Why Steve Wojciechowski isn’t ready to return to college coaching yet: ‘I like how I’m living’

PARK CITY, Utah – Don’t look now, but Wojo is slapping the floor again. Well, he’s not slapping it, really, so much as placing his hands firmly on a mat. He’s crouching intently and sweating profusely, but he’s not trying to lock up a ballhandler or power his way to the rim. He’s also not coaching, which means he’s not worried about catching a flight to a high school tournament, or breaking down video in the wee hours of the morning, or trying to convince a player not to transfer, or figuring out a way to win on the road at Villanova, or wooing a five-star recruit, or wondering what’s being said about him on Twitter, or fielding skeptical questions from the media. Rather, he is doing something that is infinitely more difficult than all of those things.

He is trying to stay present.

For Steve Wojciechowski, aka Wojo, that endeavor is a full-time job these days. At the moment, it is taking place during a Hot Power class at PC Yoga Collective in Park City, where Wojciechowski, 46, has been living for the past year-and-a-half with his wife and their two sons. With the temperature in the room hovering above 100 degrees, Wojciechowski maneuvers his way through a steady sequence of planks, holds, warrior poses, backward bends, low lunges and downward-facing dogs. As he flows, the teacher’s soothing voice unspools yogi mantras. “Look for balance in the heat,” she says. “Match your breath to your movement. Find your ease.”

Wojciechowski first discovered hot yoga about 15 years ago while he was an assistant basketball coach at Duke, his alma mater. It was a welcome respite from the grind of the season and a much-needed lubricant for his aging joints. He continued the practice through his seven years as the head coach at Marquette. After he was fired in March 2021, Wojciechowski moved his family to Park City – his wife, Lindsay, grew up in nearby Salt Lake City, and her parents still live in the area – and became a regular at PC Yoga Collective. He comes here so often that the manager asked if he would be interested in becoming a certified teacher. “I’ve thought about it,” he says. “I think it’d be great. It’s coaching. It’s guiding. The great thing about yoga is it’s judgment-free.”

Wojciechowski has no idea whether anyone at the studio knows that he is something of a celebrity. “It’s not a general practice of mine to be like, Do you know who I am?” he says. It is an existential question as much as a literal one, and one that Wojciechowski has been asking of himself a lot since Marquette sent him packing. For most of his life, his identity was tethered to basketball. To lose that in humiliating fashion was hard to process. Yet, over time, Wojciechowski hasn’t just accepted his fate but also has embraced it, applying his trademark intensity to the writing of this strange new chapter.

That he has found serenity after enduring a coach’s ultimate nightmare is a plot twist that even those closest to him never saw coming. “I was waiting for the wheels to come off, and I’ve been very surprised they haven’t,” Lindsay says. “The daily habits and the consistency have been more surprising than anything. He has absolutely been where his feet are.”

A few hours after the yoga class ends, Wojciechowski looks very much at peace while sipping coffee on a porch outside the fancy teepee behind his in-laws’ ranch house in the small, rural town of Peoa, about a 20-minute drive outside Park City. As Wojciechowski gazes at the rolling terrain framed beautifully by the Wasatch mountains, he hardly resembles the doughy, tightly wound figure last seen roaming the sidelines in Milwaukee. His hair is longer, his waistline smaller, and a well-manicured, golden scruff decorates his face. Give him a cowboy hat, and he could be Robert Redford in a classic Western.

As he waxes philosophical about his journey these last 18 months, it’s apparent that Wojciechowski has been intentional about finding his ease. He can reflect on the past without wallowing in it, and consider the future without worrying about it. He didn’t call this particular timeout himself, but he is making the most of it. “The best gift you can give someone is your presence,” he says. “That’s a hard thing in coaching because you’re getting pulled in so many different directions. To have a chance to step off that treadmill has been amazing.”


(Seth Davis / The Athletic)

One of the first things Wojciechowski needed to do after he moved to Utah was buy a car. He had never needed this particular life skill before, since his employers had always supplied him with a ride. Wojciechowski went into a dealership, asked a couple of questions, and drove off with a year-old Ford F-150 white pickup truck. When he pulled into the driveway, his wife did a double take. “Never saw that coming 15 years ago,” Lindsay says with a chuckle. “But he looks good in it.”

She certainly didn’t foresee that a few months before, when Marquette athletic director Bill Scholl called Wojciechowski to let him know that he was being fired. The news was hardly a shock, but it was jarring all the same. “There are a lot of emotions involved,” Wojciechowski says. “The fear of getting fired is a real fear that many coaches hold. You think it’s a reflection on you as a person. It’s going to be devastating to your career. But the story we tell ourselves is not reality.”

It was a painfully public takedown for a man who had long led a high-profile basketball life. Wojciechowski arrived in Durham in the fall of 1994 as a much-ballyhooed McDonald’s All-American out of Baltimore. During his four years there, he was a ubiquitous national TV presence, was featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and started every game his junior and senior years. It is not lost on him that for all the wins and individual accolades, including being named the NABC’s National Defensive Player of the Year in 1998, his most lasting impression on the public was as the overly eager floor slapper who sparked Duke’s defense. Wojciechowski was hardly the first Dukie to pound the court with his palms, but that singular gesture encapsulated the force behind his success. “I don’t know if I was a cerebral player,” he says. “I knew what the guy I was supposed to listen to wanted, but the reason I got to where I did was my energy and my intensity.”

After 10 months of playing professionally in Poland, Wojciechowski returned to Duke as an assistant, where he began his climb in the profession. “Most times, assistants are anonymous,” he says. “I never really experienced that.” After five seasons on the Duke bench, Wojciechowski left in the spring of 2014 to become the head coach at Marquette. His predecessor, Buzz Williams, who had taken the Golden Eagles to two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight before leaving for Virginia Tech, proved to be a tough act to follow. The program emptied out after Williams left, and Wojciechowski went 4-14 in the Big East in his first season. Things only got marginally better in the ensuing years as Wojciechowski took Marquette to the NCAA Tournament just twice, in 2017 and ’19. Both times, the Golden Eagles lost in the first round.

Beyond not having enough talent, Wojciechowski struggled with the challenge of getting his guys to play as hard as he did – all day, every day, including in every drill of every practice. “He was never OK with them not giving a 10 out of 10,” says Chris Carrawell, who spent four years as Wojciechowski’s assistant and is now an associate head coach at Duke. “These kids have changed, though. At some point it can wear on them mentally. Sometimes I’d say to him, ‘These guys are tired, and we got a game tomorrow. Do you want to win the practice, or do you want to win the game?’”

Wojciechowski used to find a competitive outlet in noontime pickup games against student managers, but as he got older, the managers stayed the same age, and he left those workouts feeling physically and mentally worse. In an effort to alleviate the stress in a more healthy way, Wojciechowski started seeing a therapist once a week. “Therapy’s a great tool to have a safe space,” he says. “Leadership is lonely. When you’re a head coach, man, every decision has your name on it, and that weighs on you. The waves don’t stop coming. Some you can surf, and some just freaking crash on you.”

If there was a tipping point that led to Wojciechowski’s demise, it was the April 2019 decision by the Hauser brothers, Joey and Sam, to transfer, three days after the Golden Eagles’ high-scoring guard, Markus Howard, decided to forgo the NBA Draft and return for his senior season. For the first time in his life, Wojciechowski was unable to move mountains through the sheer force of his will. His former coach and boss at Duke, Mike Krzyzewski, sees Wojo’s experience those last couple of years at Marquette as similar to what Krzyzewski went through in the mid-1990s when he came back too soon from major back surgery and had to take a leave of absence. “A great quality can also be a weakness,” Krzyzewski says. “It’s like if you’re cooking something, you can have great ingredients, but you can put too much in. It’s not the right thing for that recipe. If Steve’s at fault for anything, it’s that he put too much of himself into the job, and that can wear your ass out, man.”

As the losses continued to pile up, the fans and media turned on him. He tried to shield himself from the pummeling he was taking on social media, but he couldn’t protect his family from the “Fire Wojo” chants that came from the stands at home games down the stretch of the 2020-21 season. “It was shocking, honestly,” Lindsay says. “To see that level of negativity towards a guy who was really working his tail off felt very personal. It was a really hard time for our family.”

The Golden Eagles finished that season 13-14 (8-11 Big East) and failed to qualify for a postseason tournament. “That’s not good enough there,” Wojciechowski says flatly. He had some conversations with Scholl about changing the direction of the program, but when they couldn’t agree on the proper way to course correct, Scholl let him go. Even though the Wojciechowskis loved Milwaukee and their sons were happy there, they decided it would be best to relocate and start over. They sold their house, went on vacation to Hawaii, and then settled in Park City, where several years earlier they had bought what they thought would be their second home.

For Lindsay and the boys, the beginning of the school year brought a sense of normalcy. For Wojciechowski, it augured an odd new normal, a winter without basketball for the first time in a long time. “More than anything, I think I was exhausted,” he says. “After a while I thought, maybe I can learn how not to be exhausted.”


His calendar was clear but he needed a game plan, so he resolved to organize his daily activities around four central elements: family, friends, movement and learning. From there, Wojciechowski launched into what he calls his “spaghetti season,” where he throws ideas against the walls and sees what sticks. He tried veganism and intermittent fasting, and he gave up alcohol altogether. He also got rid of all his Nike clothes and acquired a brand new wardrobe, though his fashion sense, like everything else about him these days, remains a work in progress.

Before he knew it, he was coaching again. This time, it was as an assistant with his son Jack’s eighth-grade football team. Wojciechowski admits he knows nothing about football – “like Ted Lasso in reverse” – but he eagerly runs stations, does what the head coach asks, and generally offers encouragement to the boys. “I’m the mental performance coach, I guess,” he says. His favorite times are the long car rides to practices when he has a captive audience with Jack as they roll along in his pickup.

Wojciechowski was on more familiar terrain when he decided to coach the Park City Minors, a sixth-grade basketball team that included his younger son, Charlie. The squad lost its first five games but ended on a hot streak. At first blush, these gigs seem a far cry from the Big East, but Wojciechowski was struck by how familiar they felt. “I loved coaching sixth-grade basketball and eighth-grade football as much as I loved coaching college kids,” he says. “Now the pay is way different, the attention is way different. But to see a group of kids do something that three months earlier they thought they couldn’t do, that’s incredible. And whether we won or lost, In-N-Out Burger was going to taste the same.”

Wojciechowski doesn’t ski or play golf, two popular activities in Park City, but he has had little trouble occupying his time. Aside from all the driving he and Lindsay do to school and practices (“We’re basically a couple of taxis,” she says), Wojciechowski has become an avid hiker, spending several hours at a time, sometimes with his two dogs in tow, traversing the hundreds of trails in the area. He did a few endurance challenges like the 29029 at the Snowbasin resort, where participants scale the mountain 13 times over two days to equate the height of Mount Everest. He ran a half-marathon in Salt Lake City and a full marathon in Tucson. For that one, he only trained for three weeks and guesses his time was around five-and-a-half hours. “That was kind of nice,” he says. “Like, I don’t have to win this. I just have to do my best.”

The guy who could hardly hang a picture is now shopping at hardware stores so he can help his father-in-law do small projects around the ranch house. He mows the front lawn once a week. He makes some extra cash working out local basketball players, and he reads at least 20 minutes a day. Wojo also has been able to take several trips back home to Maryland to visit his parents. For more than 150 days now, he has been texting daily inspirational messages to his sons. “Your two most precious commodities are your time and your energy,” he wrote in one of them. “They need to be cared for, utilized and protected at every opportunity.”

A major highlight over the winter was the chance to go behind the scenes with the Utah Jazz, thanks to then-coach Quin Snyder, another former Duke point guard and who recruited Wojciechowski to Durham. Snyder gave Wojciechowski free reign to attend practices, sit in on coaches’ meetings and attend home and road games.

 

Snyder was fired at Missouri in 2006, so he could relate to what Wojciechowski was going through. As the season wore on, Snyder became increasingly reliant on Wojciechowski’s thoughts on the Jazz, the coaching profession and the crossroads that Snyder was himself approaching. “I got very curious about how he was framing things,” Snyder says. “I asked him to write out some thoughts, and I got these terrific long emails that were super thoughtful and introspective. To see him go from the fear of getting fired to actually have it be a liberating experience really resonated with me.”

Wojciechowski has spoken at leadership conferences, most recently in Charlotte, N.C., at a gathering for college basketball coaches convened by Jay Bilas. He’s now contemplating ways to share his insights with a broader audience, especially guys who are just starting out in the profession. “What coaches hear is, you gotta grind, grind, grind. To me, it’s such B.S.,” Wojciechowski says. “You’re told you gotta want it as much as you can breathe. Really? Really? You need to win as much as you need to breathe? Think about what you just said. I talk to young coaches about, what type of failure recovery plan do you have? You’re going to have losses, and not all of those losses are on the court. If you don’t have a plan internally to get you back to a baseline level of clarity, then they pile up. If I had to do it all over again, I’d carve out more space for quiet.”

That leads to the inevitable question of when – or whether – Wojciechowski will coach again. And if so, at what level? His agent, Jimmy Sexton, fielded enough calls last spring to give Wojciechowski confidence that if he wants to return to college coaching, a good opportunity will be there for him. He served as an assistant coach with the USA Basketball team that won the bronze at the FIBA AmeriCup in Brazil earlier this month. Perhaps that experience will spark his competitive jones.

Krzyzewski can envision Wojciechowski resuming his career in the NBA. “I think he’d be a heck of a pro coach,” he says. “I think he’d be an outstanding coach anywhere, but in the pros, it’s just basketball.” Carrawell, however, isn’t buying it. “Last time I talked to him, I said, ‘Look, you don’t know this, but you’re gonna be a head coach in college again,’” he says. “That’s just who he is.”

Lindsay, however, isn’t sure that her husband will go back into coaching at all. “I’m still getting to know this side of him. We peeled off a whole new layer of the onion this year,” she says. “I have no idea what the next chapter is going to bring, but I respect his time to reflect and focus on our kids and become his best self.”

Indeed, Wojciechowski seems plenty content being off the treadmill, and taking a job in the next few years would mean moving his sons while they are still in high school. Marquette paid him a buyout of more than $9 million, so he won’t feel any financial pressure for a while. It’s not like he’s blowing all his money on cars. “I like how I’m living,” he says. “I loved my experience in college. I’m grateful for it. It’s a huge blessing, but right now there are other blessings in my life that I want to give attention to. I am not going to get back into coaching at the cost of things that are really important.”

Towards the end of the long conversation by the teepee, Wojciechowski offers a glimpse of the warrior within. “I do know this,” he says. “If a day ever comes and it’s the right time and place for me to coach again, I’m in a much better frame of mind. I’m a better coach today than the day I got fired at Marquette.” Painful as that day was, Wojciechowski understands he needed to be knocked down to recalibrate his balance. As long as he stays where his feet are, his path will take him to where he’s supposed to be.

(Photo illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photo: Michael Hickey / Getty Images)