If Don Oberhelman gets the call to become the next athletic director at Cal Poly, he could have a period he referred to as “the most tumultuous time” in San Diego State athletics history to acknowledge.
Oberhelman — the last of three candidates to visit campus to interview for the spot left vacant by Alison Cone’s retirement — is the only one of the finalists, which also include Indiana State’s Ron Prettyman and Portland State’s Torre Chisholm, not currently serving as an athletic director.
But the senior associate athletic director did spend a four-month period leading the San Diego State department on an interim basis after former Aztecs A.D. Jeff Schemmel resigned and evidence surfaced that he’d used state funds for cross-country visits to a mistress.
Oberhleman’s appointment was overshadowed by the scandal, and he was passed over for the full-time position, but helping resuscitate San Diego State during such a time of crisis might be his résumé’s biggest strength.
“I’m proud of what we did during that time,” Oberhleman said during a public forum Tuesday morning in the lobby of Cal Poly’s Performing Arts Center. “We had to keep operating, so we made a lot of decisions — budget decisions, coaching decisions, staffing decisions — along the way. But I really felt like we were able to continue doing what we were doing because we operated in such a team fashion, in a collaborative way.
“I don’t think we missed much of a beat other than the public perception that our department took a hit. We were making good progress then, and we didn’t stop.”
Since Schemmel stepped down in October 2009, San Diego State athletics has gone on to become more notable for its bowl-winning football team and nationally ranked men’s basketball program than any improper use of funds, and Oberhelman has been along for it all since 2007.
Now that all three finalists have interviewed, the decision is in the hands of Cal Poly president Jeffrey Armstrong. Mustangs senior associate athletic director Phil Webb, the interim A.D. and a member of the hiring committee said an announcement could come in as soon as three weeks.
A Kansas State graduate who got a master’s degree from Florida State, Oberhelman is also the only remaining candidate who has worked in the athletic departments with high-major programs.
In addition to his experience at San Diego State, he also worked in the lower levels of athletic administration at Florida State and Texas A&M and served as senior associate athletic director at Southern Mississippi. According to a bio released by Cal Poly, he is responsible for the San Diego State athletic department’s daily operation, which includes planning, implementation, administration, direction and supervision.
Oberhelman’s experience in departments with Football Bowl Subdivision programs has the potential to be a double-edged sword. His high-profile experience is sought after, and yet, he could be out of touch with operations at a low-budget department like Cal Poly.
San Diego State, for instance, paces CSUs with an overall athletics budget of nearly $30 million. Cal Poly’s total athletics budget for 2010, Webb said, was $12 million.
“Certainly our budget is much, much bigger,” Oberhelman said, “but I’ve also been at the University of Southern Mississippi where we had a $16 million total budget, and we operated at the Bowl Subdivision level — and very successful, we went to a bowl game every year that I was there.
“I think I do have a great understanding of what it takes to operate with that smaller budget because I’ve seen it done.”
The only finalist currently working in California, Oberhelman certainly has familiarity with the state’s budget situation.
During the forum, he stressed a need for Cal Poly to secure additional external funding for its athletic department.
And when asked about his vision for the Mustangs’ Football Championship Subdivision football program, he was quick to weigh the financial constraints against the allure of moving up to join an FBS league like the Western Athletic Conference.
“To go the Football Bowl Subdivision is not only going to require a great initial commitment financially from the community — the stadium has got to be expanded mightily if that jump is to be made — but the annual commitment, the staff salaries, the scholarship commitment is going to be a massive annual commitment.
“With the state the way its in, I don’t think the chancellor, and I don’t think the governor and I don’t think the new president is going to be very keen on spending money on football in that way.
“The Big Sky is exactly where they need to be. In my opinon, it’s the best Championship Subdivision conference there is.”