As you walk into Mott Gym, placards and trophies adorn the hallway. From athletes like Jordan Beck to Bob Mott, the walls are filled with pictures of championship athletes, who at one time or another walked these halls.
The men’s basketball locker room, which has yet to hold a championship-winning team of any sort, is located in Mott Gym, hidden past the glare of copper and gold.
This season, the locker room is the property of first-year head coach Joe Callero, a coach searching to turn Cal Poly from a Big West bottom-dweller into a Division-I powerhouse.
“I think we can be an NCAA tournament team,” Callero said. “That’s why I am here. The goal is to win the Big West automatic bid, to get to the tournament on an annual basis and compete in the NCAA tournament.”
Cal Poly made the jump to Division-I in 1994 and has struggled since. In the 16 years Cal Poly has been a top division school, the Mustangs have posted four winning seasons.
This season was a bit different.
Cal Poly finished the regular season (11-18, 7-9 Big West) only four wins better than last year’s team, but the Mustangs raced out to the best conference start in school history. In each conference game this season, the Mustangs were able to compete — they lost each conference game on an average of seven points, bearing 20-plus point losses just to UC Davis and UC Santa Barbara. And they did so with just three seniors on the roster.
“To me, (this year) it’s like a completely different team,” senior guard Lorenzo Keeler said. Keeler spent two years playing under the previous head coach, Kevin Bromley. “(Callero’s) philosophy of the game is simple: Play as a team, play as a unit, play together — compete — and you’ll be successful.”
Callero is a different kind of coach. He doesn’t take the standard route to his players. While most of his words are about what his players can do to excel on the court, he said he hopes the lessons he instills in his players are ones they can carry throughout their lives, off the court.
“The most important part of coaching is where you can feel like you can help someone else out with their life,” Callero said. “I hope that I can be as influential on my players as my coaches were for me.”
This mindset is an aspect of Callero’s coaching that players admire.
“Callero is a real guy,” senior forward Ryan Darling said. “You really feel like his door is always open and he is going to be real with you. He is going to be a real human being and not someone who is just a basketball coach.”
Any head coach has multiple tasks to juggle. With practices, game plans, press conferences and recruiting, among other things, head coaches always have multiple items on their plates. But, despite the influx of chores, Callero tries not to get lost in the professional side of things.
“What I try to always think about on a daily basis is to remember to think about coaching people,” Callero said. “I try to think of one thing that I can do this day that will be personal in nature and not professional.”
It’s not easy to gain the trust of players when you’re a first-year head coach, but Callero has found success where other coaches have struggled. Perhaps it’s the half-grin he carries; maybe it’s his demanding personality, or maybe it’s his track record with other teams. Whatever the case, since the first day he met his players, Callero has made a demanding impression.
“The first day he came and talked to us, he said we (were) going to change the whole atmosphere around here, we are going to create a new culture of basketball,” sophomore forward Jordan Lewis said.
Indeed he did.
He created a brotherhood between his players. Callero is a family man. Living in a household that includes his wife, Erika, and his daughter, Malia, he enjoys being with his loved ones. That mindset is one he decided to preach to his players.
“I’ll do anything for my brothers, my mom and my pops, and (Callero) created this thing where the team is a family. All these are my brothers, all these are my family members,” Keeler said. “You go to war with your family. You live and die with your family.”
Brotherhood wasn’t enough. Callero wanted to leave an impression on his players. He teaches them the game of basketball, he teaches them how to win, but he teaches them the right way to do so.
“We are trying to get guys to be mature and positive and encouraging,” Callero said. “Wins or losses are not the things people care about. Everybody wants to win games, but it’s about how you win the game, how you play as a team.”
Callero’s understanding of the problems and obstacles young men have gone through has been instrumental in this process. Callero said he has always wanted to work with people. Early in his career, he learned how to deal with the problems of young students when he worked at a juvenile home and as a high school guidance counselor.
“Kids are going to make mistakes,” Callero said. “We are not perfect human beings, but we are going to try to be.”
But Callero could not satisfy is hunger for basketball with that profession. After counseling, he became a basketball coach. With experiences he learned from helping kids in his back pocket, Callero tries not to only churn out basketball players when they graduate from his program, he aims to create men on the court.
“I really feel like he emphasizes us being mature enough to understand the concepts of basketball, be mature to take care of business on and off the court, and he teaches us to play with maturity on the court to act like men. He teaches us to present ourselves as Cal Poly and be proud of that,” Lewis said.
In one season, Callero has changed the mindset and the outlook of this team, but ask him how he did it, and he will give a modest answer.
“I didn’t turn this season around,” Callero said. “I didn’t do anything; the players did it. I think a lot of it is just getting the student athletes to believe in themselves, believe in what teamwork can do, believe in what hustle can do.”
With these new outlooks the future for Cal Poly is bright. Next season, Cal Poly will have to combat the loss of the team’s leading scorer, Keeler, but will have firepower ready to join the young staff on the hardwood.
The Mustangs will return three starters who averaged double figures in scoring last season. To add to that lineup, Amaurys Fermin — a redshirt guard who averaged 18 points and eight assists per game at Hagerstown College in 2008-09 — will be eligible to play. Not to mention stand-out recruits Maliik Love and Jamal Johnson will be joining the team.
“We have done so much this season and I feel like next season and the seasons to come, with this new program, there is a lot of success ahead of us,” Lewis said.
So after the offseason, the bright lights in Mott Gym will turn on and, for another year, the men’s basketball team will take the court. Every day, the players will leave their locker room and pass through the hallway filled with championship trophies and placards.
Every day, they will notice there is a piece missing.
A Big West championship? An NCAA championship? Either will suffice.
“It’s a realistic goal,” Callero said.