By any name, Wojo is Duke's point man

Basketball: Gibbons graduate, former Blue Devils guard now filling pivotal role as recruiting coordinator in Durham.

July 13, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

DURHAM, N.C. -- Some thought Steve Wojciechowski was in over his head when he left Cardinal Gibbons for Duke five years ago. He was considered to be too slow, almost too blue-collar for the blue-chip world of the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Wojciechowski wound up silencing most, if not all, of his critics. After a rocky freshman year in which Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was sidelined with a serious back injury and the Blue Devils fell to last in the ACC, Wojciechowski helped lead their return to national prominence.

"He was one of the best leaders we've ever had," Krzyzewski said when Wojciechowski's career ended with a heartbreaking loss to Kentucky in the 1998 NCAA tournament. "I know whatever he does in his life, Steve is going to be successful."

If the prediction turns out to be true, Krzyzewski will be the immediate benefactor. When associate head coach Quin Snyder left in April to become the head coach at Missouri, Krzyzewski hired Wojciechowski to fill what had been Snyder's pivotal role:

Duke's recruiting coordinator.

With the recruiting period having reopened this week, Wojciechowski finds himself in a different kind of spotlight but with the same kind of intense pressure he often faced as a player.

Wojciechowski will go from point guard in Krzyzewski's lineup to point man in Duke's recruiting plan.

A test from the start

"The pressure is what you make of it," Wojciechowski said one day last month, sitting in his office at Cameron Indoor Stadium. "If we had all the guys coming back, with the guys we have coming in, I don't know how much there would have been for me to do right now."

Instead, there is plenty to occupy Wojciechowski and fellow assistants Johnny Dawkins and David Henderson, themselves former Duke stars. Three underclassmen, sophomores Elton Brand and William Avery and freshman Corey Maggette, were No. 1 picks in last month's NBA draft. The Blue Devils also lost fifth-year senior Trajan Langdon, another first-round pick, off a team that was upset by Connecticut in the NCAA championship game.

It means that Wojciechowski has begun living out of a suitcase, going to both of the premier all-star camps last week, the Nike-sponsored All-American camp in Indianapolis and the Adidas-sponsored ABCD camp in Teaneck, N.J. Wojciechowski will be in Augusta, Ga., today and in Las Vegas later this week for other camps and tournaments.

Recruiting analyst Bob Gibbons joked a couple of months ago that, considering Duke's history and Krzyzewski's reputation, all Wojciechowski would need is "a good travel agent" to succeed. But the equation has changed, and Wojciechowski finds himself being scrutinized again.

"Even though they had this tremendous recruiting class coming in, their losses far exceeded their gains," Gibbons said from his Lenoir, N.C., office this week. "This next class will be crucial to their continued success.

"For a new guy, it's going to be tough. But Wojo is such a competitor. I think a lot of people will be looking at the job he does. It's pretty daunting."

Wojciechowski is aware of the whispers in the coaching fraternity when he was hired: that he is too young to be in such a position, and not as polished as Snyder was when he returned to Duke after a short career working for his former father-in-law, Larry Brown, in the NBA.

It is similar to what he heard as a player trying to fill the shoes of Bobby Hurley, who had graduated two seasons before.

"To be honest, I don't care either way," said Wojciechowski. "I want to do this as well as possible because of my love for the school and the program and Coach K."

Making the transition

If anything, Wojciechowski is going to have to tone down his enthusiasm. No slapping the floor in front of the Duke bench, as he and other Blue Devils point guards have done at midcourt to ratchet up the defense. No chest-bumping coming off the floor. And no waving towels to incite the crowd.

He's Coach Wojo now. Assistant coach Wojo, to be accurate.

"It's going to be an adjustment," he said. "When you realize that, you can channel your energy in other ways to be productive and find ways to help the team."

Wojciechowski has had more than a year to make the transition.

He spent three months in Poland playing professional basketball before the lack of communication with his teammates -- both the local talent and former NBA player Richard Dumas -- brought on severe homesickness.

"They were nice guys," Wojciechowski said of his teammates. "They spoke better English than I spoke Polish. It was a different experience. It makes you realize how much better you have it here."

Returning in late November, Wojciechowski got a job with the Duke Management Co., helping to secure money for the school to invest. He also became radio analyst on the Duke basketball network, as well as color commentator on ESPN's regional telecasts.

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