In the '50s Cal Poly adopted a themed parade and float contest. Contestants were judged on "depiction of theme, originality, workmanship, decorations and (overall) presentation." – Courtesy Photo

Many educational institutions in America share the annual tradition of homecoming, a spectacle which brings together alumni, residents and students for activities centered around the event.
For more than 100 years, the homecoming tradition at Cal Poly has brought celebration, athletics, activities such as rodeos and parades and school pride to both its alumni and current students.

Homecoming: A history

The origins of Cal Poly’s homecoming are rooted in an initiation ceremony and banquet for alumni in June 1907. Alumni wanted the celebration and reunion to occur annually and so began a Cal Poly tradition, according to the Polytechnic Journal of 1912.

The first official homecoming celebration occurred 17 years later. From Nov. 14 to Nov. 15, 1924, alumni came back to their alma mater to watch the first home football game of the season against Fresno State Teacher’s College (now known as Fresno State). Coincidentally, the football team and Cal Poly adopted the Mustang as its official mascot that same day.

Homecoming was described in the Polygram, a former Cal Poly newspaper, as a bonfire rally, the registration of alumni, visits around the school for alumni and a free luncheon the next day with coffee, buns, beans and pie for alumni and students.

After lunch, everybody ventured to the football game to watch stunts before the actual game. Then came a banquet and a homecoming ball for alumni.

For Cal Poly students living in the ‘20s, intercollegiate rivalry wasn’t as strong as the rivalry between Cal Poly and San Luis Obispo High School (SLOHS). In fact, according to a handbook from 1927-1928, one day students from SLOHS constructed  H’s all over San Luis Obispo to prove their dominance. Cal Poly, then known as California Polytechnic School, countered these letters by changing them to P’s. This went on for some time before the “P” was placed at its current location on the hillside facing campus. It has been there ever since.

In the ‘20s, freshmen were in charge of relining the 24 foot by 40 foot letter. They were also required to take care of the athletic fields, especially the football field during homecoming season, before retiring to the dorms.

Life in the dorms back then has some similarities to life in the dorms today with the exception of being co-ed.

“Oh how many memories that will recall!” an edition of Polygram said. “The chair fights, broom fights, ducking parties, crawling out of windows, etc.”

Over the next 20 years, homecoming brought more than 500 people  to Cal Poly each year. In 1951, the first Homecoming Queen, 21-year-old El Corral Bookstore employee and wife of a Cal Poly student, Nancy Schlegel was crowned.

The addition of a homecoming queen became a progressive step forward in the history of Cal Poly. Women were previously banned from admittance to Cal Poly in 1939 until Cal Poly officially began readmitting women in 1956.

Cal Poly originally borrowed homecoming queens from other schools, according to a “Golden Reunion” pamphlet from 1957. Cal Poly also hosted an “Ugly Man” contest to determine the ugliest man in attendance that year.

In the ‘50s and ‘60s, homecoming adopted a themed parade with a float contest. Contestants, who were typically clubs or organizations on campus, were judged on “depiction of theme, originality, workmanship, decorations and (overall) presentation.”

The Crops Club was well-known for its successful floats during these two decades.

In 1966, the homecoming theme was “Would You Believe,” so the Crops Club caught space race fever and created a space themed float called Shoot the Moon, according to a Homecoming Float Report compiled by float chairman Dane Petersen.

“The crops unit forklift was used to pull a trailer,” Petersen wrote. “The forklift was covered with a revolving world depicting Cal Poly International. On the trailer was a rocket pointed toward a moon. A football player was on the rocket. Would You Believe, Cal Poly on the Moon?”

The Crops Club float won second place that year. The float was part of a parade on a route through downtown, which was peppered with cheap diners and drive-ins complete with 23 cent burgers and car repair shops, according to a 1958 football program.

As much attention as the float contest received, the following decade had a more popular event — the homecoming beauty queen pageant.

According to the 1972 application for Cal Poly’s homecoming queen, the candidates were judged on poise, appearance, responses to questions and personality. Candidates were required to be a full-time student who had already completed three quarters at Cal Poly with at least a 2.0 grade point average.

Once a field of applicants was assembled, a pageant was held, finalists were picked and then an election was held to determine the homecoming court.

Later in the ‘70s, the Rodeo Club sponsored the first ever homecoming rodeo. With 25 teams and 200 entries, the rodeo was almost as big as the one held during Poly Royal.

During the ‘70s, honoring distinguished alumni during homecoming also became a tradition. The tradition continues to this day.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the addition of unique activities for students and alumni, including an art show and a fair considered a “Mini Poly Royal.”

A changing climate

In the early ‘90s, assistant Mustang Band director Len Kawamoto was a member of the Mustang Band.

“Back when I was a member of the band, Student Life used to host an array of spirit competitions for clubs, fraternities and sororities to participate,” Kawamoto said.

Each participating group accumulated points in competitions during the course of homecoming week, Kawamoto said.

A memorable event Kawamoto remembers was a “mock rock” competition held during UU Hour of Homecoming Week during which members from different organizations on campus performed.

One of those competitions was the homecoming court process where fraternities, sororities and organizations on campus nominated their own candidates for king and queen. Other events included competitions at Farmers’ Market for the groups and the homecoming court to participate in.

After the parade and float contest and during halftime of the football game, the winning groups were announced along with the king and queen, Kawamoto said.

Kawamoto said during the duration of the game, the band sees more band alumni in attendance as the years go by.

“Starting with the late ‘90s we started having a noticeable alumni band presence,” Kawamoto said. “At the tailgate, the alumni band typically performs an additional set of tunes on their own while the regular band is preparing for (its) pre-game (routine).”

However, Kawamoto said the overall homecoming tradition has changed.

“I’d say that over the years things have definitely dwindled,” Kawamoto said.

Today’s tradition

Cal Poly stopped hosting student activities during homecoming in 2004, so the 2010 homecoming will be the first time in six years the university has seen student activities, said Chris McBride, assistant director for marketing and communications for the Cal Poly Alumni Association.

Industrial engineering senior and Poly Reps University Ambassadors alumni chair Chester Matkey organizes alumni events with McBride.

Matkey said Poly Reps joined forces with Mustang Maniacs this year in an attempt to bring back the old tradition of homecoming.

“It seems like it was a big deal back in the day,” Matkey said. “The plan is to build homecoming back up.”

Homecoming originally died down because the full-time coordinator position got cut, Matkey said.

This year, there is a homecoming court with a king and queen. Two nominees, a male and a female, are chosen for each college and the nominees will stand before a panel and answer questions.

Each college is responsible for using its own methods to choose its nominees. Nominees will most likely have remarkable extracurricular activity and academics, Matkey said. He said he hopes newer students will enjoy the activities put forth and will become enthusiastic about homecoming.

At the game, the Mustang Band anticipates reinvigorating old traditions.

“For the upcoming Homecoming game, we can expect an alumni band of over 35 members (or a combined band of about 180) and for the first in a long time, the alumni band will be performing with the regular band during halftime,” Kawamoto said.

McBride also said she expects the game to be close to sold-out.

The football game will start at 6 p.m and the homecoming queen and king will be announced during the halftime show.

Other events for this year’s homecoming include a “Get Your Green On” spirit rally in the University Union (UU) Plaza today during UU hour; a dance for students who live on campus in the UU Plaza Friday from 9 p.m. to 12 a.m.; a tailgate before the football game with food, refreshments, a performance by Killa Gorilla and an appearance by Chuck Lidell; and the Saturday football game versus St. Francis (Pa.).

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