Cal Poly

After magical week in 2014, it's been one long losing skid for Joe Callero and Cal Poly basketball

Cal Poly head basketball coach Joe Callero huddles with his team in the 2017-2018 season.
Cal Poly head basketball coach Joe Callero huddles with his team in the 2017-2018 season. dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

He had just led the Cal Poly men's basketball team to its third consecutive first-round loss in the 2017 Big West Tournament when head coach Joe Callero became the highest paid coach on campus.

It's a year later, and outside of his salary, not much has changed.

Callero, whose base pay of $263,000 per year and another $38,700 worth of supplemental pay tacked on will keep him at the helm through the 2020 season, is once again heading into an offseason after being handed another first-round exit in the conference tournament following a losing year.

Cal Poly's 9-22 record (4-12, 7th Big West) was the worst in Callero's nine-year tenure and is the Mustangs' fifth straight losing season.

The first season of Callero's new three-year contract ended last week with a blowout loss to UC Santa Barbra in the first round of the Big West Tournament.

This wasn’t the arc that many Cal Poly basketball fans envisioned after the team made an improbable run in 2014 to a Big West Tournament title to earn its first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history — despite an overall losing record.

Callero thought that magical tournament win would be a big boost to recruiting and set the program up for years of success — but that didn't happen.

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Cal Poly men's basketball head coach Joe Callero has led the Mustangs to five-straight losing seasons. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

"Nobody is more frustrated than the head coach," Callero said in a phone interview from Denver on Thursday. "It’s my responsibility. I have to do a better job of developing our players, developing the program and developing creative recruiting approaches."

Since taking the job in 2009, Callero has coached two teams to above .500 records and has a winning percentage of .427 (120-161).

Callero found success early in his tenure and led Cal Poly to two 18-win seasons in 2011-12 and 2012-13. But since then, Cal Poly has struggled to contend in one of the weakest Division I conferences in the nation.

Despite standout guard play from senior Victor Joseph and junior Donovan Fields this season, Callero said Cal Poly struggled with its physicality as injuries to the team's big men added up. That led to a lack of defense and rebounding.

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Cal Poly junior Donovan Fields was the second-leading scorer for the Mustangs for the 2017-18 season with 13 points per game. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

"We weren't consistent enough," Callero said. "We were knocking on the door, but people want championships."

The Cal Poly athletics website credits Callero for building the Mustangs into an "elite defensive program." For years that was true — but not lately. After leading the Big West in least points allowed in 2014-15 (58.7 ppg), Cal Poly has been at or near the bottom of that category each of the past three seasons. This season, Cal Poly was the worst defensive team in the conference, giving up 77.9 points per game, and was seventh in the conference in scoring (67.2 ppg).

In his attempt to build the program into a perennial contender, Callero said he's been hampered by a number of factors, including a lack of resources.

"We don’t have the advantages that some other schools have with location and academics. We can’t cry about it either," Callero said. "I knew that coming in."

To make up for it, Callero said he's had to come up with creative solutions like recruiting overseas and playing guarantee games (contests against larger programs that offer a nice pay-day to the smaller program). Games against Cal, Santa Clara, Stanford, SMU and others this season helped generate around $380,000 in revenue for the program, Callero said.

But on the court, Cal Poly is heading in the wrong direction. The last time Cal Poly won less than 10 games was the 2008-2009 season (7-21) under head coach Kevin Bromley. He was fired at the end of the season and replaced by Callero.

Callero said he had a 30-minute performance review with Cal Poly athletic director Don Oberhelman at the end of the season to discuss plans going forward.

“He said, ‘I know how hard your job is, I know how hard you’re working,’” Callero said.

Callero said he came away from the meeting with the understanding that “I should be in a position to complete my job for the remainder of this year coming into this next season.”

Oberhelman did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Despite what he was told, Callero knows no job is safe.

“Every coach is always aware that our contract could be bought out and we got to go,” Callero said. “We are all on one-day contracts.”

"I know that I have done the absolute best I can maximizing fundraising and playing guarantee games, so if I was let go I would say, ‘Well, I did everything I could and I am pretty proud of that,'" he added.

What might help turn things around is what Callero calls the "Nwaba factor."

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Former Cal Poly standout David Nwaba, right, guards Toronto Raptors guard Delon Wright during the second half of an NBA basketball game Feb. 14, 2018, in Chicago. Nam Y. Huh AP Photo

Former Cal Poly standout David Nwaba became the first basketball player from Cal Poly to make it to the NBA when he signed with the L.A. Lakers in 2017. Nwaba is now a regular contributor for the Chicago Bulls, and that has played well for Callero as he works to recruit players for next season.

"It showed that you can go to Cal Poly and still get to the NBA. To get Nwaba in there, that had kind of been the glass ceiling," Callero said. "That Nwaba factor has been key to our improved recruiting, and I think that is going to bode well for us over the next couple years."

Pointing to an NBA player and an NCAA Tournament appearance, two success stories Callero hopes to springboard into more, helps. But Callero says he needs a lot more to establish a culture of success.

"My dream would be to be at Cal Poly. It’s been my baby for nine years, and if I would retire in another nine years then I would be the happiest man in the world. But I understand the pressure and expectations and outside opportunities," Callero said. "I’ve only got two years left on my contract, so I have to do some work over those two years."

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