A journey filled with overcoming adversity: Wojciechowski’s ‘beat-the-odds’ mentality from Cardinal Gibbons to Marquette

Steve Wojciechowski (kneeling front center) during his home visit in fall 1993 on the evening of his commitment to Duke. (Photo courtesy of Mike Dahlem and Philip Forte.)

Steve Wojciechowski (kneeling front center) during his home visit in fall 1993 on the evening of his commitment to Duke. (Photo courtesy of Mike Dahlem and Philip Forte.)

The son of a longshoreman in Baltimore. A street fighter. A tough worker. A coach on the sidelines. An all-star soccer midfielder. A model honors student.

These are the phrases that a former teacher, teammate, high school and college coaches used to describe Marquette men’s basketball head coach Steve Wojciechowski.

“There’s a toughness about him. He’s always been a beat-the-odds guy,” Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey said. “(They said) ‘He’s not good enough to do that. Well, he’s not big enough to do that. Well, he’s not good enough to do that.’ He just uses it as fuel.”

Brey, a former Duke assistant during Wojciechowski’s time as a Blue Devil, said the Severna Park, Maryland native’s toughness boils down to how his parents — Peggy and Ed — raised him, as they were hard-working people.

“He was raised in … just a great home of learning that you gotta work and you gotta be tough and then you gotta be accountable,” Brey said. “They didn’t coach him, they didn’t tell him where to go to school, they just loved him, and he had a really great upbringing from those two people.”

Marquette’s all-time leading scorer and consensus First Team All-American Markus Howard said a big reason why he decided to be a Golden Eagle was because of the relationship he built with Wojciechowski, even during his recruitment.

“From the time I was a freshman to when I was a senior, our relationship grew by leaps and bounds,” Howard said. “He’s always going to be someone who I really value and really look to for guidance in my life. I was fortunate for my four years, and he was a big part of my growth to where I’m at now.”

Recruitment for Cardinal Gibbons

On the first row of wooden middle school bleachers sits former Cardinal Gibbons’ assistant coach Mike Dahlem. Suddenly, a ball heading out of bounds flies toward him.

A seventh grader, who was coming off the bench, dives like Superman to try to get the ball. The 13-year-old belly flops on the ground and hits and the top of his head hit right between Dahlem’s leg on the bleachers.

“Crack,” Dahlem said. “I kind of reached down kind of reflexively to sort of protect myself … and I couldn’t even reach that quick enough, his head cracks (and) he jumps up so fast and sprinted down the edge of the court and got right back involved into play.”

That’s the play where Dahlem knew Wojciechowski would be a perfect fit on the basketball team at Cardinal Gibbons, a boys-only Catholic middle and high school. It was Dahlem’s job, as Baltimore coach Ray Mullis’ main recruiter, to find players for their program who would be team players.

“I said, ‘hey, I’ll tell you what, you better get on this guy right away because if we don’t get on him now, schools (are) going to be all over him,’” Dahlem said.

From then on, Dahlem highly recruited Wojciechowski, which consisted of going to his games, sending him birthday cards, inviting him to their games and sending him game programs.

At the time, Dahlem said the league had a rule that allowed eighth graders to play at the lowest level of the high school team.

“We had freshmen basketball so we would say, ‘hey why wait till high school to come and play as a ninth grader, come as an eighth grader? You could play on our high school team,’” Dahlem said. “So, we started recruiting Steve from that perspective.”

Wojciechowski was planning to play at Cardinal Gibbons as an eighth grader. But in the spring before he was going to go, his mother Peggy called Mullis and Dahlem to tell them Wojciechowski wanted to spend one more year at Severna Park Middle School. It was the closeness he had with his friends that made it hard for him to leave. She said that their intent would be to send him to Cardinal Gibbons the next year.

“Both of our hearts kind of dropped, Coach Mullis and myself, because it’s like he’s only going to get better,” Dahlem said. “Other schools are going to see him as an eighth grader. That’s what happened.”

However, the Wojciechowski family held their promise. Even though many other schools were touting him, Peggy told Dahlem that they were telling other schools Steve would be attending Cardinal Gibbons because they had made a commitment to the Crusaders, and Dahlem and Mullis liked him the earliest.

“That’s a hard commitment, especially in this day and age, whether it’s in athletics or other ways, people won’t stick to that kind of commitment specially when there are other enticements,” Dahlem said. “Steve is who he is in large measure because of his mom and his dad.”

Time as a Crusader

Not many people know that not only was Wojciechowski a 1994 McDonald’s All-American in basketball, but he was also a stellar soccer player. He was a center midfielder and his leadership led his team to the playoffs.

“I have no doubt that if he’d wanted to play soccer at Duke, he could have, no question. … He was every bit as good a soccer player as he was basketball player. He may have been the best soccer player in the area,” Brian Moorhouse, Wojciechowski’s former assistant basketball coach at Cardinal Gibbons, said.

Cardinal Gibbons’ basketball program was historically successful, as they produced two other McDonald’s All-Americans prior to Wojciechowski: Quintin Dailey and Rodney Walker. The basketball program also had plenty of championship teams, including Wojciechowski’s senior season, when the team won the Catholic League regular season and tournament championships.

“I remember the Catholic League championship game. They were down double digits in the fourth quarter and went on a huge run to win it and it was purely because of how hard they played,” Colin Moorhouse, Brian’s son and former teammate of Wojciechowski’s, said.

When Wojciechowski was a senior, Colin was a sophomore who played on both Cardinal Gibbons’ basketball and soccer teams with him.

“I was the point guard that came in afterwards and being a blonde point guard as well, I always joke that we had to reset expectations because there was no chance I was ever going to step in Steve’s shoes or be anywhere near as good as he was,” Colin said.

Although the basketball program was known for its championships, the school’s soccer program was not as elite.

“We played the top level, but we didn’t beat the really good teams other than the year we had Steve. We played really well, and it was mainly because of him,” Brian said.

Steve Wojciechowski (jumping) kicks the game-winning gaol over Mouthfeels St. Joseph. (Photo courtesy of Colin Moorhouse.)

During Wojciechowski’s senior year, Cardinal Gibbons played their archrivals in soccer and Colin said they had no business being on the same field. While the game was close, with seven minutes remaining, Wojciechowski scored on an unbelievable play to put the team up 1-0.

“We’re all excited and happy. All I remember is him yelling ‘this game’s not over’ and continuing to push us,” Colin said. “Most of his highlights are from basketball, rightfully so, but I will never forget us beating St. Joe’s his senior year and him basically willing us to that win.”

Wojciechowski had to balance soccer, basketball and being a student. His former math teacher, Philip Forte, said even as a first-year student, Wojciechowski was a fabric of Cardinal Gibbons.

“He was very active in the school, you know, participating in different clubs and activities,” Forte said. “Steve is always very outgoing (and) always had a smile on his face.”

Wojciechowski showed his team-oriented attitude toward not only his teacher, but his teammates as well.

“He could not have been a better teammate in terms of pushing people and demanding everyone work hard. It wasn’t always the easiest when you’re playing with him, but he brought the best out of his teammates and he pushed people,” Colin said. “He demanded everyone to give the same effort he did, because there was not anyone on the floor that was going to play harder than Steve did.”

As a first-year student, Wojciechowski made the junior varsity team, which Dahlem said rarely happened. He quickly became a leader and would stop practices, and even games, to grill his teammates if they were not competing to the absolute best of their ability.

“Many times you couldn’t hear him, but you could see him just grilling those guys like, ‘this is not acceptable. This is not who we are. This is not Cardinal Gibbons basketball. I don’t care whether the coaches like this or not, this is not us. We’re not going to get better,’” Dahlem said. “The reason that guys were receptive to that … they had no choice but to follow along with him because he was not asking them to do anything that he was not doing first.”

Brian said Wojciechowski knew from early on he wanted to be a coach, and he portrayed those leadership skills even in high school.

“You always have these times at practice when practice is just not going the way you want it to go — either they’re not getting with it or whatever and you gotta do something to get them going. When we had Steve, we never had to do that. He took care of that,” Moorhouse said. “If practice wasn’t going well, he would recognize that, he would get them all together. I don’t know what he said to them because the coaches weren’t with him, but they’d come back and start practicing better.”

Brian said that story has always stuck out to him because he said coaches do not typically see a player taking over like that and having all his fellow teammates respect him enough that they would listen to him.

“He assumed so much leadership that we did not have to instill in him and that was one of the many countless beauties of having him as a member of our program for four years,” Dahlem said.

Forte said Wojciechowski was the type of kid that gave 110% in everything he did, especially basketball.

“He would go after every ball, but he was also a great team player,” Forte said. “I mentioned that Steve was in our honors program at Cardinal Gibbons and he ended up being a scholar athlete not only here in in Baltimore, but then at Duke as well.”

‘The Magic of Ypsilanti’

When Wojciechowski was first being recruited, none of the top-tier teams were looking at him because he was projected as a mid-major player. Due to being an honors student, the Ivy League teams and other schools like William & Mary, University of Pennsylvania, Holy Cross and Drexel were the only ones looking at him.

But it was the 1993 Adidas ABCD camp at Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti where that all changed.

The format of the tournament changed and each city, like Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, D.C., Philadelphia and Miami, had eight to 10 of the best players chosen to compete. However, Wojciechowski was not selected for Baltimore’s team.

“They decided to put a team of foreign kids together from overseas and they said, well, ‘God, we need a point guard.’ So Wojo was like a late addition to the camp and he was put as the point guard all these foreign guys,” Brey said.

For four to five days, Wojciechowski built team chemistry among his teammates, even though he did not speak any of their languages.

“The great communicator with Russians and Greeks and Israelis and Asians and seven different languages being spoken and he’s moving their a–es all over the place and just kind of bringing them together,” Brey said. “He had seven guys from seven different countries, and he had them playing like a symphony together, it was unbelievable.”

At the time, Wojciechowski was not even on Brey or current Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s radar. Instead, they were watching a recruit from Chicago.

Brey did not mention the name of the Chicago recruit, but Wojciechowski’s team beat the Chicago team. Then, they beat the New York team.

“Wojo’s gesturing with sign language like a quarterback and a point guard. They don’t understand anything coming out of his freaking mouth and they have a great week,” Brey said. “After about the third day (we) are sitting there at lunch kind of going, ‘Why wouldn’t we want this guy?’ Like I think we need to offer him and try and get him right then. Thankfully by the end of the week we made that decision and offered him.”

Dahlem said he will remember the line Brey told to Krzyzewski for as long as he lives.

“He finally told Coach K, he said … ‘What are we waiting for? We have to start recruiting this guy seriously.’ From there, it took off and Steve started being recruited by big-time programs,” Dahlem said.

After that tournament, Brey said Wojciechowski’s stock was at an all-time high, as programs like North Carolina and Georgia Tech were vying for him. His final five schools were Duke, North Carolina, Wake Forest, St. John’s and Vanderbilt.

Brey said he had one selling point to Krzyzewski, who has three daughters and no sons: this was going to be the son he never had.

“He’s Polish, he’s Catholic, he’s a point guard, he’s tough as nails and he’s gonna be on your coaching staff one day,” Brey said. “He said to me, ‘What do you mean?’ I said, ‘When we go into the home visit, don’t talk about being a pro. Talk about when he’s done at Duke how he’s going to be an assistant for you because he wants to be a coach,’ and the rest is history.”

Becoming a Duke Blue Devil

From the night of the visit from Krzyzewski and Duke, Brian knew Wojciechowski was going to choose the Blue Devils.

Both Brian and Dahlem were able to sit in for Wojciechowski’s home visits. Brian said there were back-to-back visits from Dean Smith from the University of North Carolina, and the next night was Krzyzewski and Brey.

“It was pretty clear to me after those two visits that I thought Steve was going to go to Duke even before he announced he was going to go to Duke only because the personality of Coach K and Steve hit off so well,” Brian said. “Coach Smith did a great job too, but he was kind of more laid back, so it was it was pretty clear to me that (Duke) was going to be a good fit.”

Krzyzewski can still remember his initial meeting with Wojciechowski and his family.

“They’re amazing people, they’re team players, they’re hard workers, they want to be a part of something bigger than them,” Krzyzewski said. “I knew that he would add not just value as a player, but he would bring character, great character into our program.”

During the fall of Wojciechowski’s senior year at Cardinal Gibbons, Brey would go to Baltimore frequently.

“What I would do is I would go and watch him play soccer at Cardinal Gibbons and then he’d go in the gym and get a basketball workout with Mike Dahlem,” Brey said.

Before Wojciechowski even stepped on campus in Durham, Dahlem was able to go down to watch Duke’s practices and games.

“When he finally committed to Duke, the Duke staff said to us, ‘Hey, look when we recruit a young man (and) he comes to our school, not only his family, but his high school coaches, you’re part of our family now too so if you ever want to come down to practice, come down to practice. If ever you want to come down to games, come down to games,’” Dahlem said.

Not only did Wojciechowski impact Dahlem’s coaching career, he’s also the reason his former math teacher, Philip Forte, began following college basketball.

“I would make it a point of watching his Duke games on TV whenever they were on,” Forte said.

Dahlem, who was able to attend around three to four games a year, said it was a joy watching Wojciechowski play at Duke. As a Blue Devil, Wojciechowski averaged 5.4 points, 2.3 rebounds, 3.9 rebounds and 1.6 steals in the 128 games he played in.

“Many games were played on Saturdays and often times they would practice on Sundays. (So) I would stay over for a Sunday practice,” Dahlem said. “Getting an inside look at Duke’s program, not many folks are blessed to have been able to do that. … Here I am, able to go ahead and watch and learn from that’s what Duke is doing in their program because of my association with Steve.”

Despite Adversities in First Year, Named Top Defensive Player as Senior

In his first year at Duke in 1994, Wojciechowski had to deal with the mental struggles of losing two of his biggest basketball influences: Mullis and Krzyzewski.

While Krzyzewski was out with a back injury and other illnesses for five months, his former Cardinal Gibbons head coach passed away in December 1994. Dahlem compared those losses to cutting a big chunk out of your soul.

“For Steve to have endured that freshmen year with losing in both of those ways, not having his two coaches around him that he loves so much and for him to have gone on to have had the career he had at Duke tells you a lot about, you know, who he is,” Dahlem said.

Brey said that 1994-95 season was crisis management on a daily basis, due to getting beat regularly and also Mullis’ passing. The Blue Devils were 13-18 during his first season.

“(We) were just really concerned about the young guys’ psyche, especially Steve’s, given we weren’t winning, Mike K wasn’t around, he lost his other mentor,” Brey said. “He’s a warrior. … There’s always that edge and chip on his shoulder because he’s been told, from probably 12 years old, ‘well, you’re too small. Well, you’re not quick enough,’ and all he did was win and fight and outplay guys that were going to go to the NBA.”

Though his first year was difficult both mentally and physically, during the rest of his time at Duke Wojciechowski absolutely flourished. He made the Second Team All-ACC in 1997 and Third Team All-ACC in 1998. As a senior he was also the 1998 NABC Defensive Player of the Year and named an All-American Honorable Mention. With Wojciechowski, the Blue Devils had an 87-44 record.

Throughout his four years, Wojciechowski started in 88 of the 128 games he played in. He sits at ninth in Duke history for steals and eighth in career assists with 203 and 505, respectively. In 1997, he recorded the highest number of steals in a single season with 82 and played in the NCAA South Regional final. Then in 1998, he tied for 13th-best with 74 steals.

“He never got the freshman year that he deserved but then you know he had a good sophomore year and we made the tournament,” Krzyzewski said.

At the end of Wojciechowski’s sophomore year, Krzyzewski told him he was going to be a good backup for Trajan Langdon and Duke’s other perimeter guards.

“I said, ‘You can really help us.’ He took that and he came back lost a lot of weight or whatever and he dogged Trajan Langdon every day in summer and fall, and they both ended up being my starting backcourt,” Krzyzewski said. “I knew right then … he was as good a defensive guard as there was in the country.”

A National Champion

After graduating with a bachelor’s in sociology in 1998, the first-generation college student went to play professionally in Poland for a year, until returning as an assistant coach for Krzyzewski in 1999.

“His junior and senior years, I knew he always knew the game plan, he spoke well, and he was a great leader,” Krzyzewski said. “He loved the game and he loved working at the game and learning about the game, so when he became available, I gobbled him up right away.”

He stayed at Duke until 2014 and was even promoted to associate coach in 2008. Wojciechowski coached the frontcourt and helped lead the Blue Devils to winning the 2001 and 2010 NCAA Championships.

“For him to go on to Duke and have the same level of success and then to go back to Duke as an assistant coach and remain with the program, certainly that speaks of his loyalty to his coaches,” Forte said.

For Colin, the last time he saw his former teammate was when Wojciechowski was an assistant and he talked with him after the game.

“My brother and I went to a Duke-Georgia Tech game. Steve’s just an all-around great guy. He really cares,” Colin said. “That’s why it was so great to play and be his teammate because you know he’s pushing you, but it was because he cared about you. That kind of translates with his relationships with his players too.”

After the Feb. 24 win against University of North Carolina, Wojciechowski was able to visit his old stomping grounds as Marquette practiced at Cameron Indoor Stadium before heading to the University of Connecticut for the Feb. 27 game.

“While I’m down there (there will) be different things that I see that will spark memories of the times that I had in that area. It’s a great area and I appreciated my time at Duke and in Durham and as a part of that community,” Wojciechowski said in a press conference Feb. 23.

Duke owned a 441-92 record with Wojciechowski as an assistant and associate coach, and Krzyzewski said he was lucky to have him.

“As much of an imprint as he made on our program as a player, I think he made an even bigger imprint on our program as a coach,” Krzyzewski said.

Coaching His Own Team

University President Michael Lovell named Wojciechowski as the 17th head coach in Marquette men’s basketball history April 1, 2014. He took over for Buzz Williams, who had left for Virginia Tech.

“Those guys that are fabulous leaders become really good coaches,” Brey said. “The guys that are great leaders and captains on their college teams, they’re natural when they move onto coaching. He’s really been a natural.”

He has established the “Win Every Day” philosophy and has led his team to three-straight postseason appearances with an NCAA berth in 2016-17, NIT quarterfinal appearance in 2017-18 and a No. 5 seed at the 2018-19 NCAA Tournament.

“He wouldn’t recruit guys that he felt didn’t have great character. He feels that’s more important than anything you do on the basketball court,” Howard said. “The way he conducts himself as well as how he runs his program is a true testament to what he’s truly about. That’s bringing in young men that he feels can really make a difference on the court and off the court.”

Though Dahlem said there is a lot of glamor in being a head coach of a college basketball team, it comes with a price.

“It comes with a very, very exacting toll, a price that it exacts on the family and the guy that’s actually doing the coaching. It’s literally 24/7, 365 days a year,” Dahlem said. “Any time you get with your family and others is a real, real bonus.”

Many of Wojciechowski’s former colleagues said they have continued to follow Wojciechowski’s success as head coach at Marquette. They all said no matter how busy he is, he will always send a text back.

Occasionally Wojciechowski will call Dahlem if he is on a long drive. Other than that, their communication occurs mostly over text.

“I will text Steve after virtually every game, before every game, especially when it’s a downer game and they’ve lost to try to pick him up,” Dahlem said. “He’s getting dozens, if not hundreds, of text messages from people because he has such a large sphere of people that means something to him, that he means something to. I don’t expect any kind of elaborate communication from him, but just to hear from him is great and just to know I can follow along with him is really a special situation.”

Even his former star guard and current Denver Nugget said he tries to reach out to Wojciechowski every so often after a game.

“We’ll both be texting or calling back and forth, which is nice. It’s always good to hear from him,” Howard said. “Any conversations we can have, they’re very good, they’re in depth and we just catch up and encourage each other.”

Dahlem said as soon as Wojciechowski took the job at Marquette, him and his 93-year-old mother became addicted to watching the Golden Eagles.

“I’ll tell my mom, ‘Hey, guess who’s on tonight? Wojo.’‘Oh Wojo’s on, Wojo’s on.’ We flip Steve’s game on, it’s our priority game,” Dahlem said.

In 2022, Brey and Wojciechowski will be reunited on the court. But rather than on the same sideline, they will be coaching against each other. It was announced in November 2019 that Marquette and Brey’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish will be renewing their rivalry in a home-and-home series starting in the 2022-23 season.

“It’s been a little unusual to look down and you see a guy that you recruited (coaching),” Brey said. “There’s a special bond with Steve because we were both point guards from Maryland Catholic schools and kind of gym-rat guys who came up the same way, who wanted to be coaches.”

For Forte, he said he is beyond proud of his former student.

“I was very happy and extremely proud that he was able to get the head coach position there at Marquette and I’m a graduate of a Jesuit college myself, Loyola here in Baltimore, so you know so I was very happy that Steve landed at a good Jesuit school,” Forte said.

Meanwhile, Brian has seen Wojciechowski when he’s come back to Baltimore. Brian is the Gibbons rep for the Baltimore Catholic League Hall of Fame selection committee and Wojciechowski was one of the inductees, but has also come back to speak to group.

Though Brian and Colin have not seen him coach at Marquette yet, they are planning a trip soon.

“I watch all the games and I’ve texted him a few times. He’s so busy, I try to not really bother him and let him do his job and he’s done a great job,” Brian said. “(But I watch) all the Duke games and I’m still a Duke fan.”

As for Brey, he said there is something about Wojciechowski’s personality and upbringing that makes him a natural coach.

“That’s the kind of guy you want your son to handle for four years,” Brey said. “I would send my son to him in a heartbeat and he’d come back a man.”

Howard said his growth both on and off the court were a testament to Wojciechowski’s leadership and influence.

“He’s not going to tell you what you want to hear, he’s going to tell you what you need to hear,” Howard said. “Wojo always challenged me each and every day to be a leader … (and) the way he coached me was the biggest sign of respect and love that you could have.”

Dahlem, who has had 18 years working in collegiate athletics, said the truest joy in life is when he can be happier for someone than he is for himself. When good things have happened to Wojciechowski throughout his life — whether it was playing at Duke, coaching at Duke or now building his own program at Marquette — Dahlem said he could not be happier for Wojciechowski.

“I have to say that there are there are families and there are young men that were right up there with Steve, but I have not met anyone, been blessed or worked with anyone who has had more of a giving, kind, intense, team-oriented … you could fill in all the adjectives, than Steve,” Dahlem said. “He is the hardest working, the most giving, the most team-oriented, the most caring, the most selfless individual that I’ve ever been blessed to work with.”

This story was written by Zoe Comerford. She can be reached at isabel.comerford@marquette.edu or on Twitter @zoe_comerford.