When a packed house filled with members of the Cal Poly men’s basketball program and its supporters erupted at Firestone Grill on Sunday afternoon, it signaled a monumental first.
After nearly 20 years at the Division I level, the Mustangs are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history, an accomplishment many are labeling the most amazing of all time for the athletic department, considering the logic-defying, improbable run that furnished it.
Cal Poly (13-19) will play Texas Southern (19-14) in the First Four event in
Dayton, Ohio, on Wednesday for the right to be the No. 16 seed in the Midwest Regional.
The game will be televised at 3:40 p.m. on TRU TV, and the winner advances to play No. 1 Wichita State (34-0) in St. Louis on Friday.
The Mustangs, sporting the lowest win total in the 68-team field, were indeed in the bottom spot when the NCAA revealed its power rankings for the tournament.
After a seventh-place finish in the Big West Conference during the regular season, a schedule that included losses in nine of its last 11 games, the Mustangs had no business even asking for consideration from a national postseason event prior to this past weekend’s conference tournament.
Then Cal Poly pounded second-place UC Santa Barbara on Thursday, edged first-place UC Irvine on Friday and culminated the Big West Tournament title run with a 61-59 victory in a stirring comeback Saturday to earn an automatic entry to its first Big Dance.
The Mustangs became the lowest seed to ever win the Big West Tournament.
“As I sit here now, it’s as dramatic as anything I’ve ever seen,” Cal Poly athletic director Don Oberhelman said. “Knowing what was against us and to be able to do that is the most dramatic, amazing finish to a season.
“Just the ways those games played out, I don’t know how you can’t have goose bumps for each one of those three games.”
Mustangs head coach Joe Callero plans to have the team sign a framed sports section from Sunday’s edition of The Tribune and see it hung at Firestone Grill, which displays memorabilia that together serves as an unofficial San Luis Obispo sports hall of fame.
“Twenty years from now,” Callero said, “I’ll be coming back down here, saying, ‘Oh yeah, I coached here. We made history here, got Poly to the tournament.’ When I’m 70 years old, that’s going to be really, really cool to have that on the wall for 20 years.”
There are several landmarks for which Cal Poly athletics is already known. First and foremost is the 1960 plane crash involving the football team.
The department is also responsible for a collection of Division II national championships, including those for football, baseball, tennis, track and field and wrestling.
In the 1980-81 season, the Mustangs basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four before falling in the national semifinal and winning the third-place game.
“There’s been great athletes and great teams before us that have done much greater things,” senior forward and reigning Big West Tournament MVP Chris Eversley said. “At the same time, for our respective sport, this is probably the biggest thing we’ve done since they went to the Final Four for Division II. Just being the first D-I team to do it definitely feels great.”
It’s difficult to debate the worth of today’s accomplishments against those of the Division II era. The comparison is not exactly apples to apples.
Former Mustangs player Mike Wozniak, who became Cal Poly’s all-time leading scorer during a four-year career from 1997-2000 and still ranks second in career points, debates sports on a daily basis.
The co-host of ESPN Radio 1280’s 5 p.m. drive-time show “The Sports Bite” ranks this NCAA berth high in the annals because it’s something that everyone who contributed throughout the years can take pride in.
“I would absolutely put it up there because this has been a goal that’s been reached for for so long,” Wozniak said. “The duration of accomplishing a goal, that plays into the accomplishment. I remember the first Big West game for these guys was my freshman year, and now you’re talking about a goal realized. For so many players, it was a goose bump moment.”
Setting the plane crash aside, this should be the single biggest piece of publicity Cal Poly athletics will have ever gotten, simply because of the pop culture phenomenon the tournament has evolved into.
“While 30 million people are filling out their brackets,” Callero said, “they’re going to come across the name Cal Poly and Texas Southern, and they’re going to say, ‘Well, who’s going to win that one?’ And they’re going to Google the name Cal Poly and look at the players and the school and say, ‘Who do they have? How did they get in there?’ ”
Said Oberhelman: “The exposure that our school is going to get, you can’t duplicate that. You can’t artificially create the publicity we’re going to get in the next few days. Millions of people are going to watch us on Wednesday and quadruple that for Friday.”