It’s Saturday and there is a big college game on TV. You tune in to watch the matchup between two highly ranked Division I teams as they battle it out with professional sports commentary in the background. What will likely appear on your screen is a sea of fans in the arena boasting the attire of their respective school.
While you can find this scene at Cal Poly on rare occasions like the Blue-Green Rivalry or at a sold-out Women’s Volleyball match against a conference rival, the dream-like school spirit scene is not a reality at Cal Poly.
With a lack of consistent winning seasons by the more popular sports over the years, coupled with the recent dismissal of longtime Men’s Basketball head coach Joe Callero, one question surrounds Cal Poly Athletics in comparison to other Division I programs: How much does Cal Poly Athletics prioritize winning?
Cal Poly alumnus and Director of Athletic Communications, Eric Burdick, said he believes the reason for the lack of wins and overall titles is a result of the foundation that Cal Poly is built off of.
“Competition isn’t the number one priority with the administration here,” Burdick said. “It’s a combination of excelling in the classroom as well as the court. I don’t think the emphasis will ever change here.”
“Competition isn’t the number one priority with the administration here”
Mustang Football Home Team Booster Dana Nafziger said Cal Poly has taken steps towards being a notable athletic school with their joining of Division I back in 1994. However, Nafziger also said Cal Poly will have to continue to evolve if they are going to be competitive.
“It seems like football and basketball are having the hardest time for whatever reason,” Nafziger said. “What we’ve been looking at as a group of alumni is, ‘Okay, what does this look like to the university in terms of the desirability to put a competitive team on the field?”’
Looking at the last available set of expenses for Cal Poly Athletics, Football (17 percent) and Men’s Basketball (12 percent) were the two sports that were allotted the most money. Women’s Basketball (nine percent), Baseball (seven percent), Track & Field (seven percent), and Volleyball (six percent) followed. While the data doesn’t suggest how much Cal Poly prioritizes winning based off the numerical value of the money awarded to each sport, it does highlight which sports could be seen as a priority over others based off of the funding they each receive.
However, each program’s record since 2010 shows that more money spent on a team does not always translate to a winning record. In fact, you can see a fairly identical win-loss percentage of .500, meaning for every one loss, the team earned a win. While Women’s Volleyball and Men’s Baseball were the exceptions, the results show that Men’s Basketball was 76 games behind going .500, ultimately factoring into Cal Poly Athletic’s decision to not retain Callero.
Given the fact that this was the first time a Cal Poly head coach has been fired since Kevin Bromley in 2009, there are now questions surrounding the university’s value of competition and whether it was a sign of a movement towards a win-now culture.
“I think we proved ourselves very patient, in terms of what our win-loss record was,” Oberhelman said in a press conference after the decision was made public. “We need to be in the hunt for titles, and I’m not saying that we need to win a Big West title every single year. I want us to get back into the hunt.”
“We need to be in the hunt for titles, and I’m not saying that we need to win a Big West title every single year. I want us to get back into the hunt.”
While bringing in a new coach may result in change, boosters like Nafziger believe the lack of long-term success for mainstream sports like football and basketball may be attributed to the university’s admissions system and their unwillingness to take a chance on high school students who don’t already have good study habits reflected in their grades.
“What we’re looking at is a more flexible admissions system where we can bring high-level guys in that have excellent athletic abilities, but maybe not the best study patterns,” Nafziger said. “In other words, let’s say we have a kid that maybe didn’t qualify for the academics that [Cal Poly] Admissions wants, so that player goes to Stanford or UC Davis. How does that make any sense? He wasn’t good enough for Poly, but Stanford will take them?”
While there are a number of factors that can contribute to repeated losing seasons such as injuries, team chemistry, or a rigorous admissions system, it all boils into the question of: will this ever turn around? According to Burdick, who noted that there are teams still doing well like volleyball, baseball and football, the idea of an immediate turnaround is unknown.
While Burdick described the recent struggles of Cal Poly Athletics as “kind of a tough time,” he also pointed out the increase among graduation rates and student success rates of Mustang student-athletes.
“Obviously the fans want to see wins and that is certainly one of our top goals, which is to try to get back up there,” Burdick said. “Will it turn around anytime really soon? I don’t know, that’s hard to say.”
“Will it turn around anytime really soon? I don’t know, that’s hard to say.”
Others are more optimistic that over time Cal Poly can find a formula to create a winning culture that extends throughout all sports, something other rival universities have already figured out.
Nafziger said he believes the culture surrounding Cal Poly Athletics will change as sponsors and donors respectfully bring their concerns to President Armstong, the Provost and the university.
“We have people that are really going to support the program, but we want to make suggestions for possibilities that we see schools like UC Davis doing,” Nafziger said. “They are bringing in huge dollars, but again, when people put in dollars, they want to see change. That’s part of philanthropy. It is, ‘Okay we support, but we love to see success.’”