The Cal Poly men’s basketball team will play its first home game in 40 days Thursday night, and the Big West Conference matchup with Cal State Fullerton comes at a time when the program is going through a tumultuous stretch.
The Mustangs (5-10 overall, 0-1 Big West) are riding a six-game losing streak, having lost a seemingly winnable game at Grand Canyon, a program that made the transition to Division I in 2014, after Christmas Break and suffering a 29-point defeat at Princeton three days later.
Outside the win-loss column, Cal Poly is minus two of its top players after sophomore point guard Jaylen Shead unexpectedly transferred nine games into the season and junior forward Josh Martin went down with a season-ending foot injury.
And there have been a few flashes of frustration on the sidelines from Callero. He was ejected twice during a 10-day span, the second coming while he was sitting courtside as a spectator during a Cal Poly women’s basketball game Jan. 5.
All in all, there hasn’t been much reason for optimism from the outside looking in. Yet in an interview with The Tribune, Callero insisted it’s not all doom and gloom with nearly all of the conference schedule to look forward to.
Callero pointed to an increasingly difficult nonconference schedule, which has become one of his trademarks since his hiring in 2009 following the departure of Kevin Bromley, who was fired after nine seasons.
The Mustangs have scheduled games with more than half of the Pac-12 Conference over the years, taking on Arizona State, Cal and Washington already this season — all double-digit losses. That high-major exposure is part of Callero’s recruiting pitch, but it’s also a financial necessity for a small-budget athletic department that’s squeezing every bit of juice out of the proverbial orange.
“We clear over $200,000 for our program to keep it at a fundable level,” Callero said.
As for the departure of Shead, who was averaging 8.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and had doled out a team-high 47 assists?
Callero said his program retains 90 percent of the players it gets on campus, and 100 percent of players who make it to their senior season graduate. Shead was the statistical outlier for Cal Poly.
“A certain amount of attrition in any walk of life is a necessity for growth and opportunity,” Callero said, adding only Shead can provide the accurate details of his decision to leave a program he seemed destined to be the face of for the next three years.
Shead announced on his Twitter account Dec. 20 that he planned to transfer, and Callero later said in a statement Shead was in good academic standing after the fall quarter.
The timing seemed particularly bizarre considering Shead, a Texas native, would have to complete one academic year in residence at a new Division I school before being eligible to play again.
As for his ejection from a game in which he wasn’t coaching, Callero said the referee — who asked a Cal Poly employee to have Callero escorted out of Mott Athletics Center — “must’ve misheard me, because there was nothing out of line there.”
There’s not much that surprises Callero after three decades coaching men’s basketball, but Shead’s departure certainly turned heads and left some people wondering about the current trajectory of the program.
Following Cal Poly’s unexpected run to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, Callero signed a five-year contract extension and is currently in the third year of that deal. His philosophy is centered around living on a “one-day contract” and Callero said he’s “never thought about where I’m at with my boss.”
It’s fair to say Callero’s coaching ascension from high school, to junior college, to guiding Seattle University from the NAIA into the Division I ranks carries a lot of weight. He won 21 games his final year in Seattle and inherited a Cal Poly program in need of a significant turnaround.
In the eight years since, Callero has posted two winning seasons and owns a 105-129 record while leading the Mustangs. Cal Poly’s last winning season was in 2012-13, the year before the first NCAA Tournament berth in program history.
On paper, the Mustangs have been trending downward in terms of wins and losses. They won 14 games in 2014, 13 in 2015 and 10 in 2016.
Like most coaches within the Cal Poly athletic department, Callero isn’t expected to field a powerhouse Division I program every season. The recruiting pool is too shallow given the academic requirements, leaving this year’s injury-plagued team struggling to stay afloat.
“We’re not going to win the national championship at Cal Poly in men’s basketball,” Callero said. “But we can compete for a conference title and an NCAA bid on a year where we stay healthy, get the right recruits and things culminate with the right amount of health and support and timing.”
Callero said he has a “really good” relationship with athletic director Don Oberhelman and they both believe in evaluating the long-term progress of the program, rather than wins and losses on a monthly basis.
Oberhelman said in an interview with The Tribune on Thursday that assessing the program based on wins and losses is “an overly simplistic view of the world.”
“The numbers don’t lie, and I recognize that,” Oberhelman said. “But at the end of the day, I think we’ve got an excellent coach that is doing by far the best that he can under these conditions.”
All told, it’s made for an interesting eighth year of Callero’s tenure in San Luis Obispo.
The Mustangs are guaranteed a trip back to the Big West Tournament in March since defending conference champion Hawaii is ineligible for postseason play for violation of NCAA ethical conduct rules. If they can get back on track against Cal State Fullerton on Thursday night, Callero feels good about the state of the program moving forward.
“Building a program and looking at the improvements aren’t measured in months,” Callero said. “They’re measured in years. They’re measured in human relationships.”