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It’s been nearly three weeks since the men’s basketball team’s improbable run to the NCAA Tournament, and little has changed on Cal Poly’s campus. Even though the Mustangs came out of nowhere to win the Big West Conference Tournament, capturing consecutive victories over favored opponents UC Santa Barbara, UC Irvine and Cal State Northridge, the postseason fervor was limited to a minority of Cal Poly’s student body and a handful of March Madness-crazed parents and alumni.
Following the team’s first-round victory over Texas Southern — and the myriad of mispronunciations by color commentator Reggie Miller that came along with it — I still found that my continual “Nwamba” references still didn’t register with, well, anybody. Bad jokes aside, I expected the school’s first birth into America’s annual month long basketball frenzy to be a bigger deal, but as I have come to understand, this initial postseason experience is only the first step toward gaining greater recognition within the school and among other top-tier programs.
When I sat down to talk to head coach Joe Callero, he was getting ready to leave for the Final Four. It was, no doubt, a business trip the basketball-crazed Callero didn’t mind skipping town for, and it wouldn’t wouldn’t have been as lucrative if it weren’t for the memorable Mustang postseason run. I asked him what effect the NCAA Tournament experience has had on the program.
“It already has impacted us and it has impacted us in three different ways immediately,” Callero said. “One is recruiting.”
When students made their decisions to attend Cal Poly, surely academics and location were among the major considerations. And while prospective student-athletes choose their schools with those factors in mind, athletes with top-tier talent are often more attracted to schools that have a culture of winning. And Callero can’t wait to speak to potential recruits about this year’s taste of NCAA stardom.
“Recruits that we are recruiting for the class of 2015, we have great stories to talk to them about,” Callero said. “What it’s like to be at the big dance, from charter jets to police escorts to staying at the Hilton to Nike sending us new pairs of shoes … We think it continues to open recruiting doors, and we are excited to hear about that.”
While recruiting players will be important in the years to come, Callero talked about another way the basketball program has benefited from their March play.
“The second way it has impacted us is with the boosters and the alumni group, the people that have reached out and contacted us, the enthusiasm they have to help support the fundraising efforts for a new scoreboard,” Callero said.
A scoreboard shouldn’t be too much to ask for for a team that just taught a good portion of the country the name of our school.
Last March, another school making its NCAA Tournament debut went on to gain nationwide attention and, in return, saw a steep increase in revenue and undergraduate applications. Florida Gulf Coast University, a school that didn’t even exist until 1991, saw their fledgling basketball program go all the way to the Sweet Sixteen in the 2013 tourney. The school went from being barely a blip on the radar of mainstream college athletics to numerous Sportscenter appearances as well as the proud owners of the tournament’s most infamous hashtag, #dunkcity.
But perhaps Florida Gulf Coast’s most substantial gains from their first appearance could be seen in the 1,000 percent increase in sales at the campus bookstore or the nearly 30 percent increase in freshmen applications the year following their NCAA tournament run. Though the Mustangs didn’t go deep into the tournament — they were humbled by an oversized, and at the time, undefeated Wichita State team — their appearance on the NCAA’s brightest stage is sure to garner nationwide intrigue.
When trying to decipher the greatest impact of the Big Dance, the third part of Coach Callero’s statement seems fitting.
“The third thing that I think it is going to affect — and I just got to experience it today for the first time — is the student body enthusiasm,” Callero said. “I got a sandwich at the Avenue and I had four different students congratulate me and mention what a great run we had.”
Cal Poly has never been — and most likely never will be — a basketball school along the lines of Kentucky or Duke. For one thing, the Division I program is approximately as old as your average college sophomore (the Mustangs started playing Division I games in 1994), which is young considering the length of time the aforementioned basketball institutions have been March Madness regulars. But in the meantime, the program is working to improve its facilities and expand recruiting so one day Cal Poly will be busting brackets like it’s nobody’s business.
After speaking with Callero, it’s clear the future of Cal Poly basketball looks bright. While we all hope that there will be a plethora of net-cutting ceremonies in seasons to come, the head coach already sees this year’s experience as a turning point for the program and the school.
“It’s the energy that you can create when you have 500 students in Chumash Auditorium, that goosebump stuff is what gets me excited,” Callero said. “It gives you a greater pride to your own school.”