Cal Poly’s new president, Jeffrey Armstrong, has been a St. Louis Cardinals fan since he was a young baseball player growing up in western Kentucky. And when he found out Hall of Fame Cardinals shortstop Ozzie Smith was a Cal Poly grad, Armstrong was even more excited to become a Mustang.
Coming to Cal Poly from Big Ten powerhouse’s Michigan State, Armstrong knows a thing or two about how a strong athletic program can give a positive face to a university. Part of his long-term plan for Cal Poly includes finding a new athletic director and improving the athletics department, which will generate more money for the school.
Cal Poly, as well as the rest of the California State University system, could use as much financial help as possible. Though it’s uncertain how the recently proposed $500 million budget cut to the CSU will affect the university as a whole, it certainly will have a “trickling down affect” on sports, Cal Poly interim athletic director Phil Webb said.
“One of the biggest single contributions to our revenue (are) student fees, the IRA (Instructionally Related Activities) and ASI (Associated Students Inc.) fees,” Webb said. “A consequence of reduced budget is a reduction in enrollment, and a reduction in enrollment has a significant impact on our revenue stream.”
The budget cuts will force the athletic program to rely more heavily on fundraising than they already do. Both Armstrong and Webb said they believe maintaining and expanding Cal Poly’s athletic program is vital to the university’s image. Armstrong said the athletics program is the front door for a university. Sometimes the sports program is what outsiders first see when touring Cal Poly, he said.
Though Michigan State and Cal Poly have very different athletic images, Webb said Armstrong’s experience at a Big Ten school can only help Cal Poly sports.
“I don’t think we quite have such a profile that Michigan State does, but I think certainly he comes from a school where he’s had the opportunity to see what athletics can do for a university in terms of ‘being the front porch’ and really exposing the university in a very positive way,” Webb said.
Preserving a strong athletic program and improving it can draw in alumni and potential donors. While Armstrong served as Michigan State’s Dean for the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, he raised more than $200 million for his college.
“My wife and I, we were quite involved with development and alumni and stakeholders relations,” Armstrong said. “Athletics was one part of how we developed relationships and maintained relationships with donors and alumni. Our college currently is the only college at Michigan State that has a football suite.”
Webb said this is exactly the type of strategic advancement plan Cal Poly athletics needs. Every year the department receives the same amount of funding from the university and every year the cost of maintaining the sports program goes up. Scholarship tuition raises and travel cost increases cause the department to depend more heavily on team fundraising.
“The piece of it that we really need to work on and develop is the long range, strategic major gifts,” Webb said. “We’ve had some success in that area, but it needs to be more strategic.”
More money from strong alumni relations could mean enhancing sports facilities for players. Better facilities attract top athletes. Top athletes mean more Cal Poly wins, which in turn translates into more money for the school.
One obvious facility enhancement needed on campus is Mott Gym because of its small size, said Brett Henninger, a biological sciences senior. Mott Gym, not to be confused with the Recreation Center that is currently undergoing renovations, houses basketball and volleyball events. Improving Mott Gym would help athletic programs recruit better players.
“I think when you look at major, major programs they all have big stadiums,” Henninger said. “Mott Gym can only hold (around) 3000 people. When you bring recruits to Cal Poly the recruits won’t be as impressed as the gyms they saw at other campuses.”
Not only would we get better players, but more people would want to go to the games, he said.
As long as Cal Poly can come up with the donor base from Armstrong’s alumni relations plan, he can see better sporting facilities, such as a new gym built on campus.
“I do believe there’s the need to enhance facilities for athletics as well as enhancing other facilities for other activities and pursuits on campus,” Armstrong said. “Part of development and moving the program forward is working with the athletic director and coaches and determining what facilities are needed and then we have to step back and say, ‘Well, what’s feasible? Do we have the donor base? Do we believe it’s the right thing for Cal Poly?’ Then we’ll move forward.”
Before any of these improvements can take place, a new athletic director must be appointed. Allison Cone, Cal Poly’s former athletic director, retired in December after six years as athletic director and 16 years at the university. The search for a new director began before Cone retired.
Armstrong and Webb are part of the search committee that is headed by Larry Kelley, vice president for administration and finance. They are whittling the list of well qualified applicants down to finalists and will have a director named by the end of March, Webb said.
The new director will be able to work with Armstrong to create an advancement plan to increase funds for the athletic department. The major gifts position in the athletic department is currently vacant and will be up to the new director and Armstrong as to how that position is filled. Webb said he is interested to see “how our advancement plan is developed once that position is filled.”
Despite a glum welcoming to the under-budgeted California education system, Armstrong is looking forward to being part of the Mustang family and the athletic department is looking forward to working with Armstrong as well.
“Like it or not, athletics is one of the things people talk about on the university and it can be the entry to talking about all of the other positive things at Cal Poly,” Webb said.