When Cal Poly’s head coach John Azevedo wrestled against Cal Poly, he was a student at Cal State Bakersfield, and fans stretched down the street to see the Mustangs’ wrestling team in action. Mott Gym was full because the program was consistently ranked in the top ten nationally.
The goal, Azevedo said, is to get back to that level, to be a team in the national conversation of wrestling programs. The Mustangs have moved toward that goal with a strong start to the season with a 5-2 record, already two wins more than last season. Off the mat, the team tries to improve their status through fund raising and an aggressive recruiting process.
“There’s a tradition of wrestling here, we’re just trying to bring it back up to a higher level again,” he said.
One of the first steps in raising Cal Poly’s profile is performance, he said. The better the team wrestles the more people talk about them.
Because of the current lack of visibility, Cal Poly’s wrestling program is not fully funded by the school, Azevedo said. They have 6.5 scholarships working at one time, while the maximum, that most fully-funded programs have, is 9.9. The team puts on fund-raisers, such as a yearly golf tournament, to help pay the salaries of the assistant coaching staff. To consistently compete with the perennial, nationally ranked programs the team needs to be fully funded, he said.
“The team is very proactive,” Phil Webb, Cal Poly’s senior associate athletic director, said. “They’ve done as much or more than anybody over the year to raise funds.”
The team’s effort to raise extra funds is one part current protection and one part future plans. The program’s goal is to become fully-funded and endowed. Endowment is when a program has enough money to put the sum into an account and run off the interest that collects. That way, the the program doesn’t become endangered during financial deficits or budget cuts.
“Endowment is the ultimate situation, the ideal way to go,” Webb said.
With an endowment, the team would be fully funded and would therefore be able to use the 9.9, maximum amount of scholarships and also pay a full coaching staff. This frees the team to compete at the highest level with all the tools that most consistent, nationally ranked programs enjoy.
“We’re ranked higher than any partially funded program in the nation,” assistant head coach Mark Perry said. “But we can’t compete year after year if we’re not fully funded.”
The partial funding resulted in an up and down ranking for Cal Poly in recent years. Through more thorough “blue chip” recruiting and fund-raising, Perry said he hopes to bring back the consistency that Cal Poly enjoyed in the past.
Eric Burdick, assistant director of media relations at Cal Poly said that the start to this season is a good stepping stone for the Mustangs.
“The team was far more visible in the 70’s and 80’s when they won eight straight Division Two titles. The national reputation of Cal Poly has not been as good in the 2000’s,” he said. “But, because of their performance, they’re getting a lot more recognition than they have recently. We have four guys nationally ranked in the top 20.”
Chase Pami, a senior communication major weighing in at 157 pounds, is one of the four in the top 20. There has been a shift in the program in his years at Cal Poly, from a focus on individual wrestlers to a focus on the team as a whole, Pami said.
“With that mentality, you realize there’s not just one guy on the team,” Pami said. “It forces you to want to have an even better match. That competitive feeling is bringing out the best in us as a team.”
This is Pami’s last year on the team, but he said he would like to return as an assistant coach next year as he trains to compete in the 2012 Olympics.
“To see the program on a rise is huge,” he said. “My goal is to win a national title and lay the groundwork for Cal Poly.”
Ultimately, the coaching staff would like to see the Mustangs fill Mott Gym with fans streaming down the street, excited to see some national-level wrestling, Azevedo said. Much like the days when he came to wrestle himself.