“Oh my God!” said Wheeler’s daughter, Jennifer. “Look at the people.”
The people were “lined up forever,” as Wheeler put it, to try to squeeze into Mott Gym. That would be where, if they were lucky enough to get in, fans watched Wheeler’s Cal Poly men’s basketball team earn arguably the most significant win in program history – a 77-73 victory over New Hampshire to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA Division II Tournament.
It was March 1981. Warren Baker had been Cal Poly’s president for less than two years, Kennedy Library was nine weeks young and a sleepy campus whose athletic department was still taking shape had been unpredictably united by roundball.
Thrills weren’t just found in Mott Gym. Mott Gym itself was a thrill.
Stories like Wheeler’s ooze out of the Mott Gym walls and are fondly remembered by former coaches and players from the teams who called it home – men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball and wrestling.
Many of the stories, though, have gradually eroded from various media guides and the consciousness of the student body since the school moved to the Division I level in 1994.
“That was a long time ago,” former Cal Poly wrestler Keith Leland said.
Leland was part of what he dubbed an “empire” built by coach Vaughan Hitchcock in which the Mustangs won Division II national championships in wrestling in 1966 and consecutively from 1968-74.
In those days, wrestling was often the main event, even outdrawing basketball.
“It wasn’t just one season,” said Leland, who capped his career with a Division II national title at 190 pounds in 1974. “We drew pretty good crowds. (Hitchcock) created a reputation in California of (Cal Poly) being one of the better wrestling schools. People were interested in coming to school there.”
That’s meaningful, considering Cal Poly’s program was so lacking in scholarship money and funding that wrestlers, Hitchcock said, had to share beds in dorms and the team had to drive home immediately after meets because it could rarely afford a motel.
Through all that, Hitchcock’s Mustangs managed to generate such a buzz on the Central Coast that “people in the community followed our team very closely” and San Luis Obispo radio station KVEC actually had a morning show devoted entirely to the wrestling team.
The hype spread from Mott Gym nationwide when Cal Poly hosted the 1969 Division II national championships, which the Mustangs dominated.
“It was really notable for the gym,” said Hitchcock, who coached at Cal Poly from 1962-85.
What is past is prologue.
In 2005, Cal Poly hosted the Pac-10 Championships, bringing thousands of spectators through a Mott Gym that was decidedly more dressed for wrestling than basketball or volleyball.
It was a spectacle that included one Mustang – 125-pounder Vic Moreno – taking a conference crown.
“We established Cal Poly as being a nationally recognized program,” said Hitchcock, who still lives in San Luis Obispo. “(Current coach) John Azevedo and his staff are certainly following through on that.”
It’s apt that the 1970s saw Cal Poly wrestling go down as the Division II team of the decade because in 1978, the man Mott Gym was named after – Robert A. Mott – retired after 22 years as the school’s athletic director.
Not much longer, the next Division II dynasty at Cal Poly lifted off. It came in the form of a men’s basketball team whose trademark was defense.
Wheeler’s Mustangs compiled a 146-56 record from 1979-80 through 1985-86.
Along with the avalanche of wins came droves of people – so many, Wheeler said, that crowds routinely surpassed 3,000.
And that was before there were even seats behind the baskets. Those were not installed until 1998, the same year in which the dusty wooden bleachers were yanked in favor of modern chairback seats.
“I never thought that as a basketball coach, I could take a team to the (Division II) Final Four, and we did that,” Wheeler said.
They did it by plowing through their two Eastern Regional opponents in New Jersey by more than 20 points each, all the while captivating the small college town they called home 3,000 miles away.
“I think it’s probably one of the most exciting things in my life,” Wheeler said.
That’s saying something, coming from a man who went on to coach in the CBA and serve as a scout for the Portland Trail Blazers.
What is past is prologue.
The favorite men’s basketball memory for former Cal Poly athletic director John McCutcheon, who served from 1991 to 2002 before taking a similar position at Massachusetts, isn’t even a win.
It came in February 1996, when the Mustangs were in the midst of a turnaround from an embarrassing 1-26 season the year prior – their first at the Division I level. Southern Utah came to Mott Gym with the old American West Conference title hanging in the balance and wound up winning 85-84 in double overtime.
“There were people waiting outside who couldn’t get in,” McCutcheon said. “I knew right then that we had made a difference.”
National media began to take notice of the so-called “Mott Mania” that was sweeping Cal Poly during the days of Ben Larson and Mike Wozniak bombing away from 3-point range.
Eventually, on Jan. 9, 1999, ESPN2 came to Mott Gym to televise Cal Poly’s game against Idaho. The Mustangs were crushed 101-75 and the national networks have not been back since.
On Dec. 15, 2001, though, Cal Poly beat Oregon State 72-68 in Mott Gym.
“How many times do you get Pac-10 teams to come into your facility?” said current Cal Poly coach Kevin Bromley, who was in his first season at the helm that year.
Then came the conspicuous tag of “The Asylum” above the Mustang Maniacs section of Mott Gym, an idea thought up by former Mustang Daily sports editor Sean Martin.
The Oregon State win, Bromley said, ranks next to his team’s 61-58 victory over former Big West Conference nemesis Utah State that same year, as far as individual games go.
And who could forget the regular-season finale only last March, when Cal Poly put an exclamation point on its best season yet at the Division I level by dunking past Pacific 82-70 in front of a sellout Mott Gym crowd of 3,032?
“All that adds up when you talk about memorable seasons,” Bromley said. “. (Mott Gym) is a special place because of what the people have been in there, the relationships and the quality of people who have competed in that building.”
A wild scene followed the Pacific game in which Mustang Maniacs joined Cal Poly players in dancing on the court and atop the scorer’s table.
Make no mistake, Mott Gym knows March Madness.
Since its inception 33 years ago, the Cal Poly women’s basketball team’s only 20-win season came in 1981-82.
Just last season, though, the Mustangs pulled off a 68-65 home upset of Oregon State. It was the program’s first victory over a Pac-10 school since February 1978.
The hardwood, though, hasn’t been home to hoops alone.
For a women’s volleyball program first established in 1979, it took only one year for the Mustangs to reach 30 wins in a season.
And Cal Poly was doing it at the Division I level far before its basketball and wrestling counterparts.
By 1985, the Mustangs had Mott Gym rocking with a team that was winning NCAA Tournament matches year in, year out.
“In terms of fan support, it was a total volleyball town,” said Claudia Trudeau-Hemmersbach, one of 19 Cal Poly All-Americans in the 1980s. “We had large and rambunctious crowds.”
Cal Poly won nine tournament matches from 1981-89, although no more than two in a season. In the end, coach Mike Wilton never had a losing season during his 10-year tenure.
What is past is prologue.
Fast-forward to 2006, which played out like a virtual rerun of the 1980s to those who remembered.
Cal Poly sprinted to a 23-6 record that included a 13-1 mark in Big West play and, more importantly, the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Coach Jon Stevenson led a squad that saw Kylie Atherstone break out as the most dominant player in the Big West – as a sophomore.
Those tournament matches were played in a sold-out Mott Gym, the first time since 1987 that the tourney came to San Luis Obispo.
“That was really exciting, just having the demand for the tickets,” current Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone said.
Trudeau-Hemmersbach, who still attends home matches, said: “It brings back a lot of emotions. I played there when it was (like) that.”
Banners for every Big West school hang regally from the rafters of Mott Gym as cars buzz by on South Perimeter Road in the quiet of night.
Carried by names like Hitchcock, Leland, Wheeler and Hemmersbach, history penetrates the darkness and silence. It gives way to names like Azevedo, Moreno, Bromley, Stevenson and Atherstone.
And it’s still only prologue.