Tim Walsh has been part of my sports landscape for quite some time.
Walsh is, like me, a transplant to San Luis Obispo from Portland, Oregon. And I’ve enjoyed that connection from my memories of a Walsh-coached Portland State team, which enjoyed some of its best years under his leadership, to now following his team at Cal Poly more closely as part of my job.
Walsh, the longest tenured and winningest coach in Portland State history, never turned the Vikings into a national power, but they were always relevant and competitive relative to what they were — a second-tier program (FCS) overshadowed by a national powerhouse in Oregon and an Oregon State team that was competitive in the Pac-12, at least back then.
Portland State certainly had its challenges in attracting top players, as any FCS school does, but it was particularly tough dealing with that university’s “commuter school” reputation and minimal fan base. You rely on the leftovers, frankly —the players not quite good enough for the big boys.
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Walsh had success regardless.
So I understand why he was considered a great fit at Cal Poly, even now after presiding over a historically bad 1-10 season. He understood the reality of the level and the challenges of bringing players to a school with its own recruiting limitations, including high admission standards.
Everything I’ve heard and seen about Walsh makes me like him. He’s a great leader. The fact that he’s always run a no-nonsense program void — mostly — of players who end up more in the police blotter than box score should not go unrecognized. His leads one of the most academically successful programs in the country.
So I take it very seriously and with measured thought when I say I also think Tim Walsh sells Cal Poly, and this community, short.
It starts with his triple-option offense.
First, a quick primer on the triple option, traditionally used at places like Army (where Walsh coached before Cal Poly) and Navy, and Walsh’s reason for using it here. It inherently assumes a talent deficiency.
For teams that can’t land hulking offensive lineman, tall, strong-armed quarterbacks and play-making wide receivers, it works. And its methodical, run-first approach eats the clock to keep a presumably more talented opponent to limited chances on offense.
It’s easy to see why it’s used at the service academies — truly the hardest places in the country to recruit. I mean, they literally have weight limits in the military.
There are obviously no weight restrictions at Cal Poly. The only limit being placed on the players here are set by Walsh and his coaching staff. Frankly, it’s a defeatist mentality to blame a talent deficiency on tough admission standards.
Stanford and Notre Dame — UCLA and USC, for that matter — don’t fall into that trap, nor do their supporters give them a pass because of it.
True, there’s no comparing Cal Poly football to Stanford or Notre Dame. But should it be that far off, throwing out the comparison between Power Five conference schools and the FCS level?
Even with a smaller recruiting budget, should it be that hard to lure a kid here who lives in a dusty Texas town, for example? Walsh managed to get players to come to Portland State, a program that still doesn’t even have its own stadium.
Sure, there are challenges here. Challenges inherent with recruiting in FCS with fewer scholarships and the second-choice nature of that level. Challenges in academic standards.
But there are advantages here, too.
Just like Stanford and Notre Dame, Cal Poly is a world-class educational institution. It’s located in one of the most desirable places to live in the country. Have you ever been to South Bend, Indiana — in January? No thanks.
There were four out-of-state players on Cal Poly’s 2017 roster of 105, and just one who was not from the West Coast. That’s a failure.
Cal Poly should overcome tough admission standards by expanding the pool of players. It’s not impossible: Nine of the men’s basketball team’s 15 players are from out of state, including two internationals and players from as far as South Carolina and New York. Of Cal Poly’s overall student body, nearly 16 percent came from out of state in 2016.
Cal Poly should be the No. 1 FCS option west of the Mississippi. Yet last year, the Mustangs lost in the first round of the playoffs to San Diego, a school that doesn’t even offer athletic scholarships. San Diego also won a first-round playoff again this year, by the way.
But that brings us back full-circle to the triple option. It’s antiquated. In an era of innovative offenses, especially at the college level, Cal Poly is hamstringing itself by pushing away kids who would never want to play in that system — limiting an already smaller recruiting pool. The triple option doesn’t translate to the next level. It’s complicated to learn. It’s a rare quarterback, wide receiver, running back or offensive lineman with opportunities who chooses to play in the triple option.
And, to put it bluntly, it’s boring to watch.
Cal Poly’s relationship to San Luis Obispo, historically a bit strained, isn’t made any better through a lack of community ownership in its college football team. The stadium was virtually empty last November for Cal Poly’s first postseason game since 2012 — that speaks loudly. I’ve talked with a number of fans happy who come for the tri-tip at the pre-game tailgate, maybe catch the first half and then call it a night.
This year? Attendance was certainly down officially, but that didn’t tell the whole story of a virtually empty stadium for most of the second half of the season. And the university’s master plan calls for a 4,000-seat expansion.
Walsh and the triple option certainly won’t fill those.
But like I said, Walsh appears to be a good man and leader. I cringe at columnists calling for someone else’s job; that should only be our role in rare cases, and it’s impossible to know all of what Walsh faces in his position. Athletic director Don Oberhelman has given Walsh a full-throated endorsement, and his contract extension is set to keep him here through 2021 — when he’ll likely retire.
But supporters are right to be upset over that given the state of the program. So it becomes our role to ask questions. And it’s worthy to ask what Cal Poly football expects to be.
Oberhelman says Walsh’s past success should overshadow the disaster of last season. But Walsh’s overall record is below .500, and he’s been to the playoffs just twice with no wins in nine years.
It’s a stretch to call that a success — on the field. If Cal Poly is happy with only the academic success of its players, that’s admirable.
But for those who think Walsh’s $254,000-plus yearly salary, vastly more than many of those whose job it is to ensure the academic success of students, is worth more than that, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that he evolve. Evolve into the modern offensive game. Evolve from the mindset that Cal Poly can’t fill a talented roster. Evolve from the on-field standards he’s set for the program.
When Walsh was hired, he said in a Cal Poly Magazine article that he expected to “bring the game to the larger community and make a home game at Cal Poly a Saturday night, must-see event.”
That hasn’t happened in nine years, and barring major changes, it won’t in another four.