Joe Callero has some simple advice for those actively seeking their next career move.
Just try to be really, really good at what you do.
And, then, people will find you.
That’s how the Cal Poly coach, whose Mustangs will visit Arizona tonight in the season opener, says he’s managed to climb a dizzying ladder through college basketball that has included stops in high school, junior college, Division III, Division II and now Division I.
Fittingly, he played NAIA ball, too.
“To be real honest, I never thought much about the job I was scratching for next as much as I was obsessed about the job I had,” Callero said. “Everything I’ve had has been presented to me. I’m not a very strategic career guy. If you just do your thing, focus on your job, something may happen.”
He did. And it has.
The Seattle-area native played point guard for Central Washington teams that made two straight NAIA tournament appearances, then began moving all the way up from a high school and junior college coach. Along the way, he won 73 percent of his junior college games, went 21-8 in 2008-09 when Seattle had just finished transitioning to Division I and has posted two 18-win seasons at Cal Poly.
However, UA associate head coach Joe Pasternack didn’t need to see those records to know what was up. He’s the game scout for tonight.
“You can tell he’s a very, very good coach just by watching them on film,” Pasternack said.
Here’s a closer look at what Callero has learned during his climb so far:
Juco ball is a joy
Callero sandwiched a high school coaching and counseling gig with successful stints at Highline Community College, south of Seattle. It was there he found he made the biggest impact.
“It was the most rewarding because you can do the most for those kids during that experience, you can really help them catapult their careers,” Callero said. “It seemed to me it was the truest game — kids weren’t there because they were trying to get to the NBA, or because of their parents. They were there because of their love of the game.”
And, because junior college coaches must constantly replace players who leave after a year or two, it was easy to make an instant impact by recruiting well.
“The playing field can get pretty level pretty quickly,” Callero said. “And there’s not a dramatic difference in facilities or who you can get into school.”
Small can be big
Callero spent the 1998-99 season as an assistant under Henry Bibby at USC, helping the Trojans reach the NIT that season. But instead of hanging around Division I in hopes of getting a head coaching job — the preferred path for many of today’s college coaches — Callero took over as head coach at Division III Puget Sound.
“My wife was pregnant and we had a chance to go home,” Callero said. “I’m a catholic kid from Seattle. I was prepared to be there until I died.”
Two seasons later, Callero was nudged over to Seattle University, which would transition from Division II to Division I during his eight seasons there.
One reason: His favorite book is Frosty Westering’s “Make The Big Time Where You Are,” written by the legendary football coach at little-known Pacific Lutheran University.
The book is listed today for $99 and up on Amazon, where it has an average customer review of five stars. According to the Seattle Times, when Westering died in April, a former player set up a website to honor him — and it received 18,000 hits in three days.
That’s impact. That’s big time.
Callero has carried the philosophy over to Cal Poly, where attendance has increased 31 percent since he arrived in 2009. The Mustangs are active in their community, allow kids to rattle off the starting lineups at games, and run into the stands to shake hands after wins.
They were 13-1 at home last season, averaging 2,066 fans per game.
“We don’t have the 18,000-seat arena, but we don’t go to (USC’s) Galen Center and (UCLA’s) Pauley Pavilion and then come back to our place and say ‘woe is me,’ ” Callero said. “We make it our home.”
Division I has blessings and curses
Callero said the pay scale and support are better in Division I, but with competition that is commensurately tougher.
Being in the Big West also means that, whatever the Mustangs do during the season, they still most likely need to win the conference tournament to get into the NCAA field.
So Cal Poly has responded by playing tough teams in tough venues, getting exposure and experience with wins over UCLA and USC during the past two seasons, and hoping that pays off with a Big West Conference title.
“In the first year or two we were trying to be competitive and do things the right way, brand ourselves as a tough-minded team,” Callero said. “Long Beach State and Santa Barbara have been the top dogs here, but we can knock on doors and have a very nice homecourt advantage.”
Go for it
The Mustangs will be paid $90,000 for showing up tonight, but Callero said he is not looking to make money via scheduling as much as finding challenges.
He says playing high-profile games helps with recruiting, booster support and keeping players focused during preseason practices.
So, in addition to tonight’s game, Cal Poly will travel to Fresno State, Oregon, Pitt and Stanford this season.
“It raises our intensity and our exposure,” Callero said. “Although maybe a few people do look at me like I’m suicidal.”
There’s always more out there
Truth be told, Callero has looked around the job market a bit.
Well, only for the purpose of figuring out what he can possibly do next.
“I hope to finish my career as an assistant in the NBA,” Callero says, “and as a seventh-grade girls coach.”