It was a tough first season for Cal Poly football coach Tim Walsh.
After switching zip codes with former Mustangs coach Rich Ellerson, who took over head coaching duties at Army after Black Knights head coach Stan Brock and his offensive coordinator Walsh were fired last winter, Walsh inherited a young team with plenty of turnover, one that would be plagued by injuries.
After Ellerson had won at least seven games every year since 2003 — the last year Cal Poly had a losing season — Walsh’s Mustangs finished 4-7. In line to compete for a playoff spot midway through the season, Cal Poly lost its last four games and showed a season-long propensity for blowing first-half leads on the road.
It was already going to be a tall task replacing record-setting receiver Ramses Barden and teammates Jonathan Dally, James Noble, Stephen Field, Ryan Mole and Tre’dale Tolver, and an all-new coaching with a brand new defensive philosophy only added to the transition.
Now, the former longtime Portland State head coach is in the midst of his first full recruiting season in San Luis Obispo, and in between out-of-town trips, Walsh sat down with The Tribune for a one-on-one interview to discuss his thoughts on the past season and the road ahead.
Question: Now that you’ve had a couple weeks to reflect, how do you look back at your first season at Cal Poly and how it ended at 4-7?
Answer: As far as the football and the football record, obviously, we’re all disappointed. I’m sure everybody that’s associated with the program is disappointed. I don’t know anybody who’s real happy going 4-7 regardless of whether you’re at Cal Poly or wherever. After week 7, we still had an opportunity to do something and unfortunately in the last four weeks I don’t think we played as well as maybe we did in the first five weeks of the season , and that’s disappointing. That’s the word that kind of sums up the football part of it. As far as the experience of being here and understanding the learning process, I think I went through in year one and maybe that all the new people that we’ve brought into the program learned, I think it was a great learning experience that’s going to benefit us in the future. Any time you have a season like we had and it wasn’t as successful as you wanted it to be, you have to look for some answers to make sure that doesn’t happen again. And I think we have some solid answers and a better solid foundation of where we are.
Q: Considering everything, was it more of a step forward for the new staff and new players and the new regime or step backward from the success and tradition that had been built?
A: Any time you have transition, not only in coaching staff but in senior transition to new players playing, it’s transition period. We started off the season and played even in some losses pretty well against some good football teams I think some of those things maybe blinded us a little bit as far as where we were and exactly what we needed to do in the final four weeks of the season to maybe make it a different season. Now the 4-7 part of it is over so you have be able to look at it and take some positive out of it, and the positives are the learning experience and the ability we feel to build upon what we have and what we have to look forward to. We have a lot of players now that have played, and I think with that experience, we should be able to move forward and move back into the situation where we win the conference championship and have hopefully some postseason opportunities.
Q: What were you most proud about achieving this past year?
A: The thing I was most proud to be a part of whether we accomplished it or whoever accomplished it, guys like Carlton Gillespie and Ryan Shotwell, the seniors. The toughest transition people are the seniors. They have one more year left to go do it, and I think those two guys did a tremendous job of buying in and giving us everything they had for the eight months, nine months that we were together. I really do appreciate those guys and feel for them.
Q: How bout the biggest criticism you hear about the job you did this past year? And is it fair?
A: This biggest criticism is that we didn’t win and it that goes with being the head coach. There’s no excuses. We were 4-7. And we don’t expect to be 4-7 and our players don’t expect to be 4-7. And I tell our players that every week we go out to win every game regardless of who we’re paying, and we didn’t win enough. As far as the criticism that comes with that, some of them might be valid, some of them might not be. The bottom line thing is when you don’t win, you open yourself up to criticism. I don’t take thart personally. I think that just goes with the position.
Q: Going into the offseason, what are the biggest things for the team to address?
A: We had a team meeting and just Monday when I got back form recruiting and a couple of the seniors to be asked if they could talk to the team afterward. I gave my little spiel, and the funny thing about it is we left and they handed out a letter, that came from seniors — they wrote it over the weekend — and the things that they thought were missing were the exact same things I talked about without ever having talked to them. For them to stand up and say exactly what I just told the team almost verbatim makes me feel like it wasn’t just the coaches, everybody felt the same thing, and we were all on the same page, which for me reassures me that we are doing the right things and headed in the right direction because I think the players see the things that need to be worked on as well. … We need to be more productive in the offseason, and in the hour and 15 minutes, we’re going to ask those guys to be in the weight room, we’re going to be more present to push the guys that maybe need to be pushed. If you’re going to be there for an hour and 15 minutes, it’s going to be a quality hour and 15 minutes, so they’re going to get a grade each week from the coach and the strength and conditioning coach, and we’re going to play next year with better bodies.
Q: Is that something to focus on in terms of limiting the injuries?
A: It’s not even injuries. It’s just the wear and tear on your body. If you go from game one to game 11, and you’re not ready for it — like I said before, the first five, six or seven weeks, we weren’t bad, we were still ranked and we had opportunities in front of us, but we couldn’t finish games and we played good first halves and bad second halves. Whether it was schematically or athletically, whatever you want to say it was, but the bottom line thing is we’re going to be physically better and that should help address that problem and it should help address the depth problem. Because we’re going to have more guys ready to play, and we’ll find out who’s who. We’re going to make it competitive in the weight room and we’re going to have teams.
Q: How else can you address the tale of two halves, the way you guys played on the road well in the first half?
A: We haven’t talked much about the road things, but we will. We did some things that we hadn’t done before in my past that we did because of our travel circumstances, and I don’t know if we’re going to tallow our travel circumstances to dictate what I believe we should do in order to prepare on the road to play the game. There was times we didn’t Practice on Friday, and I’m a firm believer of getting to your opponent’s field and doing something at the field in order to prepare, so when you walk out there the first time, it’s not the first time. Making sure we always do the meetings that we think are necessary to have focus on Friday night as well as Saturday morning, some of those we bypassed or shortened because of what time we arrived or how long we’d been on a plane or a bus or whatever. We’re going to change some of those habits, which will hopefully affect some of the things we had one the road. As the year wore on, it became a confidence thing on the road, too. You can’t say that for sure, but it sure looked like it to me. When things started to go south, we went here we go again, and that’s a real poor attitude to have. Attitudinally, we have to make some adjustments to the good, the bad and ugly of the game. Players and coaches. It’s not just the players. I think it’s all of us, and I just think from a depth standpoint, we have to be a deeper football team so when we put 54 guys on the airplane we get 54 guys that we feel strongly could all play and help us win a football game.
Q: What are the biggest positions of need in this recruiting season, and are you looking for recruits who can contribute as first-year players?
A: We’re telling every freshman that we recruit that no longer was and has been my policy we’d like to redshirt tall my freshmen. We’re telling them to come ready to play. Because we really had five or six guys that we traveled but protected them on the road that probably could have contributed and made us a better football team. Fred Gaines was probably one, Nick Leyden definitely was anther one. Geoff Hyde we ended up playing and it’s unfortunate that he maybe only started playing game eight and lost a year of eligibility, but he’s going to be a good player. Bijon Samoodi, we tried not to play him early, and then he played a lot as the season progressed, which is probably a good freshman play, but other guys that were out here that we thought were probably maybe good enough to compete to play, Cougar Williams does some really good things when he has the ball in his hands. And I think Johnny Millard and Xavier Ramos. All of those guys would have contributed on special teams, and that’s an area we weren’t very good to be honest with you either. We’re telling every freshman this year that we sign that you need to come ready to play, and if we sign transfer players, transfer players are going to have to be players, because you can’t miss on a transfer guy.
Q: What positions are you specifically putting a priority on for this recruiting class?
A: I think we need immediate help on the defensive line. I think we need immediate help at linebacker. I think we need immediate help at the slot posiion. Not that the three or four guys that are coming back aren’t the best players, but I think they’re good. And I think we need some immediate help on the depth of the offensive line. The 18 guys we sign, the only position we may not sign is we may not sign a quarterback unless we just flat out found a guy that we thought was that special in what we were doing. Then we’d probably go after him. Other than that, we’ve identified what we want. We need speed, and that’s probably a number one priority at certain positions.
Q: How do you feel about the group of quarterbacks coming back?
A: Being honest, as the season progressed, I thought the things that Tony does well became very obvious, and the things he needs to work on became very obvious. And he’s been told up front what we kind of think and where we are with that, and I think Andre Broadous has been told the same things. Because we do think he’s going to be a guy that we have to push to get in he mix to push Tony, and Tony’s either going to stand up and fight it or not. And then we’re going to give the young guys the opportunities to show what they’ve learned in the first 11 weeks. So Duke and Ken and the guy that’s kind of the oddball out of it that we don’t talk about is Doug Shumway. Doug Shumway is very athletic. And some of the things we have for him working on in the offseason I think will benefit him to where he could possibly be somebody we would want to take a look at too. It’s a position that’s difficult because not only does it take a quick mind, it takes quick hand-eye coordination so the body reacts quickly. Now, if you’re fast on top of it, that helps, but you have to be a quick-twitch player. Tony did some things well enough that he helped us win us some games, and I think Tony could do some things better that could help win us some games on the negative side of it too. When you go 4-7, there’s two people that are going to be criticized. The head coach is going to be one, which I understand … and the second is the quarterback. It’s the quarterback and the head coach. But that’s just the way it goes. If we went 9-3, I’m the greatest coach in America and Tony Smith’s the greatest quarterback in America. But when you go 4-7, I’m not the greatest coach in America, and therefore a Tony is not the greatest quarterback in America. It’s not a game when you’re not in the public eye, and mosrt people focus on the guy who has the ball in his hands. And he needs get better in oder to prove that that position really deserves to be his.
Q: How much improvement can people reasonably expect next season and what are your expectations for 2010?
A: I think we’ll be a much better football team for tow reasons. Overall, everybody has a better understanding of everybody’s strengths and weaknesses, coaches and players and in both directions from player to coach and coach to player, and that’s going to benefit us. And secondly, I think they’re probably going to see a more assertive coach Walsh … I think that will be positive, too, not in a negative way. I’m going to be more assertive. And I think the combination of a good recruiting class this year and a good recruiting class last year, and I think this year you’ll see some of those guys get in the mix so we should be a deeper, stronger team. We lost really 10 players of which really 5 or 6 of them gave us a lot of downs, but in reality, I think that we’ll have hopefully 15 or 20 guys that can come in and help us play next year that is hopefully going to make us a deeper team than we were last year.
Q: How will we see your stamp on this team even more so next season?
A: If you’re just a person that’s around us Saturday nights, it’s going to be more W’s than losses. I told the team before, I said, ‘You guys aren’t used to losing. Really the only time I’ve lost in my career is when I’ve been an assistant coach or when I went transition from Division II to Division I. I don’t like losing either. So the losing’s going to go away.’ So that’s going to be the stamp that we are going to put on the team. People can say it’s me or it the quarterback Tony or whoever the quarterback is. They can say whatever they want, but the bottom line thing is I know it’s going to happen because of what we do structurally as a football program. If I had to say one word that will allow us to win on both sides of the bal and special teams, our execution was very, very average, and that’s what we ended up being, a very average and below average team. We competed well, but why didn’t we win certain games when you’re ahead at halftime and close games? I think it was because we didn’t execute as well as we did in the first half.
Q: How committed are you to continuing the triple option, recruiting to the triple option, and is there any situation in the next three or four years where you could foresee changing the offense?
A: I’m used to winning, the players are used to wining and the program’s used to winning. And the best way for us to win is to run the triple option and run it better than we ran it this year. And that’s what we’re recruiting. We’re recruiting to the triple option. If you make a business and you make a business plan, and a year later, you’re changing that business plan, you better look for another occupation. And I’m not looking for another occupation right now. I think I have a good job. I think the best thing we can do right now is to improve upon what we did as an offense. I hate to say anything, and people don’t like to hear it, but when you go back and watch the film, there’s some positives that are out there. There’s just not enough of them, and that gets back to the consistency of execution and things like that that we need to focus in on and then maybe our 340 yards a game is 400 yards a game. You’re talking about raising your efficiency 10 to 15 percent. If you can raise your efficiency 10 or 15 percent, that 300 yards probably would be 400 yards. And those first downs go up, the time of possession goes up, and your points go up, and your defensive statistics are therefore going to go down, regardless of whta you do on defense … I think our program starts with the triple option, not just on offense. Our successes start by running the triple option properly. And the the throws come off of it, the defense doesn’t play as many downs, hopefully special teams is in good position and it it starts there, and if you don’t execute that play well, we will struggle. And that doesn’t mean we won’t try tog et D.J. more involved so he can have 75 or 80 catches instead of 45 or 50 catches or getting Eric Gardley more involved throwing the football to him. There’s going to be some position changes. There’s going to be a lot of things that are going to go into making us more explosive on that side of the ball.