Athletics director Don Oberhelman admits he wasn’t the best athlete growing up in Kansas. What he lacked on the field, he made up for in effort. He played for the love of the game, but he never expected to have a career in Division I athletics.
It wasn’t until a friend told Oberhelman he could make it to the NFL, not through a position on the field but rather a position in an office, that Oberhelman realized he could have a career in athletics, specifically at the collegiate level. It was at this point that he enrolled at Florida State to get his master’s in sports management, with the hopes of working in a university athletics department one day.
Now, Oberhelman looks at home in his new office on the second floor of Mott Gym overlooking the Recreation Center. Even if he is only in his first week as director of athletics, Oberhelman appears enthusiastic about taking on the role and future of Cal Poly athletics.
Q: How does it feel to be sitting here as a director of athletics for the first time in your career?
A: “Great. It’s wonderful, and it is even better that it can happen at a place like Cal Poly.”
The current director of athletics at San Diego State, and Oberhelman’s former boss, Jim Sterk, said the position of an athletics director has five main areas to focus on: the student-athlete experience, facilities, personnel, garnering resources and politics.
Sterk said he felt Oberhelman will be able to handle all five areas after seeing him “steer the department (at SDSU) through a $2 million deficit to having a positive operating side” while he served as interim AD. When Sterk took over, he said Oberhelman had straightened out the department and to go in the right direction.
Q: Why do you think you are a good fit for Cal Poly?
A: “After I read the university mission and the concept of ‘Learn By Doing,’ I loved it … I believe athletics is the very embodiment of this mission, so why wouldn’t I want to be a part of that? Just by participating (in athletics) you learn about leadership, teamwork, dealing with success and failure. Those are hard lessons to learn, and athletics teaches those better than anything I’ve ever been around.”
Cal Poly associate athletics director Phil Webb said the athletics department was looking for a new AD who would bring energy and excitement to recharge the program, and Oberhelman fit that criteria.
“In terms of résumé, character, energy, vision and drive, Don met the profile of what we are looking for,” Webb said. “We are looking forward to getting the show on the road and really reinvigorating the coaches and staff and moving the department forward in a positive direction.”
Head football coach Tim Walsh said he also noticed Oberhelman’s positive energy when they met, and is looking forward to what Oberhelman plans to bring to the department.
“The very first impression you have on him is that he’s outgoing and he’s got a great personality, and that usually equates to energy,” Walsh said. “I think in the position he has here, as much as we need leadership, visibility and all those things, we need some energy — some positive energy.”
Q: Do you think playing sports in high school and going through sports management training shaped you?
A: “No, I really think I was shaped more where I’ve been after that point. I almost consider the years in which I developed as a person more were more my adult years. Being the athletics director at Cal Poly is less about me playing t-ball and more about me being touched by Richard Giannini, the athletics director at (the) University of Southern Mississippi who taught me so much about the development of an athletic department.”
Another reason Oberhelman is expected to succeed at Cal Poly is because of his work ethic, in addition to his extensive experience, Sterk said.
“(Oberhelman) has number one great integrity, number two tremendous work ethic and number three he cares about the people and the department, including the coaches and student-athletes,” he said.
Oberhelman is known as the kind of employee who is the first one in and last one out of the office — a quality he said he hopes inspires his colleagues.
Q: What is one piece of advice that has stuck with you since you started working in athletics?
A: “You have to outwork your competition, and that’s something I try to make sure I do every day. I want to make sure nobody in our league is going to work harder than I am in terms of the AD — that advice came from Giannini. Every department, every program, every university has built-in things that you’re not great at — things that you have less of. So how are we going to continue to be successful despite (resources) being a shortcoming? Well, we are going to outwork everybody.”
Outworking others and not being afraid to try new things are qualities that Steve Fisher, San Diego State men’s head basketball coach, said Oberhelman has.
“He’s a tireless, relentless worker who will always tell you how he feels, and he will be quick to say, ‘Let’s try (something new),’” Fisher said. “He’s someone who is willing to listen and say, ‘How can I think out of the box to make it work?’”
Oberhelman always looks to help, especially coaches, and sees what he can do to make others succeed, Fisher said.
Q: When looking to gain more resources, what’s something you will focus on for fundraising at Cal Poly?
A: “The first thing I have to focus on is a plan. Right now we don’t have that plan. I need to spend more time with our staff, coaches and student-athletes to find out where our most immediate needs are and what our long-term needs are.”
No one would know such needs better than a head coach, and Walsh said he is looking forward to seeing how Oberhelman will prioritize what needs to be done.
“There is no question as a coach, and probably speaking for all of our coaches, we are looking for somebody that can come in here and do a great job internally as well as across campus with the students and administration,” Walsh said. “But most importantly, (do the job) externally — the ability to raise money and help us to improve the areas that we need improvement in.”
Q: San Diego State had about a $30 million budget, and Webb said Cal Poly had about a $12 million budget last year. What do you hope to do with that, and how do you hope to disperse it?
A: “It is a little deceiving going from a Bowl level (FBS) football team versus Championship level (FCS) football. We play in the Big Sky and (SDSU) plays in the Mountain West, just that alone is probably a $4 to $5 million difference in terms of what they have to spend. So it is a little misleading, but true, it is less. It’s more of just trying to manage those resources and making sure we are wise in how we’re allocating them because there is not enough to do what we want to do right now. We want to have all our sports competing for championships, and that’s a hard thing to ask when you have a budget like ours, but we’re going to ask it.”
Webb said when looking at the budget and resource allocation, fundraising is going to be key for the athletics department. In fact, he said it is becoming more of a requirement than a luxury.
Q: You mentioned interviewing with President Armstrong. As the new president, he has stressed the importance of making decisions with the students’ best interest in mind. Would you say you share that?
A: “I could not agree more, and that is one of the reasons I’m very excited to be here. He and I are so in sync with that philosophy. The students are what drives the atmosphere, the energy, the enthusiasm, the passion (at games) — without the students, everybody sits and it’s a nice, sunny Sunday afternoon. With students there, they are up screaming and yelling, and that’s what makes the atmosphere of college athletics so much fun.”
This is something Webb agreed is an important part of college for all students, and that he looks forward to working with Oberhelman to make sure the experience athletic events create is memorable and keeps alumni coming back.
“The student fan base is critical,” Webb said. “The more enjoyment students have at that event, the more likely they are to come back, so we have to make it a good experience.”
Oberhelman stressed the importance of student, not just student-athlete, participation in athletics. He said he has experienced other athletics departments that put too much emphasis on the staff and gaining revenue, but he feels this is not what the department is there for.
“(The departments sometimes) just lose sight of why we are here,” Oberhelman said. “It’s not for me, it’s about the rest of the student body and the athletes. Watching the students storm the court and just go crazy with their student athletes, that’s a very special thing to be able to see.”
Since Oberhelman has only held his position for a week, many of his long-term goals are still a vision. He still has a lot of planning and talking to do with the athletic department before any significant changes take place, he said. Until then, Fisher summed up Oberhelman’s long awaited position as an athletics director.
“I always told (Oberhelman) that he was an athletics director waiting to happen.”