Jeff Swinger - USA Today Sports
Towards the end of the summer, Cal senior forward Cole Welle received the news that he would be awarded a scholarship for his final season. The young man from Santa Cruz was handed a piece of paper from head coach Wyking Jones during a team meeting to read out in front of the group. By the end, his teammates yelled and embraced him, as the moment was the culmination of three years of hard work and dedication.
Welle joined Cal as a freshman in the 2014-15 season, initially recruited by Mike Montgomery as a possible walk on. After Montgomery's retirement and a subsequent coaching hire, Montgomery passed on Welle’s contact info to new head coach Cuonzo Martin, who eventually would offer him a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on.
“I played basketball in high school, basketball and volleyball in high school,” Welle said. “Coming out of Santa Cruz there’s not a lot of attention given there, but I worked with Bobby Bramlett over at West Valley and played with him, got some looks at L.A. tournaments and first it kinda started off small, and then I was able to first get into Cal. Like, I did the earlier admission type things. So, I got into Cal first and then I don’t want to say I self-recruited myself, but I reached out to Coach Montgomery at first, who was here at that time and I talked to him, I had kinda gotten in communication with him, but then we went through the coaching change.
So, I looked at other schools in the meantime, and then eventually Coach Martin reached out to me and said ‘Hey, Coach Montgomery gave me your contacts, he said you guys were talking’, so that kinda relationship built up and then once I officially got admitted into the school, I was up here for, I think it’s called CalSO, the orientation, and I got to meet Coach Martin and he said we’d love to have you come work out for us, see how you’d do, how you’d play, I did a workout and then I drove home and the same day, he called me and said ‘We’d like to welcome you to the Cal family, I know you need to talk to your family first, but we have officially liked to offer you a place as a walk-on.’”
Welle’s grandfather, James Black, played under Pete Newell back when Cal won the 1959 NCAA Tournament and the opportunity to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps was something Welle couldn’t pass up.
“My grandfather, who played here for Pete Newell in 1959, the championship team, I talked with him,” Welle recalled. “He was like, ‘You’d never regret it, it’s an amazing school,’ and so I’ve always wanted to come here since I was a little kid and then just ultimately ended up coming here after talking with my family and it’s been the greatest decision I’ve ever made.”
Welle bought in quickly to Martin’s attitude of nothing being given and everything being earned.
“I think in other programs, I would say that’s probably true,” Welle said of being treated differently as a walk-on. “But I think one of the biggest pieces that led me to choose Cal is because of Coach Martin’s philosophy of nothing is given, everything’s earned, and so the idea that I’m coming in, even though I don’t get a scholarship, or I may be viewed a little bit differently by other people, he still saw us all as players rather than items. And so, just having that sense of feeling was really a big factor into my decision to coming here. For me personally, I never really felt different.”
Despite that, Welle knew getting on scholarship was a big goal. More than anything, it would be a way for him to pay his family back for all of their support. When the moment came that he was informed that he'd earned a scholarship, Welle had a hard time holding back the tears.
“I told all the guys I was stunned,” Welle admitted. “It’s not only feeling of pride and validation, but it’s just a shock and you know after all my hard work even since I was a little kid, finally be like ‘Oh, I’m doing exactly what my grandfather did, I’m doing what my dad was able to do up in Alaska.’ You know, it’s just this huge weight off my shoulders and like I immediately thought about my parents, too. Like, everything they’ve done for me. You know, I wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t provided the life they did for me and how they paid for me to go to school here.
And, to be able to give back to them and hopefully give even more back to them going through this year is just something that went right through my mind and I was almost moved to tears, but I tried to hold it back in front of all the guys and my coaches, so, but it was a feeling that I would never forget and definitely one of the proudest moments of my life, I’d have to say.”
The life of a walk-on is never easy, a lot of hours put in for not a lot of glory, but Welle's kept on working, getting playing time a season ago. That hasn't kept him from having doubts however.
“I mean, there’s definitely been times where it’s been extremely hard and I have wanted to throw the towel in, but because of the relationships I’ve built with my teammates and my coaches, I just kept my head down and kept working. I have this saying, it’s from a song, where ‘gangsters move in silence’ and I don’t talk a lot. So, I don’t like to talk and brag even when I do well. If I do better and I get better, I need to keep getting better.
There’s another thing I say, is there’s no room for complacency and I just can’t emphasize enough even if you think you’re getting better, there’s always room for improvement. There’s a speech by Matthew McConaughey who says ‘Your hero should be you in 10 years.’ So you can never get to your hero and there’s always something to keep striving for and so to see the relationships and these connections I’ve made with my teammates and my coaches, that is something that has always driven me to do better and to always want to be a part of this and to never given up on my dreams of being where I want to be.”
Now that he’s a senior and on scholarship, Welle finds himself in a new position. With so much turnover from last season and a new coaching staff, Welle will be expected to be one of the leaders on this team and show the ropes to the younger players on this team.
“We are such a young team and a new program to where we’re all learning new things and we’re trying to implement some new things, and so it’ll be a journey for all of us,” Welle said of the upcoming season. “My role I believe is just to be open to everything that coach asks of me and to do whatever I’m asked of and especially as a senior who’s been through the program for four years, to lead and help these younger freshmen out and kinda show them the ropes. Make sure they stay in line, make sure everybody else is all in, all out all the time, and just whatever coach asks, I gotta do that.
But personally, my goals are, I’ve always been a guy who fights for everything, and scraps for everything, so, I just gotta play hard and make sure that even if I’m not the biggest guy out there I work my butt off to make sure that I’m giving an extra effort to compensate for what I might be lacking in size or athleticism.”
Earning a scholarship is one thing, but Welle has one final goal in mind for his senior year, and it's somewhat of the Jim Harbaugh-creed, attacking each opportunity with an enthusiasm known to mankind.
“Man, I just wanna go out on a high note,” Welle said. “It’s crazy to think that in 8 or so months I’m gonna be done with college, moving on to the next step of my life and I just want to take advantage of each and every opportunity I’ve given, whether it’s in basketball, whether it’s in school, whether it’s in a potential work opportunity, or relationship with someone who can help further my career. I just want to be able to capitalize on anything that I’m offered and the situation and just make sure I set myself up for the rest of my life and take advantage of that.”