When he was hired to lead the Cal Polys athletic department a little more than a year ago, Don Oberhelman was repeatedly asked about his vision for the future.
Many more asked when the football program would move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision, and questions about footballs status havent stopped pouring in via email, Oberhelmans Twitter account or the Ask The A.D. feature at the Mustangs website, GoPoly.com.
But those first inquiries about vision helped shape Oberhelmans first year on the job replacing retiree Alison Cone as Cal Poly athletic director.
This first year for me was a lot about who we are, Oberhelman said. I need to figure out who we are before I figure out where we can go.
Oberhelman answered the vision question with another question. Who are we?
Judging by the answers he received, it seemed like that one hadnt been answered in a while, and the former San Diego State associate athletic director started a campaign to change that.
What followed was a year of rapid-fire coaching changes, time spent learning what has made Cal Poly unique, using that knowledge to start planning for the future and the birth of The Mustang Way.
When Oberhelman took over last April, he already knew celebrated womens tennis coach Hugh Bream was retiring. The other coaching positions seemed stable.
Oberhelman was quickly faced with replacing wrestling coach Mark Perry, too, after Perry unexpectedly left last spring to become an assistant at Illinois just as he was taking over the full head coaching duties at Cal Poly for the first time.
Over the summer, mens tennis coach Justin McGrath faced an NCAA investigation into his scholarship practices that eventually led to his departure, and early in the fall season, Oberhelman removed volleyball coach Jon Stevenson before a report detailing accusations of harassment, sexual and otherwise, against him was made public.
Not what Oberhelman had initially bargained for when he took the job, he had to look at the changes as opportunities to improve the department, which at times seemed ripe for an honor code overhaul.
I think I was prepared for the work involved, Oberhelman said. I dont think I was prepared for the emotional part of it because those are hard things to do, those are hard things to be a part of. This is a labor of love obviously, and its a whole lot of work where you get into something like that where you have to replace a coach.
Since parting with McGrath and Stevenson, whose departures were both spurred by player uprisings, Oberhelman said there havent been any complaints of inappropriate acts by current coaches.
Oberhelman said he values the sentiment of the students. He leaves his office door open to the hallway for just that reason.
He has a true passion for student athletes, Cal Poly womens basketball head coach Faith Mimnaugh said. Hes very approachable. Hes spent a lot of time trying to get to know every staff member and athlete. Sometimes students didnt know in the past who was representing them at an administrative level, and its very clear whos doing that now.
And students were one of the first places Oberhelman looked when trying to identify what made Cal Poly unique.
Recent reports show that nearly 50 percent of the roughly 500 student athletes at Cal Poly earned grade-point averages of 3.0 or better, Oberhleman said. Thats a big leap up in academic performance compared to what Oberhelman had seen in previous stops with the Aztecs, Southern Mississippi, Texas A&M and Florida State.
It wouldnt be half that. It wouldnt be 25 percent, Oberhelman said. And its even more telling when you look at the caliber of the institution. This is a hard school to get in, but its also a very hard school to stay in.
Cal Poly is not a school that has been accused of grade inflation. Theyre earning these grades in an environment that couldnt be more challenging.
Cal Poly students in general need to be good students to remain at Cal Poly. But how does that and the other factors of being at Cal Poly affect the student athletes?
Oberhelman got some help on that from Mustangs head football coach Tim Walsh. At an off-campus retreat with head coaches in June held to spark ideas for what would become a sports-specific honor code, Walsh brought up a group of ideas he had been terming The Poly Way.
Walshs Poly Way boils down to recruiting and breeding football players to become the best ambassadors possible for the program while understanding and appreciating everything thats happened in the past from the 1960 plane crash to the 1980 Division II national championship and the current trend of sending players to the NFL.
It also includes ideals designed to bring a team of close to 100 players together as a whole, and Walsh knew firsthand how Oberhelmans desire to create something similar for the entire department could be beneficiary.
We needed to have something that was unifying for all the student athletes, Walsh said. If you look at wrestling, football, swimming and diving, were all in different conferences. Giving us all one identity, it was a great idea.
Over the next few months, coaches, administrators and athletes all had input on The Mustang Way, 12 principles that are meant to identify what Cal Poly athletics stands for.
It was a meticulous process with many contributors and Oberhelman as editor, oftentimes agonizing over a single word at a time. But with buzz terms including integrity, character, respect and academic excellence, The Mustang Way, tailored specifically for one university only, was eventually unveiled in an address by Oberhleman to the entire department last fall.
It just defined what Cal Poly already was, Oberhelman said. This wasnt reinventing Cal Poly. It was embracing what the athletic department was already about.
There was no full public rollout. Wristbands with the name were given to athletes only and a few choice others on campus. And other than that, publicity for The Mustang Way remained mainly in-house.
Athletes have said The Mustang Way has given them more school spirit, but conceiving it was also a process necessary for Oberhelman to form his vision.
Upon completion, he could turn his attention toward reorganizing responsibilities within the department, forming a plan to complete renovation of Alex G. Spanos Stadium, upgrading locker, weight training and medical facilities and the hulking task of bringing an on-campus event center to Cal Poly.
Those are all things Oberhelman hopes to claim as proud accomplishments at Cal Poly.
For now, The Mustang Way is something Im proud of because it has come from the collective, Oberhelman said. If you honor all these things, you cant fail.