New Faces, New Places: Wojo making his own mark as Marquette coach
Marquette coach Steve Wojciechowski is proving to be way more than the floor-slapper people remember from his days at Duke.
MILWAUKEE -- Marquette senior Derrick Wilson was in class when news broke that his new coach would be Steve Wojciechowski, and so one of the first people he talked about the development with back in April was actually a Marquette professor.
"And the first thing my teacher told me is to look up a video of him slapping the floor," Wilson said. "So I watched it. I thought it was funny."
Few weeks later, Wojciechowski was conducting an in-home visit with Matt Carlino, a transfer from BYU. Carlino's family was there, including a cousin named Bucky O'Connell.
"My cousin is kinda crazy," Carlino said, big smile on his face. "So he ran over and slapped the floor before he shook Wojo's hand, and Wojo was like, 'That's a B-minus floor-slap.' So my cousin slapped the floor four more times. He wanted Wojo to give him a better grade!"
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Simply put, this is life for Steve Wojciechowski.
He never goes too long without hearing about floor-slapping, and it's been that way for nearly two decades -- since the now 38-year-old started 88 games in a four-year career at Duke that earned him the reputation as college basketball's most-famous floor-slapper. He heard about it for years on the road in ACC games while serving as an assistant under Mike Krzyzewski. He still gets it all the time from total strangers in restaurants and airports. And it is literally the first thing Cousin Bucky hit Wojciechowski with when the two met at Carlino's home.
"It's so bizarre to me," Wojciechowski said with a laugh. "I'm branded for life."
I got to the Marquette campus early on a Tuesday morning.
I stayed late.
And, yes, while I was there I heard lots of stories about floor-slapping -- the funniest of which (outside of Cousin Bucky's introduction, of course) belonged to Marquette assistant Chris Carrawell, who played two years with Wojciechowski at Duke and acknowledged that, absolutely, he got caught up in the moment once and "did that corny bullsh-t."
"But just one time!" Carrawell said. "It was Wojo's Senior Game. We're down like 15, but we're on a comeback. Get it down to like seven. Then we score again, and it's down to five. So Wojo is over there slapping the floor, and I was like, '[Expletive] it! We gotta slap the floor! Let's do it!' So I did it -- but just that one time. And we won the game!"
Tales like these came often on that Tuesday while men with saws and drills worked constantly on multimillion-dollar renovations to the Al McGuire Center, and seemingly everybody has one or seven floor-slapping stories. Like Wojciechowski said, he's branded for life. But the other (and more important) conversations around campus with both people who have known Wojciechowski forever and folks who only met him five months ago painted a picture of someone far different than the cartoon character he's sometimes made out to be. Specifically, Wojciechowski was consistently described as a big-thinker with huge plans for himself and the program he inherited from Buzz Williams, and it was difficult not to notice the impressive impression he's made on virtually everybody.
"Wojo's been outstanding," said Marquette deputy athletic director Mike Broeker. "It's clear he has a plan that's 15 years in the making, and he's executed flawlessly since Day 1."
Wojciechowski's assistants said similar things -- both for the record and privately.
The players echoed those thoughts.
And I don't mean just the typical "Coach is great" stuff you might hear from anybody's staff or players. These conversations were more specific than that, complete with people describing a man who seems smarter than everybody but never carries himself that way.
"His vision is unique, and he does everything at a high level," said former Drake coach Mark Phelps, who is now an assistant at Marquette. "He gives value and respect to everybody even though he's so accomplished at such a young age, and, I mean, who does that? A lot of us would have an ego if we were him. But he's a real servant-leader, and he's a master-communicator with everybody from the president to a prospect in the Class of 2017.
"You know the it factor we all talk about?" Phelps added. "He has it."
And, by all accounts, he's always had it, which is, presumably, among the reasons Krzyzewski hired Wojciechowski when he was just 22 years old. Speaking of, I asked Carrawell what it was like to be coached by Wojciechowski after playing beside Wojciechowski, which is obviously an unusual thing for a student-athlete to experience, and he described it as a surprisingly smooth transition because Wojciechowski forever presented himself as a leader and like a coach.
"You could always see this day coming," Carrawell said.
In other words, none of this is surprising. But one thing that might surprise you is how rarely Wojciechowski -- despite being someone who has spent nearly his entire adult life in Durham -- mentions the Blue Devils or Coach K to his players.
"I don't think I've ever heard him mention Duke," Wilson said, at which point Carlino added, "Yeah, I've been kinda waiting on him to say something about Duke, but he really never does. I was always wondering, 'Is he going to make a Duke reference?' But he never does."
Wojciechowski insisted this is not by design, but others around the program said they believe it has to be. Either way, it's hardly gone unnoticed, and those closest to him describe it as a great symbol of Wojciechowski's quiet confidence. As the theory goes, a first-year coach less sure of himself would rely on Duke stories and Coach K stories and USA Basketball stories to establish credibility with players, fans, everybody. But Wojciechowski hasn't had to use any of that to win people over or convince them that Marquette made the right hire. He's instead let his own ideas and actions speak for themselves, and, to date, everybody I talked with seems genuinely blown away.
Bottom line, Wojo, in lots of eyes, will forever be known as Duke's floor-slapper.
There's no escaping it, at this point.
But there's so much more to him than that, and people on Marquette's campus learned as much during the interview process, and they appear a little more convinced of it with every passing day. Like Broeker said, Wojciechowski has been planning for this opportunity for 15 years, and he knows exactly how he wants to do things. None of it guarantees success, of course. But anybody who thinks Marquette merely hired Coach K's right-hand man is grossly underestimating what Wojciechowski brings to the so-called table.
He's sharp, organized and focused like crazy.
And he's not above pulling out an old trick someday, if he needs it.
"We'll see," Wojciechowski answered with a grin when I asked if he'll ever slap the floor as a head coach to get his players motivated. "I mean, if that's what it takes ..."
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