Steve Wojciechowski was an assistant at Duke
for 15 years before being hired as Marquette
's head coach. (Jeffrey Phelps/AP)
As he finalized the details of an agreement to become the new head coach at Marquette on Monday morning, Steve Wojciechowski made a phone call to Durham, N.C., for reassurance and final words of counsel. But he had a request for the man at the other end of the line, too. It was a little unexpected.
Mike Krzyzewski's response was not.
“My first question to him was if he had any interest in being my associate head coach – and doing halftime interviews,” Wojciechowski said at a news conference in Milwaukee. “Surprisingly, he said no. He said I couldn't afford him.”
Consider it among the few line items that might snap the purse strings at Marquette. That's ultimately why Wojciechowski chose arguably the best landing spot of any Coach K acolyte. There is no longer a leadership vacuum, with a new school president a week into the job. There is the familiarity of working within the confines of a small, private school architecture. But mostly, there is the dedicated investment in being very good at basketball, underlined by the school's healthy spending of money in order to achieve that end.
According to U.S. Department of Education figures, Marquette's basketball expenses in 2012-13 totaled $10,726,622. By comparison, Duke spent more than $15 million. But of Marquette's current Big East peers – noting that Creighton, Xavier and Butler had yet to join the league officially – no school spent more on basketball than the Golden Eagles. Only Georgetown, at $9,612,945, came within $3 million. While spending isn't everything, both the gap and the relative proximity to Wojciechowski's former employer is telling.
Krzyzewski disciples have yet to measure up to their mentor, and it hasn't been close. Wojciechowski might have put himself in the best position to succeed.
“Marquette's a basketball school,” Wojciechowski said. “Obviously there's amazing things going on all over the university – in the classroom, in research, in a lot of different ways. But the fact that basketball is big in the culture of the university and is woven into fabric of who the university is played a huge role. I'm coming from a place like that. It's important to them. People are passionate. They want to see teams that win and win the right way. There's not a lot of those schools out there. When you look at Marquette, you can say that. To me, that was incredibly attractive.”
Not many other Krzyzewski assistants have afforded themselves the infrastructure Wojciechowski now enjoys. Mike Brey had a five-year stopover at Delaware before heading to a football school in Notre Dame. He rebuilt the Irish into a steady winner, but the program hasn't reached a Sweet 16 since 2003. Tommy Amaker left for Seton Hall, making one NCAA tournament in four years before bolting for Michigan. Johnny Dawkins took over a Stanford program that had a legacy of success with Mike Montgomery but was sliding into a backseat position as football emerged as dominant -- and it took Dawkins six seasons even to make the NCAA tournament. Chris Collins will lead Northwestern to its first NCAA bid at some point, but the Chicago-area native took the job last spring in spite of the resources. Perhaps only Quin Snyder's leap to Missouri matches Wojciechowski's move in terms of choosing a school set up for success in basketball, or at least fervent about achieving it.
Wojciechowski also selected a destination primed to win in the near term. Marquette has the nation's No. 20 recruiting haul, according to Rivals.com, with three commitments from top 100 players in the Class of 2014. This after ex-coach Buzz Williams brought in four four-star freshmen in 2013, with the best of them, point guard Duane Wilson, redshirting last season due to injury. The Golden Eagles will lose size with Chris Otule and Davante Gardner graduating, but Indiana transfer Luke Fischer will be eligible after the first semester next season. Wojciechowski will have to avoid talent attrition; otherwise, the son of a longshoreman, who still keeps his father's hard hat in his house, has zero building or rebuilding to do.
The one risk is far off and uncertain, and Wojciechowski may never encounter it: Coaching at a school without football in a league like the Big East could be troublesome if football-playing schools eventually split off from Division I. “The fact that it's a basketball conference – I love that,” Wojciechowski said. “I don't know how as a coach you couldn't. A lot of times things in this day and age are driven by football, and to come to a place where basketball is the thing is something I'm incredibly excited about.” Less enthusiastic was Williams; the potential doomsday scenario of a football-conference split was one of many reasons why he bolted for Virginia Tech, according to a source.
That's probably too tentative a fear for Wojciechowski to consider right now regardless, especially when weighted against the structure in place. Krzyzewski wasn't going anywhere for at least another five years, he said recently, so Wojciechowski couldn't wait anymore when presented with the Marquette option and all it entails. The 37-year-old may or may not be a burgeoning star, and how he coaches and develops talent will determine whether he returns to the bench at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the future, just one seat over from where he sat previously. But in leaving Duke, he picked a place where he has ample backup either way, a bunch of safety nets and bells and whistles to foster success.
Wojciechowski said in his introductory news conference that he aimed to “win every day.” You could almost hear the T-shirt presses warming up as he dropped that line. But he took a job that positions him to do just that, as well or better than any job taken by any Blue Devils aide before him.
“I wasn't going to leave for just any job,” Wojciechowski said. “I was only going to leave for a job I thought is the perfect job for me.”