The day Phil Webb left his Mott Athletics Center office for the last time, he left behind an ancient laptop.
Webb, 60, hadn’t turned it on for at least 15 years. He doesn’t even know if it works anymore. Functional or not, he kept it well beyond its expiration date.
Simply, the computer was a symbol, Webb’s trophy for a job well done.
“The day I arrived at Cal Poly,” Webb said, “basically, I was given a little Mac laptop and a cardboard box full of unpaid bills and was told, ‘Here it is; figure it out.’ ”
For the first time in nearly 20 years, now it’s somebody else’s job. And there haven’t been unpaid bills in quite some time.
Webb retired as Cal Poly’s senior associate athletic director in December. Though fairly anonymous outside of university circles and quite comfortable in obscurity, Webb balanced the athletics department budget since 1995, along the way helping the Mustangs go from a fledgling Division I program to the modern day — when the baseball team is among the nation’s elite and the men’s and women’s basketball teams have broken into the NCAA Tournament.
“I always saw my role as the guy in the background,” Webb said. “I wasn’t the athletic director. The athletic director is the guy out front who takes the credit and the heat. I was always the guy who provided stability and solutions to problems as they arose.”
Webb was the interim athletic director at Cal Poly for four months in 2011, and though he likely could have been a leading candidate for the permanent position, he preferred to remain behind the scenes. Even so, colleagues champion his contributions.
Former Mustangs athletic director Alison Cone, who retired in 2010, said promoting Webb to his senior position from assistant athletic director for business in 2005 was the best decision she ever made.
Chris Baker, an associate athletic director who’s been working for Cal Poly athletics since he was a student in 1996, called Webb the rock of the department.
Current athletic director Don Oberhelman said he wouldn’t have survived without Webb’s leadership and experience when Oberhelman took over the department in 2011.
“And then when he told me he was going to retire, I nearly fell out of my chair,” Oberhelman said.
Webb was an administrator at Fresno State for seven years with a background in finance but no experience in athletics when he arrived in San Luis Obispo. He joined an athletic department at Cal Poly in just its second year of competition at the NCAA Division I level.
The Mustangs quickly found themselves in a $200,000 deficit after the jump from Division II in 1994. That deficit was paid by the university and treated as debt. With Webb joining the department to sort out the budget, the debt was fully paid within five years, and Cal Poly athletics hasn’t needed such a bailout in the time since.
“He ran it for 19 years, and we never came close to going over budget,” Oberhelman said. “That’s remarkable for a program like ours. Most programs in the country go over budget. “A lot of other Division I universities get bailed out, and we’ve never had that need. A lot of people should take credit for that, not just Phil, but Phil is the guiding light that makes that happen. Phil’s the one that sits with those coaches and administrators and holds them accountable to say this is the bottom line.”
It was unplanned circumstance that led Webb to Cal Poly in the first place.
A native of Zimbabwe, Webb left the country in the 1970s, when it was known as Rhodesia. Like many Rhodesians of European-descent during the time period, he was a reservist in the country’s military during the Rhodesian Bush War over the country’s liberation from British control.
Looking for greater career opportunities, Webb left for London to study finance and computing with the intent of returning to his home country.
Instead, he met and fell in love with his future wife, Karen, who was from California.
The couple lived and worked in Fresno for the better part of two decades and had just built their dream home when job opportunities for each of them opened up at Cal Poly.
Webb arrived as Cal Poly forged through a tense period. With an identity firmly entrenched as a strong academic institution, there were many who opposed increased spending on athletics.
“It cost more to be a Division I school,” said Cone, who joined the department in an associate capacity in 1994, “and Phil did a really good job of making the budget process simple, making it transparent so we gained the trust of groups that are somewhat suspicious of what’s going on in athletics.
“He was able to present a very transparent budget and do so in a trustworthy manner. A lot of the stumbling blocks were really eliminated because of his very honest and transparent handling of the budget process.”
Back then, Webb’s makeshift office was in a small booth that overlooks what were wooden bleachers in Mott Gym.
The baseball, tennis and swimming teams all played off campus because of a lack of suitable facilities.
The basement weight room “essentially consisted of a couple exercise bicycles and a few treadmills,” Webb said.
The CSU system struggled through multiple recessions over the years. Webb determinedly took on those budgetary challenges as well as increased supervisory responsibilities over more sports and operations within athletics, including the scholarship program, events, facility and equipment management.
Now, Mott has a whole new look.
New buildings stand on the remains of old practice fields. The baseball and softball programs have on-campus stadiums. The renovated Alex G. Spanos Stadium would make pictures of the old football set-up unrecognizable.
The evolution of it all makes Webb proud to have contributed and proud to have kept that old laptop.
“From where we were to where we are today, I’m not going to take credit for anything that happened,” Webb said. “I’m just really proud to be a part of it, and the thing I’m most proud about is it’s a continual process. We’ve never said we’ve don’t this, and now we’re satisfied. There’s always been the next challenge.”
Cal Poly’s next one is replacing Webb.