Cal Poly

It was ‘never taken for granted’: Joe Callero reflects on a decade as Poly basketball coach

Cal Poly men’s basketball head coach Joe Callero said the day after he was handed his walking papers that he’s “never taken for granted” his opportunity to lead Mustangs.

“My time on the Central Coast, I’ve never taken for granted,” Callero said Thursday, following Cal Poly’s 110-72 loss to UC Irvine at the Mott Athletic Center. “I’ve worked every day with a passion, like this is precious.”

Callero could potentially coach his last game for the Mustangs on Saturday night at home against UC Santa Barbara. He has spent 10 years at the helm.

Cal Poly gets a final chance Saturday to earn the eighth seed in the Big West Conference tournament (the team is currently in ninth place and the top eight are allowed in).

The Mustangs (6-22, 2-13 Big West) must win and eighth-place UC Riverside must lose and then a conference coin flip would determine who goes to the Big West tournament, which takes place March 14-16 at the Honda Center in Anaheim.

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Coach Joe Callero during a timeout Thursday in a home game against UC Irvine. David Middlecamp David Middlecamp

Callero said he has received “a couple of hundred text messages, emails and calls” from supporters about his pending departure.

“Outside of immediate family, I’ve gone into a pretty good bubble, with respect for the kids,” Callero said. “My job is not complete. My job is here with those student athletes. There will be plenty of time to return phone calls and emails and texts and reflect on 10 years.”

Callero, the highest paid athletic coach at Cal Poly, earned a salary of about $268,000 in 2018, according to the Sacramento Bee salary database. And his contract was set to expire after the 2019-2020 season. Cal Poly Athletic Director Don Oberhelman remained unavailable for comment, as was the terms of Callero’s termination.

But Callero said the “heartwarming” part of coaching his current group of seniors is that they’ve maximized their opportunities at Cal Poly.

The team’s leading scorers Donovan Fields (16.8 points per game) and Marcellus Garrick (11.6 points per game) are both starting seniors, and bench player Kuba Niziol is the fourth highest scorer on the team at 6.3 points per game.

Cal Poly guard Jobe Alexander fights for a rebound in a Thursday game against UC Irvine. David Middlecamp David Middlecamp

Each of the three Mustangs seniors are junior college transfers, and have made the most of their time at Cal Poly, Callero said.

“When you go through your community college experience and you’re not immediately showered with Division I royalty, and you’re riding a van and you’re getting a McDonald’s hamburger, and you’re going to school in the middle of Texas, or playing in a gym that might have 50 people, I think they appreciate their experience,” Callero said. “Donovan and Marcellus have been really, really grateful and they have expressed that to me personally.”

Garrick scored a game-high 27 points Thursday against first-place Irvine (26-5, 14-1 Big West), which Callero said was possibly the best Big West squad the program has faced in his tenure at Cal Poly. Garrick said after Thursday’s game that he’ll never forget Callero and his influence on his college basketball career and life.

“He gave me a scholarship,” Garrick said. “He gave me the opportunity to play Division I basketball. I’ll miss him a lot. I’ll miss every single one of these coaches.”

Senior Cal Poly guard Donovan Fields navigates traffic against UC Irvine in a Thursday loss at Mott Athletic Center. David Middlecamp David Middlecamp

Garrick added that Callero’s guidance has included more than just basketball, and that he has played an inspirational role in his life. Fields said Callero helped him to “become a man” and take responsibility in his life.

Some of the highlights of Callero’s career have included knocking off No. 13-ranked UCLA in 2012, winning the Big West Conference championship in 2014 and earning entry into the NCAA tournament for the program’s first time. He’s also been able to watch former Cal Poly player David Nwaba become the first Mustangs player to make the NBA, where he now plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Callero also coached 13 All-Big West selections; Chris Eversley became the first Big West Tournament Most Valuable Player selection in program history in 2014.

But the team has faced six straight seasons with losing records, as Callero’s overall record at the helm dropped Thursday to 126-183.

Saturday’s home game begins at 7 p.m.

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Nick Wilson covers the city of San Luis Obispo and has been a reporter at The Tribune in San Luis Obispo since 2004. He also writes regularly about K-12 education, Cal Poly, Morro Bay and Los Osos. He is a graduate of UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley and is originally from Ojai.