Two months into his job at Cal Poly, new athletic director Don Oberhelman is still forming a plan for the direction of the department.
Two of the top needs are undeniable: Facilities upgrades and the money needed to fund them.
It’s Oberhelman’s task to help find the latter in order to make the former a reality. His vision is to do so by blurring the line between athletics and academics.
“We probably need to become more sophisticated in our development efforts,” said the former San Diego State senior associate athletic director, “and we probably need to fall in line more with the rest of the university in our development efforts.
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“At so many places, athletics kind of becomes isolated from the rest of the university, and we do things so much different. I think fundraising is something we need to do exactly like the rest of the university. Not just worrying about our own little kingdom, we have to think globally, and we have to think about the university as a whole.”
Cal Poly’s reputation is rooted in its high academic standards. That identity has at times caused a clash between athletics supporters and those who might rather see funds funneled away from sports and toward classroom curriculum.
Newly hired university president Jeffrey Armstrong has referred to the athletic department as the front porch for the university. Oberhelman is trying to capitalize on that concept to help close any perceived schism.
“I’ve seen this with a couple of people that I’ve talked to off campus that are supporters of the university that have said things along the lines of, ‘Well, I’m not really a big sports fan,’ ” Oberhelman said. “Well, understood, but think of it less about sports and more about the educational opportunity for this particular student.
“They’re worthy of support. Don’t not support them because they’re athletes. They’re students, too, and they’re a student first.”
Oberhelman was hired this spring to replace former athletic director Alison Cone, who retired in December after leading the department since 2004.
With connections to the university and recommendations from alumni Ted Tollner and LeCharls McDaniel, Oberhelman had a good idea of the resources and challenges at a small department like Cal Poly, which had an athletics budget of $12 million in 2010.
Throughout the interview and introduction process, Oberhelman campaigned publicly on the platform of fielding championship programs.
Now that he has arrived, those expectations haven’t waned.
“I don’t think any of our needs are ever going to get in the way of our message of graduating citizens and winning championships,” Oberhelman said. “I don’t think us not having the greatest facilities in the world will stop us from being able to accomplish those goals.”
What improving facilities “will do is make those opportunities not so few and far between,” he added. “If we improve our facilities, our opportunity to compete for championships is going to get better because we’ll be able to recruit better student athletes.”
High on the list is the completion of Alex G. Spanos Stadium, a 11,075-seat complex that’s home to Cal Poly’s Football Championship Subdivision program and men’s and women’s soccer.
Half of the stadium was renovated in a multi-million dollar project, which was spearheaded by an $8 million donation from the San Diego Chargers owner it’s named after and was completed in 2006.
The result is a mismatched set of stands — one sparkling, one aging — that can give two opposite impressions depending on where your tickets are located.
Mott Gym, home to men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball and wrestling, celebrated its 50th birthday in September. After a 1998 renovation that included the installation of chairback seating to portions of the arena, Mott Gym seats 3,032.
“We need some brick and mortar,” Oberhelman said. “We definitely have to aggressively pursue some facility changes, from finishing the football stadium to a new multipurpose center that can house basketball games to practice fields for soccer and football. I think there are some updates we need to make in track and tennis, and we need to finish baseball and softball.
“We’re not short on things we need to address. What we are short on is the funds to be able to address those needs.”