Tim Walsh wasn’t going to let Alex Vega sneak by unnoticed.
Sitting on the tarmac at Missoula International Airport last September, two hours removed from Cal Poly’s stunning upset of nationally ranked Montana, Walsh greeted every player as they boarded the Mustangs’ charter plane bound for Santa Maria.
Vega, the freshman who made a game-winning 49-yard field goal in front of arguably the loudest home crowd in the FCS, was one of the last Cal Poly players to board. In the way only a head coach can, Walsh quieted a plane full of boosters, administrators, assistant coaches and their families.
It was Vega’s moment. Walsh knew it, and the plane erupted in jubilation.
That cold, rainy fall night in the Treasure State ended up being one of the few bright spots in an otherwise uneven 2015 season. Perhaps Walsh, who is entering the 26th year of head coaching and eighth at Cal Poly, understood those type of memories are meant to be savored.
After all, not much surprises Walsh following nearly three decades of coaching college football.
He’s seen just about everything on and off the field since his career began as the defensive coordinator at Santa Clara in 1986. In the years since, football has taken Walsh, his wife, Jody, and their four children to Sonoma State, Portland State, Army and now Cal Poly.
“He can get along with any situation,” assistant coach Jim Craft said. “I think the thing that people who are outside of football probably don’t understand is the amount of time and effort and energy that goes into it. It’s kind of hard to comprehend.”
The payoff for that invested energy comes again Friday night, when the Mustangs kick off the 2016 season against FBS opponent Nevada at newly renovated Mackay Stadium in Reno.
The 61-year-old Walsh, whose 91 career Big Sky victories rank No. 4 in conference history, will pace the sideline with his typical fiery passion, knowing he’s in the twilight of his career and leading some of the most intelligent football players on the West Coast. Having signed a four-year contract extension worth $228,996 a year before last season, Walsh is embarking on what will likely be the final leg in his coaching journey — in what has ultimately been in the eyes of many insiders a perfect match between coach and university.
“If I had a child, I would love for my son to play football for Tim Walsh and would strongly encourage him to do so,” Cal Poly athletic director Don Oberhelman said. “He teaches so many things beyond football.”
Balancing the scale
When Walsh left Portland State in 2006 after 14 seasons, he was the longest tenured coach with the most victories in program history.
He helped guide the Vikings during their transition from Division II to the FCS ranks in the 1990s, was a national coach of the year finalist in 2000 and was inducted into the Portland State Athletics Hall of Fame in 2012.
The Walsh children — Luke, 35; Casey 34; Sean, 30; and Megan, 27 — developed a love for football in the Pacific Northwest. Walsh coached his kids during Little League and wouldn’t let them play football until eighth grade. He attended every event he could when the football schedule allowed; Jody Walsh said he was “really good in finding ways to include the kids.”
Professionally, Portland State was a big step up from the small but family-friendly Sonoma State. The job brought more media attention — and more scrutiny.
“The press in Portland could be really brutal,” Jody Walsh said. “Even now, our oldest one, he reads everything.”
It took a prestigious opportunity at West Point to lure Walsh away from the relationships he built in Portland. But after consecutive 3-9 seasons as the Black Knights’ offensive coordinator, the coaching staff was fired, and Walsh returned to the West Coast to become Cal Poly’s head coach in 2009.
Two years later, the Mustangs won the Great West Conference. And when Cal Poly joined the Big Sky in 2012, Walsh guided the Mustangs to a share of the conference title and a berth in the FCS playoffs.
Walsh’s coaching philosophy shifted when he arrived at Army in 2007. And despite the premature ending, it honed what he believes is the perfect philosophy for Cal Poly.
To counter the talent discrepancy between the Black Knights and their opponents, Walsh installed the triple-option offense Cal Poly fans have since grown accustomed to. The run-first scheme is designed to force defenders into making mental mistakes while bludgeoning opponents with more than 70 running plays per game.
Perhaps most important, it allows his team to consume large chunks of time off the clock as opposing offenses watch from the sideline.
It’s become the Mustangs’ trademark, and Cal Poly has led the FCS in rushing for three consecutive years. But the gaudy offensive statistics haven’t always translated to victories, and it’s not exactly the most exciting brand of football in the pass-happy Big Sky.
Meanwhile, Cal Poly’s academic requirements are among the most stringent in the country, which can make recruiting difficult. The average GPA for incoming freshmen this fall is 4.04, and the university received more than 60,000 applications. The NCAA limits FCS programs to 63 football scholarships, while FBS schools and rigorous academic institutions like Stanford can award 85 scholarships per season.
“There’s a fine line that we’re walking between who we can recruit academically and who we can recruit that can compete out there on Saturdays,” Walsh said. “We want to make sure that we’re getting the best of both worlds.”
Ultimately, the pool of prep players the Mustangs can recruit is relatively small, and it results in a lack of depth on every athletic team.
“If we demanded more, they wouldn’t be able to succeed in the classroom,” Walsh said. “Once school starts, we have to be really conscious of balancing that scale.”
Walsh said 90 percent of the athletes he recruits come to Cal Poly for the whole college experience. When asked if it’s easier to win at Portland State, Walsh said, “both have their challenges, let’s put it that way.”
“If we are on equal grounds with somebody recruiting the same guy,” he said, “we’re gonna get him because we have so much more to offer as far as the whole of that person’s life.”
‘A real loyalty’
Without much depth, injuries to one or two key players can derail a season in a hurry, which is why Oberhelman said yearly improvement is “my only expectation.”
That’s part of the reason Walsh has surrounded himself with a coaching staff he trusts.
Craft and first-year offensive coordinator Juston Wood have known Walsh since they were teenagers, when he recruited them to play at Portland State. The same can be said for running backs coach Aristotle Thompson (though he ultimately went to Boise State), as well as former offensive coordinator Saga Tuitele.
“Whatever they wanted to do,” Jody Walsh said, “he was always there to try and help them in their next step.”
The national coaching landscape, both FBS and FCS, is littered with former Walsh assistants, most notably TCU’s Gary Patterson and Washington’s Chris Peterson.
Described as a detail-oriented players’ coach, Walsh is more than a figurehead for his program. He’s comfortable when speaking with boosters or recruits or parents, but Walsh is most in his element between the lines.
Craft said versatility and a fair approach have helped Walsh develop “a real loyalty” within the coaching community, a cutthroat business where job security is never guaranteed.
“I have the utmost respect for the man. I have since I’ve been a freshman here,” senior linebacker Joseph Gigantino III said. “He’s the kind of guy that knows everyone’s name on the team, and I feel like some coaches aren’t like that.”
Walsh, who played quarterback at UC Riverside in the 1970s, knows better than most just how much wins and losses matter. At Cal Poly, it’s half of the yearly equation he tries to solve.
“We want to be among the industry leaders in our graduation rates, but we also want to compete for a championship every single year,” Oberhelman said. “Last year, we didn’t do that. Let’s just be honest, we didn’t.”
A string of miscues during an important three-game stretch painted Cal Poly’s 2015 football team in an entirely different light. The Mustangs’ final 4-7 record wasn’t reflective of how competitive Cal Poly actually was.
In the classroom, 16 of the 17 seniors on the football team graduated last spring. The lone exception was standout wide receiver Willie Tucker, who is completing his degree this fall while working under Walsh as a student assistant.
“I look at it year in and year out, regardless of how many years I have on my contract, that 4-7 is not going to keep cutting it,” said Walsh, peeking over at the 2012 Big Sky championship trophy sitting on a bookshelf in the corner of his office.
‘A man of unassailable integrity’
The head coaching staff within the Cal Poly athletic department was well established when Oberhelman was hired in 2011.
Alex Crozier (women’s soccer, 25 years), Mark Conover (track and cross country, 21 years), Faith Mimnaugh (women’s basketball, 20 years), Larry Lee (baseball, 15 years) and Scott Cartwright (men’s golf, 15 years) have been fixtures in Mustang athletics for decades.
During previous stops in his career, which includes administrative roles at Texas A&M and Florida State, Oberhelman has seen new athletic directors arrive and feel the need to shake things up. That’s never been his approach, and he made a point to extend several contracts early in his tenure.
Walsh’s four-year contract extension — signed before last season and one year after an alleged attempted robbery at a fraternity house by five former players — makes him the third-highest paid coach in the Big Sky behind UC Davis’ Ron Gould and Eastern Washington’s Beau Baldwin.
And Walsh has integrated himself into life on the Central Coast just fine while maintaining a family-first mentality in his professional-personal life balance.
Walsh prefers to have his children visit their Shell Beach home during the summer at a time when he’s less focused on the season. Tim and Jody made the trip north to Portland in July for Megan’s wedding, not long after Walsh tore his Achilles tendon playing pickup basketball.
He has a close group of friends who play golf every Thursday in Santa Maria, though recovery from his injury put the links on hold this summer.
“He would play golf every day if he could,” Jody Walsh said. “I’m sure when he retires he’ll try to get away with that. I have other plans, but I love to play golf with him his as well.”
Even if the twilight of his career is in sight, Walsh is hyper-focused when it comes to his football program.
“I do want to see us win more football games, there’s no question. So does Tim,” Oberhelman said. “That said, I’ll never allow this program to be evaluated based on a game. Don’t judge us based on one game. Don’t judge us based on the three games in the middle of the season. Judge us based on the body of work that’s not just a football record.”
Walsh knows the Mustangs can’t afford to lay a proverbial egg like they did during last year’s home opener against a top-10 Northern Iowa team, falling behind 21-0 in the first quarter in an eventual 34-20 defeat. That loss, in front of the seventh sellout crowd in Alex G. Spanos Stadium history, may have left a sour taste in some fans’ mouths.
In the four years since Cal Poly joined the Big Sky, its average attendance has been a little more than 8,300 and ranked in the top five of the conference three times.
“There’s a feeling that people are into it, they get it, and then you go play as poorly as we played against Northern Iowa, that opinion changes pretty quickly,” Walsh said. “All of a sudden you’re not what you thought you might be.
“We need to play well and create the buzz.”
Hosting a preseason top-25 Montana team during the Week of Welcome in late September could build interest among students, and potentially, set the tone for a bounce-back season.
It’s an opportunity Walsh won’t let sneak by unnoticed.
“I have tremendous respect and admiration for Tim,” Oberhelman said. “He’s a man of unassailable integrity in what he does.
“That allows me to sleep very, very well at night.”
at a glance
Age: 61, born Dec. 17, 1954
Hometown: San Mateo
College: UC Riverside, 1977
Assistant coach: Santa Clara, 1986; Sonoma State, 1987-88; Army, 2007-08
Head coach: Sonoma State, 1989-1992 (27-14); Portland State, 1993-2006 (90-68); Cal Poly, 2009-present (43-37)