Getting defensive

College of Charleston head basketball coach Doug Wojcik won more games at Tulsa than any other coach.

The news that Doug Wojcik would be the next men’s basketball coach at College of Charleston shocked many of the Cougar faithful.

When Bobby Cremins officially announced his retirement on March 19 after six seasons at the school, rumors ran wild about who would or should replace the popular coach. Most of the speculation centered around interim coach Mark Byington and former College of Charleston star Anthony Johnson. Other names were mentioned — former head coaches at schools in the ACC and Big Ten — some with merit and others wishful thinking.

But Doug Wojcik? The guy Tulsa just fired?

“Why would my name come up?” Wojcik said last week. “All of a sudden I had ‘Fired’ across my forehead. But as you analyze it and see all the connections, now it does make some sense, particularly with my educational background and particularly with my track record with graduating and developing players.”

The first thing anyone learned was that Wojcik had been fired a few weeks earlier by Tulsa following a 17-14 season. The athletic director cited dwindling revenues and growing fan apathy.

But after a closer look, Cougars fans would learn that Wojcik also won more games at Tulsa than any other Golden Hurricane coach, including Nolan Richardson, Bill Self and Tubby Smith, going 140-92 in seven seasons. They also learned he was the point guard for the U.S. Naval Academy teams that starred ex-NBA star David Robinson.

And finally, they discovered he was a coach who focused on defense, something fans saw as a major weakness for the Cougars in recent seasons.

Wojcik’s official introduction to the College of Charleston community on April 4 marked his third visit to Charleston.

The first was on a ship in 1988 after he graduated from the Naval Academy. The ship headed up the Cooper River to the Naval Weapons Station, but Wojcik said he never saw anything of Charleston because of a thick fog.

The next visit came last November when Tulsa participated in the Charleston Classic basketball tournament, and again he saw very little of Charleston, although there was a pre-tournament banquet at the Yorktown.

But Wojcik had ties to the community even before he became head coach. Dr. George Watt, a vice president for the College of Charleston, is a Naval Academy graduate. Wojcik reached out to him when Cremins retired.

Dr. Vince Benigni, who is the school’s faculty representative to the athletic department, served as an assistant sports information director at the Naval Academy when Wojcik was a senior on the basketball team.

Dave and Carole Heathcock, who live in Mount Pleasant, were Wojcik’s host family in Annapolis while he was a student.

And one of his best friends is The Citadel head coach Chuck Driesell. The two played against each other in college, and later were roommates at the Naval Academy’s prep school in Newport, R.I.

“We had a commonality in basketball. We both loved the game and both worked extremely hard to get to the level we’re at,” Driesell said. “(Charleston) is a great job for him. He’s very organized, a hard worker and a good person. He’ll do very well.”

Wojcik grew up in Wheeling, W.Va., where he played football, basketball and baseball. He credits the late Skip Prosser with turning him toward basketball.

Wheeling was a “Friday Night Lights” kind of town, where football was king. Wojcik’s high school basketball team went 4-18 his sophomore season. Two years later, the team went 25-2, still a school record, and won a state championship. Wojcik said he had some offers from Division II and III schools, but he wanted to play Division I basketball.

“My dream school was Notre Dame, but I wasn’t good enough in their eyes,” he said.

He enrolled in the Naval Academy and played for a year at the prep school in Newport, R.I., then moved to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where the basketball program, coached by Paul Evans, was making a name for itself with the 7-foot Robinson at center.

“I don’t know if I was the first choice, but the (point guard) job became my job. I ended up starting the next 99 games,” Wojcik said.

The Midshipmen played in three consecutive NCAA tournaments during Wojcik’s career, going 82-17. He still holds the school record for career assists with 714 (second is 531) and averaged 7.21 assists, still in the top 25 in NCAA history. His career assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.78 (714 assists to 257 turnovers) also is No. 1 at the school, and he had 24 games with 10 or more assists. He finished his career with 602 points (6.1 ppg).

“Doug played a significant role in our team success at Navy,” Robinson said. “He showed the confidence and leadership we needed to manage games and gave us an opportunity to be successful. I remember him as a fighter, a tough kid from Wheeling, W.Va., with an attitude. He never backed down from anybody.”

“Top Gun” was the hot movie when Wojcik graduated, and he said like many others he wanted to be a Navy pilot like “Maverick,” played by Tom Cruise. But his vision precludeda flying career, so he went to Surface Warfare School in Mayport, Fla., hoping to get his qualifications and then return to the Naval Academy to start a coaching career.

That dream came true in 1990, and he began a 10-year stint at the Naval Academy. In 1999, Matt Doherty hired him at Notre Dame, and Wojcik followed Doherty to North Carolina in 2000, where Wojcik started his first head coaching job by handling the Tar Heels’ junior varsity program.

“I’m really proud of this,” he said of his JV stint in Chapel Hill. “Larry Brown has done that, Roy Williams has done that, Phil Ford has done that.”

When Doherty was forced out at North Carolina after the 2003 season, Wojcik landed a job on Tom Izzo’s Michigan State staff, where he coached for two years, the second as associate head coach. That second year the Spartans made the Final Four, losing to eventual champion North Carolina in the semifinals.

“I’m forever grateful to Matt Doherty for making me his first hire at Notre Dame, my dream school,” Wojcik said. “And how cool it was to be working at North Carolina, with Coach (Bill) Guthridge, Coach (Dean) Smith and Larry Brown, coming through and seeing the inner workings of what I think is the greatest college basketball job in the country.

“The guy who put it all together is Tom Izzo. We’re a lot alike. He’s a genuine guy who never forgot where he came from. He was very open and would communicate and share with you as an assistant, what the budget is, what this is, what that is. I’m still very close to him and his family to this day.”

Wojcik and his wife Lael were both Naval Academy student-athletes. Lael House, a basketball player and high-jumper, came to the Naval Academy from Seattle and was a freshman when Wojcik was a senior. They knew each other only in passing and wouldn’t be formally introduced until both returned to the Naval Academy.

After serving in San Diego, Lael went back to Annapolis to serve as the protocol officer for the superintendent of the Naval Academy, Admiral Charles R. Larson. She handled his social functions, which Wojcik said are second only to the White House.

Lael said a co-worker who was a Navy basketball fan talked her into going to a game and introduced her to Wojcik. They began dating in 1985 and were married the next year. Lael’s father had died, so Admiral Larson escorted her down the aisle and allowed them to use his residence next to the Naval Academy Chapel for their reception. They have two sons, Paxson (11) and Denham (9).

“We just hit it off,” Lael said. “He is so passionate about basketball, so passionate about our family, so passionate about relationships. He loves the kids.”

Life outside the arena revolves around the youngsters. The boys are both involved in sports. They’ve played tackle football since they were in the first grade, and they also play school and travel basketball. They also like fishing. Lael’s hobby is kickboxing.

Two players Wojcik coached at Tulsa, guard Ben Uzoh with the Toronto Raptors and center Jerome Jordan with the New York Knicks, are in the NBA.

“Coach was a good mix, someone I respect a lot,” said Jordan, a 7-footer from Jamaica who did not play basketball his senior year of high school. “I owe a lot to coach Wojcik. He gave me a chance that others wouldn’t. He turned (Tulsa) around and had success for a lot of years. He will bring a great style of play to Charleston.”

For Wojcik, though, coaching was not just about getting players to the NBA. He is proud that in seven years at Tulsa, 17 of 17 players who finished their eligibility graduated, and the school had a six-year APR rate of 961.

Wojcik recruited three of the top nine scorers in Tulsa history, No. 3 Uzoh, No. 7 Justin Hurtt and No. 9 Jordan. Wojcik was the first coach in Tulsa history to have back-to-back 25-win seasons and the first to have four consecutive 20-win seasons.

And while the Golden Hurricane did not advance to the NCAA tournament, Tulsa did win the 2008 College Basketball Insider Tournament and played in two National Invitational Tournaments.

Wojcik said everyone in the coaching business knows College of Charleston is a good job, and he feels like he is a good fit. The goal is to win the Southern Conference and advance to the NCAA tournament.

“First of all, it’s not broken,” Wojcik said of the Cougars’ basketball program. “When I took over at Tulsa, they had won nine games two years in a row and the coach quit on Christmas Day. So this thing is not broken.

“What I envision is what everyone expects. We’re all trying to compete for a Southern Conference championship and NCAA tournament bid.”

Wojcik said he admires Cremins as well as former coach John Kresse.

“I saw John Kresse on the street and I wanted to hug him,” Wojcik said. “Charleston has an appreciation for good defense because of coach Kresse.”

And Wojcik says defense will be a priority for the Cougars.

“The two areas I feel I have to hold (the players) most accountable for are playing defense and rebounding,” he said. “They want to enjoy playing the game. I’ve got to let them enjoy playing the game offensively. But they’ve got to buy into playing defense and rebounding.”