Don Oberhelman will combat Cal Poly’s continuing budget crisis with energy and enthusiasm.
Those are the qualities that helped him become Cal Poly’s new athletic leader.
“If you’re enthusiastic about what you do, you enjoy what you do every day, I think it makes other people have that same feeling,” Oberhelman said, “and I think that rubs off on other people, and it just grows from there.”
Oberhelman, the 40-year-old senior associate athletic director at San Diego State, was introduced Monday as new Cal Poly president Jeffrey Armstrong’s choice to succeed Alison Cone as the next director of athletics at a news conference at the Performing Arts Center.
Oberhelman emerged from a pool of more than 50 applicants and beat out fellow finalists Torre Chisholm of Portland State and Ron Prettyman of Indiana State — two acting athletic directors with more time leading Division I programs.
Oberhelman’s lone experience in a top job was a four-month tenure as an interim athletic director while helping San Diego State rebound from the public relations hit of misappropriation scandal that ensnared the previous A.D.
“Don has a wealth of experience,” Armstrong said. “He’s had experience at San Diego State in moving a program forward, and there were months if not longer periods of time where he was in charge. He is a rising star, and we want his star to be with us for a long time. He really competed against a pool of really outstanding candidates, but when all is said and done, we had a really easy decision.”
Oberhelman, who has also served as senior associate athletic director at Southern Mississippi and in the athletic departments of Florida State and Texas A&M, was passed over as a finalist for the athletic director opening at Missouri State in 2009.
His term as the interim athletic director at San Diego State came after his interview with Missouri State, but the most useful period of Oberhelman’s career might have been immediately after he was relieved by the Aztecs’ hiring of current athletic director Jim Sterk away from Washington State.
“For the first time in my career, I’ve seen an athletic director transition since then,” Oberhelman said, “and other than going through the interview process once before, that’s probably been the most educational thing I’ve had happen to me in my career, seeing a new athletic director come into a program and watch and learn how to make a transition and how to change things that need to be changed. But at the same time, you need to be able to let people do the thing that they are successful at.”
With a target start date that has him on campus for the first day of football spring drills April 4, Oberhelman will make $182,496 in annual salary, according to Cal Poly Public Affairs spokesperson Stacia Momburg.
The figure is about $20k more than Cone made during most of her five-year appointment as the full-time athletic director but remains less than the $188,376 level she was awarded in the months prior to her December retirement.
Armstrong said Oberhelman’s salary will rank in the top four amongst peers in both the Big West and Big Sky conferences.
Armstrong described Oberhelman as the unanimous choice, and the comments of coaches and program supporters echoed the sentiment.
“He is the perfect fit for Cal Poly,” said women’s head basketball coach Faith Mimnaugh, who served on the university’s hiring committee and whose program received a berth to the WNIT on Monday. “They couldn’t have found a better person to lead us. I can’t tell you how thrilled I am.
The whole coaching staff and everybody within athletics and the university in general is excited about what he’s going to bring to our athletic department and to our campus.”
Said Al Moriarty, a Cal Poly Hall of Fame football player and noted athletics donor: “He’s a star on the rise, and that’s what we want. We’re basically a young university in our programs, and we’ve got so much future here.”
Cal Poly made the leap from Division II in the mid-1990s, and many programs have enjoyed their first or second appearances in NCAA Division I Championship events within the past few years.
Cal Poly could use a spark to secure the private funding necessary to complete or begin facilities upgrades that would help bring the department more in line with more established peers at the Division I level.
“We need to be energized,” Mustangs head football coach Tim Walsh said. “Cal Poly is a great institution with a great athletic history, but it’s what can we be? What we’re looking for is somebody that’s going to use his enthusiasm and knowledge of how to run a program and to take us to another level.”
Cal Poly interim athletic director Phil Webb, who will resume his role as senior associate athletics director when Oberhelman officially begins work next month, had a short list of qualifications he was looking for while on the hiring committee.
“Somebody with vision, somebody with planning, leadership and communication,” Webb said. “Don has all of those qualities and characteristics and a lot more, including boundless enthusiasm and energy.”
It’s the hope that Oberhelman’s energy will help the athletic department gather supporters and grow revenues and donations.
Alex G. Spanos Stadium sits unfinished since one half of the stadium was renovated in 2006, and Armstrong himself has speculated about the need for a modernized basketball arena.
Coaches have also bemoaned the state of locker room, weight training and office facilities as well as assistant coaching salaries at Cal Poly.
None of those issues can be addressed without more money, money that will not come from Sacramento.
“I do know that there’s some needs,” Oberhelman said. “I do know that private funding is going to have to fund a majority of those needs simply because of where we are budgeting in the state of California. I think the first thing we need to do is start attacking those problems with an energy and contagious enthusiasm in the community and get people on board because there’s room on the bandwagon.
“The community of the San Luis Obispo region as well as the whole Central Coast area needs to understand this is your home team, and these student athletes are worthy of your support.”