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Cal Poly's knocking on the door
Tim Walsh has been on the road into the Big Sky Conference before.
“This is the second time I’ve done this,” said Cal Poly’s football coach, who’ll see his Mustangs added to the Big Sky by 2013 - or 17 years after his former team, the Portland State Vikings, made the same move in 1996. “It should be fun.”
Walsh seems to be having fun in his second season in San Luis Obispo, Calif. He came back to his home state after spending two years as Army’s offensive coordinator. The 14 seasons before that he was PSU’s head coach.
This is a long ways away from Portland, Ore.
“To be honest I’m pretty fortunate to land where I landed,” said the 55-year-old. “It’s the best hidden secret in the state of California. This area has everything. The area is not impacted. It’s one of those few places in California that can become, or is, a college town.”
Walsh was a back-up quarterback at UC-Riverside who upon graduation spent several years coaching in the high school and college ranks, in-state.
“When Dan Hawkins coached with me at Sonoma State, we talked about Cal Poly,” Walsh said. “He told me, ‘If I got that job, I would never leave.’ “
Now, while Hawkins has his struggles at Colorado, Walsh has that Cal Poly job. He doesn’t plan on leaving.
“My wife would probably take a sledge hammer to me if I brought up another job,” he said. “That’s probably, hopefully, not going to happen.”
The rub is that after a nice run under head coach Rich Ellerson, who ironically took over as Army’s coach in 2009, the Mustangs fell to 4-7 in Walsh’s first season. Portland State’s winningest coach (90-68) kept the option-based offense Ellerson preferred but scrapped the “Flex” defense for the four-man front he used with success at Portland State.
But transitions can be tough.
“You’ve got to coach to your strengths,” Walsh said. “But the reality of the situation is that in 2007 and 2008, Cal Poly struggled on defense. They just scored so many points it usually didn’t matter.”
The elite school - “a state school with an Ivy League reputation,” Ellerson once said - has a huge recruiting base and used it to win a Division II national championship in 1980.
The Mustangs jumped into the Football Championship Subdivision in 1994, and have made a couple playoff appearances since: 2008, when they lost at home to Weber State; and 2005, when they won a first-round game at Missoula. That remains their lone victory in 14 games against the Griz.
There might seem to be a preponderance of four-year transfers for the current Mustangs, given that quarterback Tony Smith (Utah), slotback Mark Rodgers (West Virginia) and receiver Dominique Johnson (UCLA) all started at higher-level programs.
Seven D-I transfers dot the current roster, while five were on the 2005 team. The Mustangs mostly come to campus straight from the preps, including James Chen, a 270-pound defensive lineman who was emancipated as a youngster and supported himself through high school.
“It’s a long story,” said Chen, a standout nose tackle and one of 11 starters who return on defense. “I was in a large family, with a lot of conflicts.”
He figured to work his way through college before Cal Poly came by, offering a full-ride.
“It was a great deal and I love it here,” said Chen, an honors candidate and microbiology major. “I always thought I wouldn’t have time for football in college.”
The Mustangs are 1-0, though they struggled against Division II Humboldt State last week. They trailed 17-7 at half and rallied for a 23-17 victory.
“We didn’t take care of the ball,” Walsh said. “If you only run 60 plays because of mistakes, that’s very frustrating. Five turnovers in the first half took away a lot of opportunities.”
That was the offense. On defense, Walsh added, “The first half we played horribly.”
“I agree with that,” Chen said. “Part of me wants to say it’s the first game, and another part says, that’s no excuse. But on a good note we did - in the second half - shut them out.
“We know that’s the tempo we have to play at the rest of the season.”
The rest of the season begins Saturday, inside Spanos Stadium. It’s a rare visit by the Griz, though they’ll be down more now that Cal Poly is Big Sky-bound.
And for all their academic prowess, football does come first for the Mustangs: They practice from 7:30-9:30 a.m. most days. Then it’s off to class.
It’s a formula that has produced three Buck Buchanan Award winners (Chris Gocong has been a mainstay for the Philadelphia Eagles and Cleveland Browns) and a bushel of wins.
Soon, we’ll see if it plays in the Big Sky.
By Fritz Neighbor, The Missoulian