"My rule was I wouldn't recruit a kid if he had grass in front of his house.
That's not my world. My world was a cracked sidewalk." —Al McGuire

Friday, March 19, 2021

Why is Steve Wojciechowski Still Marquette’s Coach?

By Tom Keegan

The surprising aspect of Marquette message boards is not that there are so many threads that debate Steve Wojciechowski’s worthiness to continue as Marquette’s basketball coach, rather its the abundance of posters who whine about “yet another” Wojo thread.

Only total apathy would make those threads vanish, so until you don’t see those anymore, know that there are still fans who care about Marquette basketball. To care is to wonder why Wojo, at least for the moment, remains Marquette’s coach. 

Never mind that he has coached six seasons that included an NCAA tournament, only made two of them, and has not won a single NCAA tourney game. That’s not good, but not nearly as strong an indictment as his winning percentage in Big East games in the regular season, compared to those of his predecessors. Buzz Williams: .639; Tom Crean: .620; Wojo: .465.

Somehow, the insightful, “Play basketball! Play basketball!” And “Fight! Fight!” exhortations during timeout huddles haven’t translated to victories. 

The low point of Wojo’s tenure wasn’t treated as such by his boss. Sam and Joey Hauser ranked second and third on the team in minutes played and bolted, yet that didn’t sound any alarm bells?

The Marquette administration’s reaction to the news was even more startling than the brothers’ departures. Wojo was given a contract extension, as if the transfers were a good thing. They were in fact a very good thing for Virginia and Michigan State.

Sam Hauser leads the Cavaliers in minutes (34.1), scoring (16.0), 3-point percentage (.434), is shooting .881 from the line, and ranks second in rebounding (6.7), third in assists (1.8). He’s a coach’s dream. Coach’s dreams seldom morph into a coach’s nightmare. He did.

Joey Hauser ranks second on the Spartans in scoring (9.7) and is tied for first in rebounding (5.7).

Unless there is value I can’t comprehend in becoming a feeder program for elites, the announcement of the extension seemed so strangely timed, even though Virginia Tech had an interest in following bolting Buzz Williams with Wojo. The timing for letting Wojo walk could not have been better.

At some schools, Wojo’s status as a Duke legend might carry weight. Anyone who thinks that’s the case here would be guilty of executing a cold slap to the face of Marquette’s rich basketball tradition: Al McGuire, Dwyane Wade, Butch Lee, Maurice Lucas, Bo Ellis, Jim Chones, Earl Tatum, Oliver Lee (Vince Carter’s uncle), Tony Smith, Tony Miller, Travis Diener, Steve Novak, Markus Howard, Freeway, Jump Around Guy, Gail Pudvan, Rondell, the Marquette Special at Real Chili with Blondie reminding to “mix it up, boys,” Archie pouring quarter Old Style drafts at The ’Lanche.

If MU athletic director Bill Scholl is enamored of Duke, then he’s not a good fit. Marquette basketball need not glom onto the coattails of Duke or any other blue blood to feel good about itself.

Most who have been around Wojo—I’ve never met him— describe him as a nice guy. If true, he is proof that not all nice guys finish last. He didn’t finish last. He finished ninth out of 11. DePaul’s Dave Leitao finished last. He was fired, reportedly without costing the school any buyout. So was Indiana’s Archie Miller, $10.35 million buyout and all. Iowa State fired Steve Prohm, who lands with a $5 million parachute.

And a Marquette fan base floats in limbo, awaiting a definitive word on Wojo’s status. To most, no news is bad news since schools don’t necessarily announce non-firings.

It’s undeniable that Wojo has been more impressive as a recruiter than a coach.

Class of 2021 recruits, as-yet unsigned Jonas Aidoo (No. 33, per Rivals) and Stevie Mitchell (No. 82), are the 10th and 11th top 100 recruits, excluding already committed Sandy Cohen, to be wooed to Marquette by Wojo.

Two of the nine top 100 recruits who started their careers at Marquette played four seasons. Markus Howard shattered the school’s career scoring record with 2,761 points and as a senior led the nation in scoring with a 27.8 average.

Jamal Cain (9.6, 6.3) played well enough at both ends as a first-year starter as a senior that it begged the question as to why he wasn’t allowed to play through mistakes in his first three seasons.

One of the nine top 100 recruits, Dawson Garcia, is coming of a terrific season that was recognized when he was a unanimous selection to the Big East all-freshmen team. 

Four of the nine top Rivals 100 recruits who started their careers at Marquette transferred: Haanif Cheatham (Florida Gulf Coast, Nebraska), Traci Carter (La Salle and then Hartford), Joey Hauser (Michigan State), and Symir Torrence (uncommitted).

Two turned professional. Henry Ellenson stayed one season, was drafted in the first round by the Pistons and is on a 10-day contract with the Raptors. He has appeared in 83 NBA games for four different organizations.

In Ellenson’s one year at Marquette, the Golden Eagles went 20-13. Ellenson led the team in scoring (17.0), rebounding (9.7) and blocked shots (1.5). He was allowed to launch 104 3-point shots, despite a poor .288 accuracy rate.

After taking two years off to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Brendan Bailey spent two seasons at Marquette before leaving for an overseas basketball career. As a sophomore starter, he averaged 7.1 points and 5.2 rebounds. We’ll never know how much it would have helped Cain’s development if he had been given the minutes that went to Bailey.

Rankings aren’t everything, as evidenced by Wojo’s third-best recruit’s ranking (Sam Hauser, Rivals 135), but they do tend to be how recruiters are judged.

Judging a coach on postseason performance alone is a little dicey. After all, Creighton, Illinois and Texas haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game during Wojo’s time at Marquette.

Even so, just 24 of the 76 schools in the big-six basketball conferences are winless in the tourney during that stretch. Marquette ranks near the top in quality of facility and pays a competitive salary, so should do better than rank in the bottom of 32%.

Plus, nine of the 24 schools have a chance to end their droughts.

Colorado, Creighton, Illinois, Oklahoma State and Texas are favored to win their first-round games. The underdogs: Georgia Tech (slight), Missouri (slight), Oregon State. 

Rutgers is favored on some sites and getting points on others.

In the event five of the nine schools end their droughts, that would put Marquette among 19% of the power-five schools winless in the tourney during Wojo’s reign. So although it’s not as damning as his regular-season record, it does weigh against him.

And then there is the eye test. His lack of feel for the position he played, point guard, weighs against him. The fact he tried Cheatham at the position ranks as Exhibit A. He didn’t seem to favor pure point guards in the mold of Junior Cadougan, who in his two years as a starter for Williams led MU to a Sweet 16 and an Elite Eight. Carter and Torrence, Wojo’s lone pure point guard recruits, transferred.

Seven years is a long enough sample to render meaningless excuses about young rosters, etc. Marquette started three seniors for many games this season.

So why is Wojo still Marquette’s coach? The best explanation is that either the administration is convinced that next year will be different with a strong recruiting class joining Garcia and Justin Lewis, or that in the midst of a global pandemic, no donor has stepped up to offer to take care of the buyout, a reported $6 million. 

Meanwhile, Cleveland State’s Dennis Gates and Loyola of Chicago’s Porter Moser, both of whom would be well worth exploring, are preparing their teams for the NCAA Tournament before turning their attention to attractive offers bound to come their way.

—Tom Keegan is a graduate of Marquette University, as are three siblings, two sons, four nieces and three nephews. Tom was most recently a sports columnist for the Boston Herald following roles as the sports editor and columnist for the Lawrence Journal-World, and a sports columnist for the New York Post.

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