During his sophomore year at Cal Poly, Karl Ivory was walking near Mott Gym – looking like an MTV stereotype, as he describes it — when a woman called out to him, ordering him to come to her.
“Look at you!” said the woman, eyeing his attire. “Do you know who you represent? You have to carry yourself in a better way!”
Marcia Foster, a coach for the women’s basketball team at the time, had never met Ivory, who was a cornerback on the football team. But she felt she had to set him straight.
“You know why I yelled at him?” recalled Foster, now head coach and a teacher at Fullerton College. “He had his pants sagging. He was busy being cool. I wanted to encourage him to do more than be cool.”
Roughly 20 years later, Ivory has realized the potential Foster saw, having worked as a successful engineer in Europe for over a decade – including his current role with a German startup developing air taxis. But he remembers Foster and others who helped him wage comebacks both on and off the field.
“I’ve had people at Cal Poly take interest in me,” said Ivory from his home in England. “I had a great experience at Cal Poly.”
Ivory came to Cal Poly on a full football scholarship after graduating from Ontario High School – the same school astronaut and Cal Poly alumnus Victor Glover’s attended just before him. After arriving in San Luis Obispo, the first thing a fellow student said to him was, “You must play a sport here.”
Determined to combat stereotypes about Black students in college, Ivory chose to study engineering, eventually choosing industrial engineering. But balancing football preparation and travel with a demanding major proved challenging.
“When you’re playing a sport at a high level, it’s very time demanding,” Ivory said. “It’s not just the practice time and the weight training time, but then there are other things where you’re doing film studies, which you have to do on your own time.”
Kurt Colvin, a professor in the Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering Department and a key rebounder for the Mustangs basketball team in the 80s, identified with Ivory as a good athlete who battled that balance.
“We didn’t get the best grades as undergraduates, not because of lack of intelligence or work ethic but because we were managing very full schedules with many diverse commitments,” Colvin said.
Eventually, Ivory’s struggle to balance those two lives jeopardized both, reaching a tipping point when he received an expulsion letter.
“I remember crying over that thing, thinking, ‘What am I going to tell my mom and what am I going to tell my friends?’” Ivory said. “’I’ve just been kicked out of school because I academically failed.’”
Eventually, some of his supporters, including friend Charles Bell and defensive coach David Fipp, wrote letters on his behalf, and Ivory was reinstated – marking the beginning of his turnaround.
“They put some faith in me, and I didn’t quit on myself,” Ivory said. “I don’t even know to this day if my mom and dad even knew I was kicked out of school.”
Foster was one of the first key influences at Cal Poly.
“She got me to reflect more on what I’m putting out there,” said Ivory, who recalled his attire during the initial encounter as saggy pants, an open shirt and multiple necklaces.
Being a young, cocky athlete is normal, said Foster, who had been a college athlete herself. But, she added, “Don’t be cool at the expense of being smart.”
After her lecture, Foster invited Ivory to study at her office, which he did four times a week.
“We would talk about what was going on, about football, about family, and we started doing Word of the Day,” said Foster, who would go on to mentor other students. “Every day he would come in and say, ‘Ok – what’s the word for the day?’”
While schoolwork was never easy, Ivory worked his way off probation.
“I’m not going to sit here and say I got straight A’s, but I turned it around,” he said.
While academics had sidelined his football eligibility, his senior year, Ivory kicked off his gridiron comeback with an interception during the season opener. In the first five games of 2004, Ivory had four interceptions, including one for a 73-yard touchdown and a last-second, game-saving endzone pick. On a team with future NFL players Chris Gocong and Jordan Beck, Ivory garnered several accolades, including first team all-conference honors. He finished with five interceptions and 12 broken-up passes, the latter tying him for fourth in school history.
“It was amazing doing what I knew I could do all along,” Ivory said.
After his collegiate career, Ivory tried out for multiple NFL teams. But, unlike Gocong and Beck, his football experience concluded at the end of his senior year.
“For any athlete that plays at a high level, it’s an adjustment,” he said. “Because for so many years, you see yourself as just a football player. And so now you can’t do it anymore – nobody has chosen you to do it any more — and you can wallow.”
Instead, Ivory fell back on his degree – which happened to be from one of the highest rated Industrial & Manufacturing Engineering departments in the nation.
“I’ve gone professional,” he said. “I just haven’t gone professional with sports.”
An early job was with Boeing as a shop floor industrial engineer. But after seven months, he was moved to a temporary project in Italy. Ivory decided he liked Europe, so as Boeing prepared to bring him back to the states, he landed a job in France with Rolls Royce and eventually Jaguar Land Rover in England, working his way up to management in automotive.
Today he has homes in England and Germany as he works as head of supply chain operations for Lilium, a company that is developing an all-electric, vertical-takeoff air taxi.
“I’ve been in Europe since ’09 – which was only supposed to be six months!” he said. “I’m so thankful I got a call from a coach to go to Cal Poly.”
Despite Ivory’s classroom challenges, mentors said they knew he had the ability.
“I saw lots of potential in Karl but knew it wasn’t reflected in his coursework and would take a few years to fully develop,” Colvin said. “Often the ‘C’ students who have diverse interests and responsibilities are the ones who continue to mature and develop themselves long after their time at Cal Poly.”
Foster was noticeably touched when she learned that Ivory had become successful – and had cited her as an influence.
“It’s beyond wonderful,” she said. “To hear all this stuff he’s done, I’m so proud.”