David Dineen was in a Las Vegas casino, where the sports bettors couldn’t believe their eyes.
People who hadn’t spoken to Damien Levesque in 20 years began reaching out to the Los Angeles Police Department supervisor.
Scott Kjellesvig was delighted to see Jim Nantz talking about his old college town as if the CBS announcer had just returned from a Central Coast vacation.
Fans from all over felt the impact of the Cal Poly men’s basketball team’s improbable run to its first Division I NCAA Tournament berth and victory last month.
Few, perhaps, felt more vindication than the former players who took one of the first steps toward making it all possible by suffering through the worst season in school history two decades ago.
“I felt like a proud father,” said Levesque, a Cal Poly basketball player from 1993-97. “It was a first, and even though I wasn’t on that current team, I feel like I was still able to take part in it.”
Before the Mustangs had to play five games in eight days in three time zones in a whirlwind journey that made them one of the tournament darlings in their 20th season at the Division I level, they had to play their first.
Three years after a highly controversial and contentious student vote paved the way for a move from Division II, an undermanned and outgunned Cal Poly team made its Division I debut in 1994 and stumbled to 1-26 record that featured separate 13-game losing streaks in that inaugural season.
All but a few of the losses were blowouts as the roster numbers dwindled. Even the lone victory read like a defeat. And critics of the jump in competition had to feel justified.
But players like Dineen saw some of their own sprit mirrored this past season, when the Mustangs lost nine of their final 11 regular-season games but persevered to upend the top two seeds in the Big West Conference Tournament en route to becoming the first seventh-place team to ever win the event.
“We were just getting hammered during these games,” said Dineen, a former walk-on transfer from Santa Rosa College now working as an academic adviser at UNLV. “Still, to the very last game, we always competed as hard as we could. We didn’t fold our tent. We kept it together, we didn’t quit and we didn’t make excuses. That’s something we could still hang our hat on that first year even though we took our lumps.”
An Associated Students Inc. special election in the fall of 1991 marked the beginning of the transition.
With Division II football programs being dropped all over the state in turn causing travel costs for completing the Mustangs schedule to skyrocket, athletic director Ken Walker faced a $300,000 budget deficit that prompted a student vote: Should the university commit more student fees and invest in moving the entire department to Division I or remain at Division II and likely drop the costly football program and some other athletics offerings to make ends meet?
A war raged between athletics and academics with a deep divide separating the two sides.
Kjellesvig came to Cal Poly as a Division II recruit the year prior to the vote. Soon, the atmosphere was tense enough to cause the 6-foot-8 forward to slump down in his seat in class.
“There was definitely times I didn’t tell the instructor I was an athlete because I didn’t want any kind of bias against me,” said Kjellesvig, who’s gone on to become a medical supply sales rep in his hometown of Gilroy.
More than 10,000 of the roughly 17,000 students on campus turned out to vote on the testy issue. It was the highest percentage turnout in an ASI election throughout the CSU system at the time, Walker said.
With the referendum passing by only 267 votes and with just 51.3 percent of the ballot, students approved a $19-per-quarter fee increase that saw further increases balloon to $43 per quarter by the middle of 1994.
The victory forever changed the course of Mustangs athletics.
“It was a huge jump in terms of the competition to go to Division I,” Kjellesvig said.
“Everyone’s big, everyone’s strong, everyone’s fast and everyone can play.
“This was going to be the first of many, and it was going to be very, very difficult, but this is the way we had to go. There’s no other direction but up.”
TAKING THE COURT
Having won nine games in each of the previous two transition seasons, the schedule was stacked for that first year as a full member of Division I, head coach Steve Beason’s ninth and final one at Cal Poly.
The schedule opened with a 97-60 loss at Boston College, a game featured in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary on Eagles guard Chris Herren, a Sports Illustrated cover boy who was injured in the game and watched his life spiral into a destructive cycle of drug abuse.
“It was a legitimate Big East team,” Dineen said. “Today, Cal Poly could compete against a team like that, but 20 years ago, we were outmanned at every single position.”
With only six games secured in the newly formed American West Conference, the nonconference slate also included trips to 20-win Pac-10 programs Stanford, which featured future NBA player Brevin Knight, and Arizona State, which got to that season’s Sweet 16 with forward Mario Bennett, a first-round NBA pick that summer.
The lone victory was a 62-59 win over Menlo at the season’s midpoint, which was framed at the time as a poor performance by Cal Poly. Only scheduled to satisfy the NCAA mandated minimum of nine home games, Mustangs were quoted saying they would rather have lost to another Division I opponent instead of the slim victory over a Division III team.
Attrition only made matters worse. Prized recruit Shanta Cotright, who still ranks as the 10th-leading scorer in program history with 1,210 career points, was ruled academically
ineligible before the season.
Another player was arrested for allegedly using a stolen credit card. Another quit the team. More casualties ensued. By the end of the year, Dineen said, there were only eight active players.
Even games against mid-major teams like San Diego, La Salle, Portland, Oral Roberts, Montana, Utah State and Idaho State were huge mismatches.
In a two-game road swing in the final weeks of the season, the Mustangs fell 106-53 at Utah State and 101-47 at Idaho State.
“I consider that to be a pivotal moment” for the program, said Levesque, who averaged a team-highs of 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. “It was hard. It was very hard. Guys are competitive. You go to play and to win. You don’t go expecting to lose.”
Just a sophomore in the first Division I season, Levesque was able to help lead the team to 16 wins the following year, a 15-game swing that matches up with some of the most drastic in the annals of college basketball.
For Dineen and Kjelles-vig, both seniors in 1994-95, and others who left when new coach Jeff Schneider took over, the immediate rewards of the disastrous season were never felt.
Fired after the 1-26 season, Beason finished with a 121-122 career record that would have been over .500 if not for the challenge of that final year.
At just 47 years old, Beason succumbed to ALS in 2002, missing out on much more in his life than just this season’s run to the NCAA Tournament.
But the groundwork Beason helped lay galvanized his players when the Mustangs finally went dancing in March.
The run started with a 69-38 victory by seventh-seeded Cal Poly over rival and second-seeded UC Santa Barbara in one of the most thorough whippings in Big West Tournament history.
After the Gauchos had humbled the Mustangs by 16 points at home just five days earlier, Dineen said people at the Las Vegas sports books just assumed the Cal Poly-UC Santa Barbara conference tournament score was reversed in some unfortunate typo.
Then the Mustangs edged top-seeded UC Irvine in Anaheim the next night and beat fifth-seeded Cal State Northridge 61-59 in the title game, earning the Big West’s automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament.
Levesque received pats on the back from all directions. Kjellesvig didn’t take off his Cal Poly basketball shirt for a week and said it made him want to be closer to the program.
“I felt big-time ownership because I was in the trenches when we were going through that tough season,” Kjellesvig said, “but it’s like all hard work blossoms into that, and there we go. We’re on the big stage now. I couldn’t be more proud.”