BY Art Thiel 08:08PM 03/16/2014

Thiel: Need an NCAA team to adopt? Cal Poly

Once again, the state is left with a single entry, Gonzaga, in the NCAA basketball tourney. So let’s embrace another team that has a couple of state connections.

Louisville, with Peyton Siva of Seattle’s Franklin High School holding the trophy, won the 2013 NCAA national title. This year — Cal Poly?! / Wiki Commons

Cheering for big-time college basketball in this state lately is a little like pulling for the cook from Denny’s on “Iron Chef.” Good for him, but there’s only so much to be done with chicken fried steak, even with country gravy.

The only team from the Evergreen State to make the NCAA tournament Sunday (bracket here) was the inevitable Gonzaga, but the Bulldogs were a modest No. 8 seed in the West, a comedown from No. 1 a year earlier.

Washington and Washington State this season were never in the hunt and Seattle University is still not to be taken seriously after five years of Division I.

Late Sunday afternoon, the Huskies absorbed a final insult when the NIT deemed their 17-15 record unworthy of their 32-team tourney of also-rans, although the NIT picked Pac-12 brethren Cal (19-13) and Utah (21-11).

Coach Lorenzo Romar said earlier that UW would not accept a bid from the third-tier College Basketball Invitational, apparently grasping for any fig leaf to save a little dignity. Washington had been in six consecutive postseason tournaments: CBI (2008), three NCAAs (2009-11) and two NITs (2012-13).

This year? Nada. Whew.

I mean, New Mexico and New Mexico State are in the NCAA tourney. More people work at Amazon in South Lake Union in Seattle than live in the entire state.

North Dakota State is in. Delaware is in. Fergawdsakes, Cal Poly is in the NCAA tourney, and they won 13 games and lost 19.

That’s California Polytechnic State University from San Luis Freakin’ Obispo (Motto: “Weird Al Yankovich Went Here”), which is to big-time college basketball what Queen Anne Hill is to Mount Rainier.

I’d recommend that if you’re a local hoops fan in a quest for a rooting interest and can’t quite deal with another smirk from Zags coach Mark Few, you may as well go with the Mustangs of Cal Poly.

Besides the magnum-underdog cuteness of a team with a losing record, the Big West Conference tournament champion is coached by Joe Callero, who qualifies as a Seattle homie.

An Enumclaw native and a 1986 Central Washington University grad, Callero coached at Sumner High School, Highline Community College and the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma before getting the Seattle University coaching job in 2001 when the school was still Division II.

In 2006-07, he took Seattle U. to its first postseason tourney in 38 years. His final Redhawks team in 2008-09 was 21-9 as an independent and finished ranked No. 131 out of 347 schools in the Sagarin Ratings.

He was cashiered in favor of Cameron Dollar, the University of Washington assistant who had nice run alongside Romar. But there has yet to be an uptick for the little Jesuit school on Madison.

Callero’s fifth season at Cal Poly didn’t seem like much. The ‘Stangs lost nine of their final 11 regular-season games to finish seventh (6-10, 10-19) in the nine-team conference. But Thursday at the Honda Center in Anaheim, Cal Poly opened the Big West tourney by routing UC Santa Barbara 69-38, the fewest points allowed in the tournament in 13 years.

Friday night, they beat regular-season champ UC Irvine 61-58. In the title match Saturday night, Cal Poly edged Cal State-Northridge and its first-year head coach, Reggie Theus, 61-59 to win the conference’s automatic entry to the NCAA — first in the school’s 20-year history in Division One. The ‘Stangs were the lowest seed to win the tourney in its 39-year annals.

If that isn’t enough Cinderella for you, let’s throw in another local angle —  Callero’s associate head coach is Paul Fortier, an eight-year assistant to Romar and former star Huskies player from 1983-86 who was fired last year.

So there’s at least a couple of local guys in the NCAA tourney, even if they had to get out of Seattle to get there.

Cal Poly qualified for what used to be called a play-in game — now called the first round or First Four — Wednesday in Dayton, OH., against fellow 16th seed Texas Southern (19-14) of Houston, which earned the Southwestern Athletic Conference’s automatic bid by winning the conference tournament Saturday with a 78-73 victory over Prairie View.

Should Cal Poly prevail Wednesday, it advances to the Midwest Region’s second round Friday in St. Louis, where the Mustangs would face No. 1 seed Wichita State (34-0), the nation’s only unbeaten team.


Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Now that we’re all Poly-nesians, let’s just enjoy the week’s hype, intrigue and national attention. Pretend it’s a Seahawks postseason game.

Otherwise, we’re stuck with the Zags, and another loss in the first round (No. 9 Oklahoma State) or certainly the second round (No. 1 Arizona). It’s fun to see the smirk disappear, but March Sadness gets old after 15 tourneys in a row.


  • Todd Gordon

    One more local angle Art, Cal Poly has local boy Zach Gordon from Lynnwood who played at Archbishop Murphy High school and who took the Charge with 4 seconds left in the championship that sealed the deal. Plus Another local player who was Zach’s teammate on their 2011and 2012 Seattle Emerald City AAU team, Seth Berger is a freshman on the UMass basketball team. Thanks for a nice write up on the Mustangs!

    • Denis D

      That’s right Todd – go Mustangs!

    • art thiel

      Very helpful, Todd. Any chance you’re related? Or are you claiming Aaron Gordon?

  • RadioGuy

    I knew Joe Callero was at Cal Poly, but not Paul Fortier. Didn’t Fortier work as an assistant at WSU or the UW for a while? I’d been thinking lately that if Dollar is canned at SU (not that he would really deserve it), they might want to step back in time and bring Callero back home. Then I saw Cal Poly-SLO’s record this season and figured it’ll never happen…until the Big West Tournament.

    Well, anyway, I’ll be pulling for Cal Poly AND Gonzaga while also pulling for Lorenzo Romar to bring his handicap on the golf course down. He’ll have the time.

    • jafabian

      Both Fortier and Jim Shaw left Romar’s staff last season. Fortier after 8 seasons and Shaw was with UW for 9. Shaw is now at St. Mary’s. Also gone from the staff is Lamont Smith who went to New Mexico. No one ever said that they were released or terminated but I’m pretty sure the turnover was Romar either wanting a change in coaching or feeling some heat on how the the team has performed the past few years.

      • art thiel

        To his credit, Romar is very careful about how his staff departures are characterized. But if he thought they could help, he would have kept them. So it amounts to a firing if it isn’t an advance to a head coaching job.

    • art thiel

      Romar best be recruiting from here to Senegal. Any spot him on a golf course, please write me.

  • Jamo57

    Not only are we stuck with Gonzaga, but then it’s Mariners baseball until the Hawks ramp up again in July. (With each passing year I develop more and more interest in soccer).

    Go ‘Stangs! Make a deep run to shorten our abyss!!!!

    • art thiel

      Hang in, Jamo. NFL draft is in May. I’m sure there’s a workout or two, too. I can feel you Jones-ing from here.

  • jafabian

    Isn’t Cal Poly Jim Zorn’s alma mater? That’s good enough for me to root for them. I’m on such a Seahawk high right now I support anything related to the Hawks!

    • rosetta_stoned

      Zorn went to Cal Poly Pomona, not San Louie Obispo.

      • art thiel

        Beat me to it, Rosetta. But they’re both part of the Ivy League of California.

  • 1coolguy

    WOW – 68 teams made the NCAA and 32 made the NIT – 100 teams, at LEAST, are rated HIGHER than the Huskies!!!
    COME ON Woodward, DO YOUR JOB! Romar is down to just being a good guy and a good local ambassador.
    The Dawgs need a recruiter, a coach that can win as well as represent the UW well.
    I suspect there are a number of coaches who fill this description in this top 100 who would love to come to the UW.
    Maybe once Emmert left Woodward has lost the touch?

    • art thiel

      So I’m guessing being the best coach UW’s had isn’t counting for much right now with you?

      • 1coolguy

        Yep – As you know Art, it isn’t exactly a list of success.
        I know you are a fan of Romar’s but come on – is there any reason to settle for this after 12 years of trying?
        You must admit, UW men’s BB has had the bar set pretty darned low by Romar’s predecessors, but that doesn’t mean simply improving on those disasters is the definition of success.

        If you were an impartial AD, would you consider Romar’s record a mark of your successful hiring?

        • art thiel

          For a body of work, yes. They did win the Pac-12 regular-season title fairly recently. He doesn’t get a career pass, but fans who think coaches can be tossed like yesterday’s underwear are contributing to the many problems of college athletics.

          • 1coolguy

            There was a great article yesterday by Larry Stone @ the Times concerning Tommy Amaker and what he has done for HARVARD basketball: Talk about the dregs of men’s bb. He has them in the NCAA’s and today they beat #5 seed Cincinnati.
            Callero has Cal Poly in the dance.
            I am sure there are more difficult schools to recruit to than UW, given our record, yet even UW doesn’t come close to these 2 programs.
            Cameron Dollar was @ the UW recruiting during Romar’s heydays (2002-2009) and if Woodward doesn’t have the chops to drop Romar for a successful replacement, then I suggest he at least bring Dollar back, while in the meantime putting Romar on a 1 year notice.

  • Go Zags!

    Mr. February loves you……Sincerely, the ONLY winning basketball team in WA. BTW, Home and home means at UW and at GU.