and bounce concepts off each other. Schweigert even had the flight ordered.
“Then COVID got in the way — like it’s getting in the way of a lot of things,” said Schweigert, whose North Dakota team won’t start playing until February.
Aker, who still lives in his hometown of Superior, is a teacher and high school football coach in Hermantown. Longo was his fourth offensive coordinator in four years in 2006.
Aker missed spring ball because he was also a baseball standout, and he struggled with injuries his senior year, but he still managed to hit it off with Longo.
“Wherever he’s coaching, that’s the team I root for the most,” Aker said. “I was an Ole Miss fan, but now North Carolina would be my favorite team. I like to see him have success. It’s kind of cool to say you have a coaching friend who was at Ole Miss coaching the likes of D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown, two of the best wide receivers in the NFL.
“When he got to UMD, Phil was that stereotypical New Jersey guy. I know he had been into boxing, and I could have seen that guy in a couple matches. And he likes to smoke cigars, and he has that aura about him, but at the same time, he always had that easygoing part about him. We reconnected talking about family, not football. He’s always been a good guy and easy to talk to, no doubt about it.”
Aker could see Longo coaching in the NFL. Others think he could be a head coach again.
Longo may not have been the best boxer, but he slips those jabs like Floyd Mayweather.
So, what’s his future look like?
“Right now, my only focus is Florida State at 7:30 p.m. (EST) Saturday, and that’s it,” Longo said.
Spoken like a true coach.