After more than a decade and a half of renting, the Cal Poly football program finally closed on a home Tuesday.
From athletic director Alison Cone to Mustangs head football coach Tim Walsh to basketball coach Joe Callero — everyone seemed excited by interim president Robert Glidden’s decision to accept a football-only invitation to join the Big Sky Conference and keep the majority of the school’s other athletic offerings in the Big West Conference.
And it seems to have decisively settled the debate on whether Cal Poly would invest in property in the pricey Football Bowl Subdivision.
“This is clearly the right fit for Cal Poly for a number of years, maybe forever, maybe not,” Cone said. “We can’t really predict that.”
But the Mustangs clearly have no more need for the Western Athletic Conference at this point, and the pressure to move the program up from the Football Championship Subdivision was like the memory of a migrane long since passed.
“You never heard me say we have FBS aspirations,” Cone said. “What you heard me say was we need to find a stable situation for our football program looking at all options, including moving up. We found an option where we can be competitive. We can vie for a conference championship and try to win a national championship. Those are things we can do right now while we build our program and build our fanbase.”
It’s been 16 years since Cal Poly moved its program up from Division II, and never in that time have the Mustangs belonged to a football conference that awarded an automatic playoff berth to its conference champion.
The five-team Great West Conference, which Cal Poly and rival UC Davis will be leaving for the Big Sky, has always been too unstable to qualify for one.
With the Mustangs and Aggies leaving and North Dakota and South Dakota rumored to be on the move as well, it might not be long before the Great West loses football altogether.
Walsh, who coached in the Big Sky for 11 seasons as head coach of Portland State, lauded the move, which will match the Mustangs with their Saturday opponent, No. 1 Montana (1-0), as well as other conference powers on a yearly basis.
“By going to the Big Sky, we are going to arguably the best FCS conference in the United States,” Walsh said. “Top to bottom, it’s a tremendous conference that gets a lot of national exposure, largely because of our opponent that’s coming here this week, but it is week in and week out a great football conference.”
The nine-team Big Sky will be hustling to get Cal Poly and UC Davis as many conference games as it can for 2011, but a full conference switch might not take place until 2012, perhaps even 2013.
By then, the Big Sky could be up to 12 football teams. Commissioner Doug Fullerton said the conference would like to add one more school sooner rather than later to ensure it could split into two regional divisions for football.
Some were surprised not to see Great West member Southern Utah among the schools to receive invitations, but the Thunderbirds are not a part of the Big West Conference, and the invitations seemed largely initiated by Fullerton and Big West commissioner Dennis Farrell.
Thunderbirds athletic director Ken Beazer said he has not been in talks with the Big Sky, but Southern Utah could still be a candidate to be the 12th team, which Fullerton said would not be an associate member.
Farrell was particularly invested in the future of Cal Poly football because the WAC had been open about its intention to court FCS programs for the openings created by recent announced departures by Boise State, Fresno State and Nevada to the Mountain West Conference.
With both the Mustangs and Aggies rumored as candidates, the nine-team Big West might have been in jeopardy of falling to seven.
“It’s a big relief, no question about it,” Farrell said. “Those two schools are very valued members of our conference. “It’s very important to the long-range future of our conference to have their one issue they had on their campus resolved, and it’s a big relief as well to those schools.”
Cal Poly’s big issue was scheduling. With only four guaranteed conference games, Cone was saddled with finding seven nonconference football games every season.
Had they received an invitation, the Mustangs could have joined the WAC to alleviate the problem, but — in addition to all of the financial obligations associated with leaving the FCS — moving up would have required becoming a full WAC member, yanking most of Cal Poly’s other sports out of the California-based and travel-friendly Big West.
Now, Cal Poly can keep its travel costs low and ensure that its student athletes miss a minimum number of classes while on the road at the same time.
It also kept the program from finding a replacement game in a crucial 2008 season, when a matchup with McNeese State was canceled by a hurricane.
And all of this comes without having to pledge immediate money toward improving facilities, increasing scholarships, hiring more staff and raising more funds.
“It’s a home run for the football team and the Big Sky,” Callero said, “and the rest of the coaches are still tremendously comfortable that we’re traveling up and down the corridor with no snow and a balanced schedule that allows you to make it to the games on time.
“Ninety-nine percent of us all feel the same way.”
Both Cal Poly and UC Davis would have had to undergo multi-million dollar expansions to their stadiums to meet minimum FBS requirements.
With the scheduling issue becoming less dire in the Big Sky, both schools can continue to fundraise at their own pace while the state continues drudging through a troubled economy.
“We not only have the challenge of growing stadiums,” UC Davis athletic director Greg Warzecka said, “but we have a lot of other facility renovations that need to be done. With the economy, it has caused a lot of people to do a lot of deferred maintenance. For the next four or five years, it allows a school like UC Davis to not only continue our fundraising efforts to add infrastructure to our stadium and add seats, but also put lights on the soccer field, do renovation to baseball and build a softball field.”
Glidden has only been on at Cal Poly since former president Warren Baker retired this past summer, but his interim status only gave him a more discriminating eye when it came to evaluating a conference move.
A jump to the FBS and the WAC didn’t seem to make sense with his reasoning, and even though he is only staying on until the university brings in its new full-time president, he said it could be years before Cal Poly is even ready to consider such a move, if ever.
“I’m really concerned about the escalating costs,” Glidden said. “If you look at the FBS, athletic costs in the last five years have increased by 38 percent, and it’s just a spending war.
“Even if this is no more than a 5- to 7-year decision, it’s going to take that long to build up the football program and the resources to be able to compete on that level.”