Late in the evening of December 28, 2016 at the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Markus Howard stepped to the media room podium after scoring 23 points in his BIG EAST debut, a 76–66 Marquette win over Georgetown. Those of us in the Fourth Estate were busy plotting questions to ask the young, up-and-coming Arizonian. Little did we know we would be joined in our inquiries by someone who had just been on the receiving end of our questions — Howard’s coach, Steve Wojciechowski.
It was a rare moment of levity from Wojciechowski, as he jokingly asked the casually attired Howard whether he was, “ … a better shooter or a dresser.” Howard chose the former before Wojciechowski handed the mic back to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Matt Velasquez and ducked away.
I’m not sure anyone spent more time in, and on, post-game press conferences with Wojciechowski than I did. John Dodds is probably the only one who can challenge me, as he’d usually meander over after spotting statistics to prepare for discussion on his own website’s message boards. Velasquez and Ben Steele both spent more time with Wojo on the whole, and gave his quotes more (virtual) ink through JSOnline, as did the cadre of Marquette student reporters ranging from Jack Goods to John Steppe to Zoe Comerford. But they all basically split the timespan that was the Wojciechowski era at Marquette for their respective outlets. I, on the other hand, was there for six of seven years. I live-tweeted games and press conferences for iHeart Milwaukee, then sent audio highlights from the pressers, which usually involved a healthy amount of time and editing.
Wojciechowski was in his third year as Marquette’s head coach when he sat down to ask Howard his one and only press conference question. It was the first moment I remember the perennially buttoned-up coach — literally, as he often wore his polos with the top button done — loosening up.
Wojo had a great sense of humor, but us media only got to see it on the rarest of occasions, exclusively after wins. That we only saw it so often was both a blessing and a curse. When it came out, laughs broke the tension of Wojo pressers nicely. But the tension was there, and the fact we saw that “real” side of Wojo so little, belied what I feel was the fundamental problem with the Wojciechowski era at Marquette:
Wojciechowski never connected.
He never connected with us in the media, as his answers to more-serious questions felt straight out of the corporate-buzzword playbook rather than genuine reflections of how he really felt. You always got the sense he was searching for the right words and answers, like he was trying to ace a test or complete a crossword puzzle set forth by athletic leadership. He never seemed to grasp that you’re not a mere athletic department mouthpiece as a coach. It’s OK to have a personality, and many fans prefer coaches who do.
He also didn’t seem to connect with his players. His attempt to lighten the moment with Howard in the presser, though funny, also felt forced and awkward. Another subtle-but-memorable moment of the Wojciechowski era came during “Inside The Huddle” TV coverage of Marquette’s controversial loss to Seton Hall in the 2019 BIG EAST Tournament. I didn’t do this justice in the moment with the tweet at left. Wojo screamed at his team, “SETTLE DOWN,” but wasn’t in any way heeding his own words. Why should a group of 18-to-23-year-olds listen to a guy who’s not even following his own advice about something as easily understandable as emotional control?
A college coach has myriad hurdles to overcome under even the best circumstances, from trying to outthink some of the sport’s most masterful minds on the opposing staff, to dealing with the personalities, attention spans, moods, et al., of school-aged young men who have had their egos inflated through a life full of basketball success. Even under the best circumstances, getting it right consistently isn’t easy.
But the biggest characteristic of Wojciechowski teams at Marquette was their inconsistency. “Maddening” may have been my most commonly used word in the Wojo era. His teams could beat the number-one team in the country, then lose to DePaul, in a manner of weeks. That you knew they were capable of greatness, but only achieved it on occasion, was exceedingly frustrating.
The most sense anyone was able to make of Wojciechowski’s teams came in a blog assembled by three Marquette-specific online outlets one day before Wojo’s ouster, noting that BIG EAST teams generally played better against Wojciechowski the second and third time they met in a given season, an indication Wojciechowski wasn’t countering opponent’s adjustments.
The blog also pointed out something that crept up occasionally to those keen to these content producers: It seemed like the blogs picked up on analytics, trends and issues faster than Wojciechowski did, if he even picked up on them at all. That’s not to say any of us bloggers should become college basketball coaches. But when the interwebs are saying, “The team plays better when xhappens and here’s proof,” and the coach continues doing y, it’s understandable when well-read fans get ticked if results don’t improve. If a coach’s hunches work better than the numbers, he’s a cagey genius. When they don’t, and the team consistently fails to reach expectations, you get what happened today.
In the end, I think this was another part of the problem: It was difficult to call Wojo on his issues. Yes, the bloggers saw through the flaws, but they’re not in the press room and don’t have to deal with the ramifications of directly questioning a coach and potentially having him clam up on answers, or have staff limit access, accordingly. The Wojo era made me wish for a time when we had more people doing the question-asking. It never felt like we could challenge Wojo on things going wrong. At other schools in markets with a more robust media presence, like Butler in Indianapolis, reporters noticeably asked more-drilling questions. Expecting a student, a guy who does a lot of work for Marquette Athletics, or the only other professional journalist in the room to be that person seemed like a bridge too far, as well as when it’s clear from the want of Marquette staff to wrap pressers up quickly that there’s no interest on their part in encouraging the media to go too in-depth on anything. I tried, in my own way, to occasionally hold Wojciechowski’s feet to the fire in my blog. But there was only so much I could do while still expecting to face co-workers the next day.
There’s a breakdown in the effectiveness of the media when it’s not directly connected to the sources it’s covering. While I give those bloggers above credit for their analyses of Marquette Basketball, I also kind of wish just one of them, at some point, would have have sought out a credential and actually confronted Wojciechowski with thoughtful questions about what they were seeing. When there isn’t that direct contact, it breeds an “us versus them” feeling among both coaches and bloggers. It also adds pressure to the few of us actually in the room to try and bridge the disconnect between Wojo‘s corporate-speak and the concerns and solutions brought up by the bloggerati. As much coverage as those bloggers give Marquette, hiding behind a screen and posting analyses to WordPress only does so much. You can impact change by planting seeds with well-worded questions. I wish some of these bloggers would join us in the press room and start asking some of the tough questions directly that, instead, they’re currently positing on blogs or Twitter from afar, getting no answers and allowing their well thought-out queries to get mixed into the same din as the ramblings of emotional, reactionary fans. I’m not saying it would have fixed things, but it may have helped. It’s yet another Wojciechowski disconnect, but it feels more like a two-way street.
Nonetheless, it’s kind of a moot point now that Wojciechowski has been relieved of his duties as coach.
I didn’t think it would happen, and even when I was informed it was about to happen through an unexpected-but-correct source, I had my doubts. I put this tweet out as a placeholder. A second source I checked with after sending this tweet denied the rumor. But, with the placeholder, I did beat the first non-vague source, Jeff Goodman of Stadium, to the punch by 40 minutes.
Still, it happened. Accordingly, I think this is a moment where we need to reassess our priorities.
While a pointed line in Marquette’s press release stated the athletic department will bear the entire financial burden for Wojo’s buyout, a figure probably in the millions, that’s still a lot of money paying someone not to work at a university that has laid off many good people making far less than that recently, and in an economy where that money, even if it comes from wealthy donors, could have gone toward giving umpteen other people fulfilling, family-supporting jobs. I can somewhat defend Marquette’s decision-making if the next hire works out: Enough folks seemed willing to do away with their season-ticket purchases and subsequent donations that the difference between getting back to winning basketball, and the cost of not taking action, may pay off in the end for Marquette. But it’s still a big risk, and it puts a ton of pressure on athletic brass to get the next hire right.
But when looking at these priorities, I think we also need to take a different tack.
I went to college at UWM, a mid-major if there ever was one. I was a manager for one year under Bo Ryan and had a positive relationship with Bruce Pearl as a sports information student assistant. My favorite oft-told Pearl story is from when I was walking back to the athletic offices after calling a women’s basketball game on the radio: Pearl, parking after getting back from the airport, popped out of his car after seeing me, complimented my call and seemed genuinely excited to see me. Ryan, not the nicest guy in the world, was at least somewhat accessible if you caught him at the hotel bar after a road game or striding from one place to another on campus.
I wish Wojo let us get to know him better. Between playing and coaching at Duke and Marquette, I can see how he got accustomed to being a part of basketball teams so esteemed on their campus that they didn’t necessarily have to feel connected to their athletic departments, the media, or darn near anyone. He was too busy protecting his proverbial island and not willing enough to invite people onto it, even if only for 15–20 minute press-conference visits. All coaches’ styles are an extension of their personality in some way. Ryan was an angry coach and, often, angry man. Pearl had energy abound. Wojciechowski did a lot of yelling, jumping and motioning, but influenced very little and, frankly, seemed too stubborn to listen.
I think Marquette desperately needs a coach who can connect — with players, students, athletic staff, etc. Ryan connected because he scared you into listening. Pearl engaged you with his energy and made a point to reach out to anyone and everyone to get them on board. I covered Wojo for six years and never felt like I knew the guy. He was the Bill Lumbergh of college coaches.
Comparisons have been made between Wojciechowski and the late Bob Dukiet. At least you knew Dukiet’s flaw: He was a great guy, but wasn’t a good basketball coach. It was a time where drawing recruits to Marquette was a difficult task, and he didn’t maximize the potential of the few he got. However, I know for a fact that the band loved him, because my sister played in that band and he’d join them to play piano with them after wins. Wojo had far more resources and got the recruits, but was a worse floor general, and I suspect (again, don’t actually know) he can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
I have no clue who the next coach should be. I follow Marquette, not necessarily college basketball on the whole. From budget to availability to simply wanting to live in Milwaukee, there are too many variables to make a reasonable guess who Marquette will hire.
I am hoping to get back to covering Marquette in some way, shape or form next year, if only because enough folks who stayed around the team this year have reached out to say they miss having me there. As I restart the continuity clock, I’ll do so the same way I did the last time, with a new head coach. I just hope it’s one that I feel like I’m talking to moreso than talking at during press conferences. That’s the one thing I want.
I do feel bad for Wojo. He tried his best. If anything, I think he got too wrapped up in it all. He was trying to think of everything that needed to be done right; as a result, he often wasn’t always thinking of the right things at the right moments. I don’t think he was ready to be a head coach, nor is he head coach material. Another market would have been even more challenging. I think the all-time greatness of Howard, and to an extent Andrew Rowsey, were basically all that saved him from an earlier exit. But it’s tough for me to feel too bad for him because, again, it’s tough to feel bad for a guy you spent a lot of time around but never seemed to show you his true self. I didn’t connect with him, either.
There will be new memorable moments, from pressers and otherwise, with a new head coach. I just hope it’s one that gets through to the people around him. Wojo didn’t do that. In the end, that put him, and the university, in a difficult place. It was a disconnect that proved costly.