Less than a month into his tenure at Cal Poly, new athletic director Don Oberhelman is already dealing with his first big curveball.
Mustangs wrestling coach Mark Perry, who was preparing for his first season flying solo as Cal Poly’s head coach, has instead left the program to take a higher-profile and higher-paying job as an assistant with Illinois.
Stressing his commitment to the sport, Oberhelman said a national search for a new head coach is in the works, but Perry’s departure came unexpectedly.
Perry spent the past season — head coach John Azevedo’s 10th and final year with the Mustangs — as the co-head coach, and with Azevedo set to retire in June, Perry was set to have the reins all to himself.
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“Obviously, I would have loved to spend the rest of my life in SLO,” said Perry, who joined Cal Poly as an assistant in 2009 and helped guide Boris Novachkov to the NCAA title match this past season and Chase Pami to the national finals in 2010. “It’s the most amazing town I’ve been to ever as far as living goes.
“When you do get opportunities to help yourself and your family, it’s hard to let go of kids, but you have to take them.”
A four-time All-American at Iowa where he won an individual national championship and team title in 2008 and another individual championship in 2007, Perry moves back into the conference where he competed in college.
“The Big Ten in wrestling is like the SEC in football times five,” Perry said. “Your top 10 teams, usually seven or eight of them are in the Big Ten.
“Moving out here is quite a bit cheaper than in SLO, too. It’s a career decision.”
Declining to reveal specifics, Perry acknowledged a pay increase factoring into his decision to join Illinois, where his focus will mainly be on instruction and recruiting rather than the administrative duties that go along with being a head coach.
According to the Sacramento Bee’s state salary database, Perry made $55,126 in 2010. Azevedo made $64,305.
Azevedo will still be retiring in June, looking to move to Temecula to spend more time with his brother and father, but if Oberhelman acts quickly, Azevedo will be around to ease the transition.
Until then, Azevedo continues to work on next season’s schedule, recruiting and offseason workouts. Both he and Perry said they’ve been contacted by coaches interested in the position.
Both agreed it will take a special mix of skills to keep the program successful.
“It’s not just someone who has wrestling credentials,” Azevedo said, “but someone who I think is really strong administratively and can lead and inspire not only the wrestlers but the whole wrestling community into supporting this program and taking it to its potential.”
In the age of budget crises and cutbacks, wrestling has been a common casualty. Most recently, UC Davis, Cal State Fullerton and Cal State Bakersfield announced they were dropping their programs before Cal State Bakersfield was able to raise enough donations to support itself. Fresno State dropped wrestling in 2006. San Diego State canceled its program in 1994.
As the funding has become increasingly difficult to secure, the ability to fundraise has become a mandatory attribute for coaches.
That’s something Oberhelman is familiar with and a big reason he was a popular hire at Cal Poly. He said wrestling at Cal Poly is a high priority for him.
“We’re committed to it, I’m committed to it,” Oberhelman said. “And if we’re going to have it, we’re going to win. I’m not going to tolerate middle-of-the-pack finishes at Cal Poly.
“If we weren’t committed to it, we wouldn’t be doing a national search for a new coach. That shows that our commitment is as strong to wrestling as any other sport we have. I don’t view wrestling as any more vulnerable than any other sport.”