Commentary

Callero ready to rebuild Mustangs

Originally Published: June 2, 2009
By Andy Katz | ESPN.com

Joe Callero was born to negotiate. He had to from the minute he came into this world.

He was No. 8 in the Callero family. There would be eight more. When you're the middle child among 16 there isn't much you're going to get done without finding a middle ground.

[+] EnlargeJoe Callero
AP Photo/Ted S. WarrenJoe Callero led Seattle U to 21 wins this past season.

"I'm used to being around 16 people at one time," said the first-year Cal Poly coach of his ability to deal with teams of people. Maybe that's where his unbridled optimism stems from. But Callero isn't fazed one bit by the challenge of getting the Mustangs to the NCAA tournament for the first time ever out of what has become a one-bid Big West.

Callero coached Seattle, a transitional Division I school, to a 21-8 record last season as an independent, going 13-8 against Division I competition, including a road sweep of Cal Poly and UC Irvine.

There is a bronze statue of Ozzie Smith on the Cal Poly campus, representing the baseball's team success. Callero's recruiting pitch already this spring is this: Help get the Mustangs to the NCAA tournament and you'll have a bronzed statue in front of Mott Gym.

"I've been doing this for 23 years, grinding it out at every level," said the 46-year-old Callero. "I've been at every level: three years high school, six years junior college, two years Division III, seven years Division II, one year as a Pac-10 assistant [USC] and one year as a Division I head coach. I've done it long enough, but I don't have all the answers."

But he finds a way to be creative. Callero's method of making a pitch to Tubby Smith for a game between Seattle and Kentucky was to get to Smith in Las Vegas at a high school tournament and introduce himself as the only other coach who is one of 16 children. Then he reminded Smith that Seattle played Kentucky for the 1958 national title. The pitch worked, and Kentucky played Seattle in an exhibition game to open the 2007 season. The one hitch was that by then Smith was at Minnesota and Billy Gillispie was the Kentucky head coach, so there was no storyline between two coaches from 16-sibling families.

"We were Italian Catholics," Callero said. "It wasn't a big deal 30 years ago to have big families. My mother wanted eight. My father wanted eight. But it turns out they wanted their own eight."

When Callero was 16 years old, he told his mother, Diane, that almost all he can remember is her being pregnant. There was only one year that he can remember when all 16 were under the same roof -- a farm house with a mobile home built on to the side that they lived in outside Seattle on Mercer Island. His father, Vern, was a physician.

"He was home every day and took Wednesdays off," Callero said.

They didn't take any family trips. How could they?

My mother wanted eight. My father wanted eight. But it turns out they wanted their own eight.

-- Cal Poly coach Joe Callero

Trips to church and the grocery store were quite a scene. There were looks, not because they were odd, but just at the enormity of the clan.

Callero can name them all without hesitation. He rips off the 16 names in seconds: "Mike, Peter, Mimi, Betsy, Jimmy, Chris, Teresa, Joey, Gina, Cathy, Vincent, Vern, Tony, Marc, Jil and Casey." The oldest, Mike, 56, is working as a teacher in Kenya; the youngest, Casey, 36, is a basketball coach in Valencia, Spain. The rest are sprinkled around the West. By the 12th child they decided to go with tradition and name Vern after Vern.

Callero has "46 or 47 nieces and nephews. It's like they're coming every minute."

But Callero and his wife, Erika, have only one child. "That's because we wanted to balance the world," Callero said.

Callero is transferring the patience he found at home to building Cal Poly. San Luis Obispo is an ideal spot on California's Central Coast. There are vineyards, beaches and a serene college life that is certainly welcoming. The revolving door of success in the Big West gives Callero reason to hope he can make a gradual change from the Mustangs' 7-21 record a year ago, 3-13 in conference.

During the 1980s and early '90s the Big West was a destination conference outside of the Pac-10. The WAC had its moments, but the Big West had much more sizzle, with Jerry Tarkanian's teams at UNLV, the rocking atmosphere at UCSB, Utah State's crazed gym and a passionate fan base at New Mexico State under the guidance of Neil McCarthy that made the Aggies a tough out every game. All but Santa Barbara have split, making the conference a league solely within cash-strapped California.

Pacific has been the most consistent program in the bunch, with Cal State-Northridge of late being the most recent standard. The Matadors pushed Memphis to the brink of elimination in the first round of the NCAA tournament last season. With Dan Monson reviving Long Beach State and Jim Wooldridge improving UC Riverside, the league should be on the upswing.

With Callero's matchup zone and "more heady" style, he's hoping his methods will work in the Big West.

"We can make this like Spokane, a college community where the [sports teams] take over," Callero said. "Seattle is a great opportunity, but they're also three years away from playing in a conference. They're positioning for the WCC. But that's not up to them. There are still a lot of unknowns. Here we can make the move. I had to make one, because suddenly you can be 50 and you're over the hill. This is the time to make the jump."

Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Andy Katz | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com

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