The 2017 Cal Poly football team found a new low 4,600 feet above sea level.
It was there in Greeley, Colorado, two weeks ago that a two-win Northern Colorado team put a merciless end to the Mustangs’ season with a 42-0 loss. It was the first time in 217 games that Cal Poly was shut out — an ugly but fitting end to a 1-10 season, the worst at Cal Poly since the 1964 team went 0-10.
At the helm of the historically bad campaign was Tim Walsh, Cal Poly’s head coach the past nine seasons. It was by far his worst year with the Mustangs, dropping his overall record at the school to 51-52 with just two playoff appearances and no wins to his credit.
But Walsh isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Never miss a local story.
Before fall practices had even started, Cal Poly athletic director Don Oberhelman signed Walsh to a four-year contract extension July 17 worth just over $1 million — eight months after a first-round loss to San Diego in the FCS playoffs.
The move keeps Walsh, 62, as head coach through the 2021 season. Even after the disastrous 1-10 season and Walsh’s now losing record at Cal Poly, Oberhelman stands by his decision.
“We felt like it was the right thing to do. He is very, very good for Cal Poly. He understands who we are,” Oberhelman said about the contract extension last week.
By the numbers
The 2017 statistics are staggering for a team just one season removed from a 7-5 record and a trip to the FCS playoffs that entered the 2017 season as the No. 24-ranked team in the nation.
A Cal Poly offense that confused and outmaneuvered opposing defenses with its triple-option rushing attack — the best in the FCS the past four seasons — looked lost from the first snap against Colgate back in August.
When it was all said and done, Cal Poly’s rushing average fell more than 100 yards per game — from better than 345 yards per game in 2016 to just more than 231 in 2017. The number of rush attempts fell slightly — from 717 in 2016 to 668 in 2017 — but the total offense on the ground dropped by a whopping 1,490 yards.
With an offense built almost exclusively around the run, of course fewer rushing yards meant fewer points. Cal Poly scored more than 14 points just four times this season and averaged 18 points per game, almost half of the nearly 35 points per game last season. Cal Poly also led the nation in fumbles with 17 and was last in the Big Sky in passing defense.
Injuries certainly played a part in the catastrophic season.
All-American fullback Joe Protheroe sustained a season-ending knee injury in the second game. Three weeks later, junior quarterback Khaleel Jenkins would suffer a similar fate when a knee injury ended his season following a record-setting performance against Idaho State. Senior linebacker R.J. Mazolewski, along with offensive linemen Colin Goebel, Zach Shallcross and Sam Ogee, also missed playing time.
But it wasn’t just the injuries or the shortage of points that illustrated the season’s problems.
It was the effort seen in the last two games. Missed tackles, fundamental mistakes and a lack of intensity were just a few of the problems surrounding the team’s shutout loss to Northern Colorado that followed a 49-14 drubbing by Sacramento State the previous week.
“I think for the first nine weeks our effort was tremendous, and I couldn’t have been more proud of our players,” Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said. “Not too happy over the last couple of weeks, obviously, but I think with the season we were having I was waiting for a break point. And unfortunately it happened.”
So after a historically bad season — where does the football program go from here?
Walsh plans to finish career at Cal Poly
It was Nov. 10 and the Mustangs were 1-8 when a new thread started on a popular online discussion board for Cal Poly athletics. The title: New Head Football Coach Candidates.
“Hoping Tim decides to retire early and Don leaves and goes somewhere else. Both have not been good for Cal Poly,” wrote one angry commenter.
Others tossed around names like former Cal Poly assistant coach and current Georgia Southern offensive coordinator Bryan Cook and Air Force offensive coordinator Mike Thiessen as potential replacements for Walsh.
But most commenters didn’t know about the already signed contract, which is set to pay him an average of $254,763 per season. Walsh will also get a $400-a-month car allowance and potential bonuses for playoff appearances and conference championships. The contract makes him the second highest paid coach on campus with only men’s basketball coach Joe Callero making more.
“People today are way too quick to make these snap judgments,” Oberhelman said. “It’s love and hate — politics, sports, whatever it is — everybody wants somebody fired and gone for the slightest transgression. I certainly don’t operate that way, and I don’t believe in that. I think that stability is so important to the success of anything that you are doing.”
Oberhelman said it was “obviously a very disappointing season” and blamed much of the lack of success on the Mustangs’ injury issues.
“I think everything else in the program is vibrant and high-achieving in all respects, except for the win-loss record this year,” Oberhelman said. “We are a year removed from the playoffs. Although I am concerned, I am also confident that we have the right people at the helm, and we have the right young men in our program.”
Oberhelman said he doesn’t lose sleep worrying about off-the-field issues like the team had in 2013 and 2014, the latter of which involved five football players involved in an alleged attempted armed robbery.
The football team’s 992 Academic Progress Rate (an NCAA tool that awards points to each player for staying in school and remaining academically eligible) in 2017 and 997 APR in 2016 — which was tops among all Division I schools west of the Mississippi River — helps him feel secure in his decision to extend Walsh.
A lot will be expected from the head coach moving forward.
Outside of recruiting and rebuilding Cal Poly back into a playoff contender, the athletic department will also depend on Walsh to make up for lost ground in the coffers this offseason. As the losses piled up, ticket sales dwindled and attendance dropped.
“We do rely on those revenues to help our program. It just means we have to work a little bit harder to fundraise to fill that gap,” Oberhelman said.
But Oberhelman said he feels that Walsh, as the face of the football program, will be just fine filling any revenue holes that the school had this year due to his good relationship with Cal Poly boosters.
Walsh, who will enter his 28th year as a college head coach and 10th at Cal Poly next season, said he is willing to do his part and looks forward to ending his career at Cal Poly.
“I am not doing this to move on to Boise State or Colorado. I have had my opportunities, but I chose not to leave. And I chose to raise my family in one spot, and now my choice is to try and close my career in one spot,” Walsh said.
The triple option is here to stay, for now
Outside of Walsh’s status, the hottest topic for Cal Poly football fans is the Mustangs’ flexbone-style triple-option offense installed by former head coach Rich Ellerson in 2007. Despite the continued cries for a transition to a wide-open attack, don’t expect Cal Poly to throw 30 passes a game anytime soon.
“You have to be willing to start all over and do it again and probably not be very successful again, and maybe for one or two years,” Walsh said. “Do you say, ‘We had one bad year, we are flipping everything?’ That’s not a good business plan. People can think they understand everything we do on offense, but they may not. As a fan, you probably don’t.”
Walsh, who has two playoff appearances since joining the Big Sky Conference in 2012, was adamant in defense of his offensive philosophy, a system that fell out of favor with just about all of the college football world in the 1980s. He pointed to the success of Kennesaw State and Wofford, two teams that run a similar offense who are currently in the second round of the FCS playoffs.
Still, just 11 of the 255 Division I football teams used the offense this season. Walsh insist it’s out of necessity, not tradition.
“I have coached pro-style teams that have averaged over 500 yards a game. I have coached quarterbacks that have thrown for over 300 yards a game. I know the other side of the fence,” Walsh said. “I know what it takes personnel-wise, too, and I know what is available to us when you combine the academics with the philosophy. And that’s why we are at where we are at.”
Oberhelman has heard the calls for a new offense, too, but added that he has never discussed an offensive philosophy with Walsh.
“I have heard from fans and patrons who think our offense is awful and it’s boring and all that, but up until this year that offense has been incredibly productive,” Oberhelman said.
It’s a common argument that option offenses are difficult to game plan for, but that wasn’t a problem for Cal Poly opponents this season. Walsh said Big Sky competition defended the offense better, accounting for five games in which Cal Poly failed to score a touchdown in the first half. But he added, “that’s one year they figured us out.”
Walsh says he runs the offense to help expand recruiting possibilities, not limit them.
“We can find more guys that can fit the (Tyler) Whisenhunt (6-foot-4, 270), Joey Kuperman (6-foot-1, 300) size range as offensive lineman than we can find the 6-foot-6, 315-pound guys that are athletic enough to play in any system, let alone this system,” Walsh said.
Walsh intends to stick with the current offense and plans to bring back first-year offensive coordinator Jim Craft for a second season despite the drop in production in 2017.
“I don’t blame Jim,” Walsh said, adding that Craft knows he needs to do a better job of calling plays on game day. “I just think that anybody that’s in their first year of calling it, there is going to be a learning curve. I know there was for me. I know that he is a good football coach, but calling the triple-option game and calling the offense that we run, you would hope that you get into a rhythm and a flow. And we didn’t do it often enough.”
Even as the offense and the head coach remain, there is plenty of change coming to the football program. Cal Poly has a new practice field, a new training room, a new academic center and plans to add 4,000 seats to Alex. G. Spanos Stadium, all of which will help recruiting, Oberhelman said.
Jenkins, who will be a senior, and Protheroe, who used a redshirt season after his injury and will be a fifth-year senior, are both expected to be healthy when the team opens its difficult 2018 schedule against North Dakota State and Weber State in the first two weeks.
And, according a report from The San Jose Mercury News, top linebacker recruit Kyle Harmon, who verbally committed to Cal Poly before changing his mind and signing with Cal shortly before Signing Day last year, will recommit to Cal Poly, possibly as early as Dec. 20 during the early signing period.
These are all good signs for the Cal Poly offense.
For his part, Walsh will hit the recruiting trail this week and make sure his legacy isn’t tarnished by a “disaster season.”
“I know that everywhere I have coached each program was left better than it was when I got it and that is my goal here. Obviously 1-10 is not where I want to end it, that’s for darn sure, and I want to make sure that next year is successful.”