When college football conference affiliation as we know it threatened to come crashing down with rumors of aggressive Pac-10 expansion over the summer, many questioned whether the time was right for Cal Poly to make a move. Then the Mustangs opened the season with an announcement that broke like the perfect curveball, giving the athletic department a reason for joy in a year that ended in heartbreak on the field.
John Madden told The Tribune in an exclusive interview the previous summer that one window for the Mustangs to have climbed the rungs from Division II to the Football Championship Subdivision and on into the Bowl Subdivision with rival CSUs Fresno State, San Diego State and San Jose State had closed.
Was that window opening again?
The Pac-10 was talking about swallowing a chunk of the Big 12, which could have caused a huge ripple effect among the smaller conferences. The Western Athletic Conference was looking to counter the loss of Boise State, and Cal Poly was one of many teams rumored to be joining the conference that already housed the Bulldogs and Spartans.
While everyone was thinking WAC, Cal Poly interim president Robert Glidden instead accepted an invitation from the Big Sky Conference, opting to keep Mustangs football at the FCS level for the foreseeable future.
Though criticized by some who wanted to see Cal Poly playing at college football’s highest level, the decision appeared to help the athletic department keep travel costs down by allowing most of the remaining sports programs to stay in the all-California Big West Conference.
It also gave the department the chance to raise funds and expand its facilities at its own pace. A move to the FBS would have forced an immediate pledge to increase the seating capacity at Alex G. Spanos Stadium and required increased all-around athletics spending.
There was another huge benefit to slotting football into the Big Sky, which will add the Mustangs full-time in 2012 after the team plays Big Sky members Montana and Eastern Washington next season.
Incorporation into a large conference with stable membership eases many of the recurring scheduling concerns that troubled Cal Poly during its time as an independent and as a member of the Great West Conference.
Mustangs athletic director Alison Cone made it no secret that she struggled to get quality opponents committed to traveling to San Luis Obispo, and that led to a home schedule that failed at times to entice local fans.
Locals also had another reason to put the team out of mind this season: A five-game road trip that prevented Cal Poly from playing at home for a 42-day span in September and October.
Winning their first two games, including the program’s first regular-season victory over top-ranked Montana, the Mustangs were able to come out of the lengthy road swing with playoff hopes still intact and went into the season finale needing to beat rival UC Davis.
A victory against the Aggies likely would have gotten Cal Poly back into the FCS playoffs after a one-year absence, but after taking a 21-0 first-half lead, the Mustangs allowed UC Davis to sneak away with a 22-21 road win.
Cal Poly finished the season with a 7-4 record and ranked No. 22 in the country in The Sports Network media poll but was left out of the 20-team playoff bracket.