When the unranked Cal Poly San Luis Obispo basketball team defeated No. 11 UCLA by a score of 70-68 on Nov. 25, Mustang Coach Joe Callero moved one step closer to achieving one of his key goals.
During four years at Cal Poly, Callero has methodically nudged his team toward being a contender. First a winning season, then a place in the conference championship tournament and now, perhaps, a championship and a chance to go to the Big Dance. Knocking off a ranked team is a step down that road, but it has created momentum that can put the Cal Poly program on the map.
When Callero visited with our editor for a phone chat a couple of days after the big win, he said he approaches basketball coaching in many of the same ways that a small-business owner approaches building a successful enterprise. Callero’s rules for success were so clearly framed that we thought we’d share a few of them:
• To work your way out of trouble, sweat the details. The Mustangs were 18 points down in the third quarter. They mounted their successful comeback by working to pick up two or three points at a time through better execution — then forcing UCLA to call a timeout so the Mustangs could rest and regroup — then picking up another two or three points. With momentum going their way, the Mustangs made a few crucial three-point baskets and turned a runaway loss into a close contest.
• Adapt or die. In the first half, Cal Poly threw two or three defenses at the Bruins that seemed to stymie the UCLA attack. They trailed by just two points at half-time, but in the third quarter, UCLA read the defensive switches and ran up the score. Callero’s response was to throw what wasn’t working out the window and concentrate on one main defense — a tight man-to-man. “You have to set a game plan — but be ready to adjust,” he said.
• Take to heart the lessons you learn on the way up. Callero is a coaching veteran who labored for a dozen years on the community college circuit before joining Cal Poly. After coaching a team with just one loss in a season and a couple of regional championships, he wasn’t fazed by the allure of Pauley Pavilion and certainly has taken the publicity blitz that accompanied his victory in stride. “This isn’t my first rodeo,” he said.
• Create win-win outcomes. By bringing his team back from an 18-point deficit against the Bruins, Callero said he figured that even if his team lost by a point, he’d proven that he could hang tough with a ranked team. That meant the winning free throws were made without the do-or-die pressure that brings about desperate moves. Instead it was UCLA that was forced into desperation shooting. “It takes luck, heart, coaching and great players,” Coach Callero said. “That was a very, very tough loss,” Bruins Coach Ben Howland told the Los Angeles Times.
• Celebrate your victories — but don’t lose focus. Callero said he let his team bask in their victory as a motivational tool, but after 48 hours, it was time to get to work on the next game against St. Mary’s.
Callero speaks a language any business owner from the Tri-Counties could understand.
But by going into Pauley Pavilion and walking the talk in front of the Bruins nation, Coach Callero has done something unique. He’s taken his underdog team from the obscurity of San Luis Obispo to the highlights reel on Sports Center — and with his clear vision, explained in simple terms, he’s earned the respect of a national audience.
Good luck, Coach Callero. You’ve taught us a lot about success and the lessons you learn along the way.