Credit: Jacob Boyd | Mustang News

As a sophomore guard for the Cal Poly women’s basketball team, Annika Shah wakes up at 4:45 a.m. for 6 a.m. practices that last until 10:30 a.m. Then, she goes to two classes that last until 6 p.m. — with homework and other responsibilities on top of that. 

This is just a glimpse into Shah’s daily routine at a university that expects both athletic and academic focus from their student-athletes. 

“No matter what kinda prep you have, you’re obviously investing a lot and you have to put the same amount of energy into your academics,” Shah said.

Recruiting the top high school players in the country is hard enough as it is, but Cal Poly Athletics has the added challenge of only recruiting players who meet certain academic criteria.

But why do they have this type of recruiting philosophy? Why not just recruit the best players available without regard to their academics?

It starts with Cal Poly’s athletic director, Don Oberhelman, as he has doubled down on this type of philosophy in Cal Poly athletics since he started here in 2011.

“We’re going to run an athletic program that mirrors the academic success of the university,” Oberhelman said. “I don’t ever want to deviate from that, either.”

And although this way of recruiting might hinder the program’s ability to bring in certain players, it’s something Oberhelman said is the way they want to run the program.

It’s also easy to point to recent lack of success by some teams on the field or court as a counterpoint to the way they recruit, but Oberhelman said it’s important to have true student-athletes at the forefront of the university.

“Just because you happen to be able to run really fast or can throw a football, doesn’t mean you have any sort of privileges over the regular students,” Oberhelman said.

This way of thinking is also shared with the coaches, who will even check in with players about their grades from time to time.

“Our coaching staff stresses how important academics are for our life,” Shah said. “We even have study hall every Monday as a team.”

In order to be considered for recruitment, Cal Poly Athletics wants players who are in line with the same academic requirements for every other student, including earning an above-average GPA when coming out of high school. 

Per NCAA requirements, players only have to achieve at least a 2.0 GPA in order to be recruited by schools. Specific GPA requirements vary per major, but Cal Poly usually won’t recruit players who go below a 3.0 GPA.

“I would say the difference between us and Michigan, North Carolina or USC is that we’re not admitting 2.2 GPA students to be student-athletes here,” Oberhelman said. “I would say we’re not admitting [any athlete] whose GPA starts with a two-point anything.”

With this in mind, the question turns to the true weight of academics during the recruiting and commitment process.

“I would ask how many athletes from a high school’s graduating class would have the admission requirements to get into Cal Poly,” Oberhelman said. “That would obviously be a small number, [and] in some ways it’s helpful because we don’t have to waste our time talking to people we can’t get into this school.”

Based on the player’s academic transcript, the coaches will then make a decision whether or not to attempt to recruit those players.

“I think with Cal Poly, it’s kind of the standard,” Shah said. “And for me, the way I was raised, academics is super important.”

While this limits who the program can recruit, it helps motivate athletes to improve their grades who previously might not have been on Cal Poly’s radar.

“When they told me I needed to have a good GPA, that definitely helped me prioritize academics even more,” Cal Poly Football kicker sophomore Bryant Thao said. 

Not only does recruiting based on GPA help narrow down exactly who the program can recruit, it also helps with their academic success once they get to Cal Poly.

According to Cal Poly Athletics, the 610 student-athletes enrolled earned a combined 3.10 GPA during the 2021 fall quarter. 

“We’re not going to put someone in that position [who is] not going to do the work,” Oberhelman said.

Cal Poly student-athletes are also enrolled in 62 different majors, and it’s something the Athletics Department takes pride in.

“One of the other things to look at is the clusters of majors [athletes are in],” Oberhelman said. “I think you’d be hard pressed to find other athletic departments that have that kind of diversity.”

The athletic department wants players who not only embody the historic success of the department, but also the historic academic success of the university. The on-field results might not come quickly like most other schools, but Oberhelman understands that and is committed to a long-term build.

In the end, the goal for every Cal Poly athlete is to end their college years with a degree.

“The number one thing we look at when we recruit student-athletes is always going to be their ability to graduate with a Cal Poly degree,” Oberhelman said. “And I think that’s the difference between us and a lot of other places.”