Cal Poly

Possible Cal Poly conference move would not be one-size-fits-all

Cal Poly has hired Paul Holocher to be its new head men's soccer coach.
Cal Poly has hired Paul Holocher to be its new head men's soccer coach.

Depending on how the current wave of conference unrest breaks, Cal Poly could be staying put in the Big West Conference while the football program continues its Football Championship Subdivision scheduling struggles.

Or the school will be accepting an invitation to a more stable gridirion home, possibly in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

Cal Poly has yet to publicly receive an invitation anywhere, and if it does, the decision whether to accept will be made at the university level.

Still, it will be the Cal Poly coaches having to adapt to the changes in the trenches.

Second-year Mustangs head football coach Tim Walsh is on record saying that a move to the Western Athletic Conference, which just lost Boise State to the Mountain West, would be the right one for his program.

Cal Poly is affiliated with the five-team Great West Football Conference — where at least one team is actively seeking to leave the unstable conference with no automatic postseason bid — and nobody wants to be the last one holding the bag. The WAC already features two natural geographic rivals in Fresno State and San Jose State and could add more if UC Davis and Sacramento State are included in expansion.

WAC commissioner Karl Benson has mentioned Cal Poly on his shortlist of candidates recently, and he made it clear to The Tribune in the past that the WAC is not looking for associate members.

But how do other campus coaches feel about a potential move out of the Big West?

It’s a conference that has helped the Mustangs advance to the school’s first-ever Division I NCAA postseasons in several sports, including baseball, softball, volleyball and men’s and women’s soccer.

Within the past few years, men’s and women’s basketball have also teased followers with conference tournament title-game runs where each was one half away from making the NCAA Tournament.

Big West stronger in some sports

Men’s soccer head coach Paul Holocher has turned Cal Poly into a conference power in his four seasons. His efforts have helped turn the Mustangs’ rivalry with Big West foe UC Santa Barbara into the best-attended matchup in the country.

Since the WAC does not sponsor men’s soccer, Holocher’s hope is that his program can hang on to its affiliation with the Big West if there is realignment coming.

“I definitely do think it’s possible,” Holocher said of remaining an associate member in the Big West. “We’re a strong program, and I think we’re an asset to the conference. That’s definitely what I would hope for.”

Similarly, Cal Poly wrestling could stay in the Pac-10 because the WAC does not sponsor that sport either. Boise State is a Pac-10 wrestling power.

But for baseball in particular, the Big West holds plenty of appeal.

A perennial NCAA regional multi-bid conference, the Big West has been rated as high as fifth in conference RPI by popular rating website and hasn’t fallen below eighth.

In the same span, the WAC has only been ranked in the top 10 once.

Because of the weaker ratings, the WAC sends fewer at-large teams to the postseason. Regular-season champion Fresno State was snubbed this year, and when the Bulldogs won the College World Series in 2008, they likely would have been left out of the field had they not won the WAC Tournament.

By contrast, the Big West sent two teams to NCAA regionals in a down year this season after being awarded three berths in 2009 and four in 2008. Considering the conference has received three bids 12 times, that seems to be the norm.

“In the sport of baseball, the Big West is looked upon as one of the better conferences in the country,” Cal Poly head baseball coach Larry Lee said. “So, were in a good situation from a baseball standpoint.”

But Lee also has a unique overall perspective.

After wrapping up his eighth season, he’s not only the longest tenured men’s coach at the school, Lee’s also a San Luis Obispo High graduate whose dad, Tom Lee, coached the Cal Poly baseball team in the 1950s.

If the Mustangs had their own version of Bo Schembechler’s “Michigan man,” Larry Lee might be it. And his general stance on the issue of realignment reflects his dedication to the whole.

“I’m for whatever is in the best interest of the entire athletic program,” Lee said, “and if that means moving to the WAC in baseball, then I’m all for it. We’re in.”

Football scheduling problems

Really, the problem being solved by realignment would be the difficult scheduling situation for football. Since 90 percent of the FCS teams play east of the Rockies, it’s challenging for athletic director Alison Cone to fill out the home schedule with opponents that entice the paying public.

A move to a bigger conference with more guaranteed home games would alleviate much of the annual home scheduling conundrum.

But a jump to the FBS creates its own set of problems, too.

The school would need to increase its budget by millions every year to account for increases in scholarship numbers and travel.

WAC road trips include flights to Hawaii and Louisiana Tech. Meanwhile Cal Poly busses to every opponent in the Big West, the only conference in the country confined to a single state.

That’s just the tip of the expenditure iceberg. To satisfy NCAA requirements and to ensure that its programs remain competitive, the school would have to commit to completing renovations of Alex G. Spanos Stadium and upgrading support facilities like locker rooms and weight rooms.

Estimates to complete the renovation, which began with an overhaul of the west side in 2006, with the minimum number of required NCAA-mandated seats ranged from $9 million to $33 million when Cal Poly gathered the information two to three years ago.

There’s no telling how those estimates hold today, but certainly, more ambitious designs would increase the cost.

Basketball competitiveness

There’s also the question of how competitive Cal Poly could be in sports like basketball, where the Mustangs’ venue would fall on the lower end of the spectrum.

The average seating capacity of WAC arenas is 11,600. Fresno State’s Save Mart Center, which opened in 2003, seats 15,500, and the Bulldogs led the conference in men’s basketball home attendance this past season, averaging 7,726.

Cal Poly was fourth in men’s basketball home attendance in the nine-team Big West, where 3,000-plus seat Mott Gym blends in with the crowd.

The Mustangs averaged 2,165 fans in 12 home games this past season under first-year head coach Joe Callero. Pacific led the conference, averaging 3,473. That number wouldn’t even be enough to pack the smallest WAC gym, the 5,000-seat Event Center at San Jose State.

Cal Poly’s pool of recruitable student athletes is already limited by the university’s tough academic standards, which are more stringent than minimum NCAA eligibility requirements in several areas.

Cal Poly’s academic reputation is also a major point of pride and by the same token a useful recruiting tool, but going into a conference outgunned when it comes to facilities could only increase the recruiting advantage of schools who aren’t held to the same academic standards.

“For the long term, a basketball arena would be a major plus for the recruiting of 17- and 18-year-olds,” Callero said. “From the short-term perspective, the excitement and with the budgeting increase, I think we could be competitive with what we have, but it would be tremendous to have a new arena.”

After 13 years, head women’s basketball coach Faith Mimnaugh is the second-longest tenured female Cal Poly coach — only 17-year soccer coach Alex Crozier has led a Mustangs women’s sport longer — and she wonders how fit the university is to make such a weighty commitment when there is so much uncertainty about its leadership.

Robert Glidden, president emeritus of Ohio University, will take over as interim Cal Poly president when Warren Baker retires at the end of July. That decision came after CSU trustees decided to reopen a search that had already been narrowed to two finalists.

Glidden recently pledged to “not let things go stagnant” while the search continues, but how far would that commitment go?

“That’s my concern at this stage. I’m not sure,” Mimnaugh said. “It’s a fairly significant decision, and I’m not sure Cal Poly would look at it without somebody in place who’s going to be in charge.

“It would have a big impact if the WAC did come calling. I don’t know if they’d have a good answer.”