Marquette players caught in crossfire of coaching search


March 24, 2014.

The events of this day have become Marquette folktale.

It was the day Marquette spotted, tamed and captured Moby Dick.

And by Moby Dick, I mean Virginia Commonwealth head coach Shaka Smart. He was the whale that UCLA couldn’t even lure away last offseason.

But the Golden Eagles had.

Only they hadn’t.

Too bad Twitter didn’t get the memo.

Rumblings began in the early afternoon that the university was on the verge of replacing the recently departed Buzz Williams.

And as the afternoon crept toward early evening, things got serious, with a 5 p.m. announcement apparently looming.

Then the big news of 5 p.m. struck.

But that didn’t impede the rumor mill.





And then the day became legendary.


Some Milwaukee TV stations ran with their own reports of Smart as the new coach that evening, earning them a shout out on Deadspin.

Four days later, after a news conference to update media on the search and address manic Monday, Smart formally turned down Marquette’s offer.

The announcement left many news outlets and reporters licking their wounds and the Marquette basketball players still without a coach.

Players lacked inside information, but they had the same public access to information on social media.

“Over the past few weeks, few days,” junior forward Juan Anderson said after Tuesday’s introduction of Steve Wojciechowski, “we’ve all just been talking like, ‘Man, who’s the new coach gonna be?'”

“We wanted to know and I think the AD’s, they can’t say anything about it so we’re not hearing anything,” junior guard Derrick Wilson said. “But you walk down the street and a guy tries to say, ‘Hey, who’s your new coach?’ And I’m like, ‘We know as much as you do. We’re all in the same boat.’

“Supposedly Shaka Smart was at Mitchell Airport. And I’m walking to class and people are coming up to me saying, ‘Shaka’s coming.’ That’s the word on the street.”

“Everybody was excited,” Anderson said of the Smart rumors. “OK, Shaka. We all like to play fast. Shaka Smart presses the whole game. Plays fast. We were really excited about that.”

And it wasn’t just the Smart rumors players got caught up in.

“First it was Ben Howland. Everybody’s hyping Ben Howland on Twitter and this and that,” Anderson said. “When you see these type of things on Twitter and in the media, as a kid, it’s instinct to say, ‘OK, maybe that’s who they’re going to pick.'”

Early on it appeared the job would be offered to Howland, UW-Green Bay’s Brian Wardle or Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins. The players were aware of that. But, again, inside scoops were limited.

“I heard it was down to Howland, Wardle and Hopkins,” Wilson said. “Everybody’s saying Hopkins isn’t taking it because he’s next in line at Syracuse, then they were still working on a deal with Howland.”

The possibility of Howland had Anderson “excited.”

He said Howland recruited him while at UCLA and he was familiar with his style of play.

“He’s a defensive-minded coach,” Anderson said. “He’s been to three straight Final Fours. He knows what it takes to get there.

“Of course, not saying that none of us can reach that talent of Kevin Love or Russell Westbrook and those guys he had, but he had two lottery picks in that year. He had Aaron Afflalo a few years later. Darren Collison. He had a bunch of pros on his team. But at the same time he knows what it takes to get there. I was excited about that.”

In the meantime, Marquette’s players were still without a coach, something interim athletic director Bill Cords and associated athletic director Mike Broeker spoke to the team about.

“Basically what they told us was make sure we stick together, don’t splinter apart,” Wilson said. “They’ll get the best possible coach.”

And while that search continued, the players were left to work with Jerry Wainwright, the lone assistant from Williams’ staff who was retained to help players maintain some sense of normality and team cohesion.

“That’s what we basically tried to do these last two weeks, was stay together,” Wilson said.

But it wasn’t easy.

“The whole thing was, you almost felt something was wrong all the time because you’re so used to blocks everywhere,” Wilson said, “you report to somebody every day and now you had nobody to report to.”

That would come to an end soon, as Cuonzo Martin entered the fold.

“I think on Saturday everybody said the Tennessee coach is coming,” Wilson said. “Then it came out he bowed out of Marquette, I saw it on ESPN. So to be honest, I was like, ‘I don’t know who’s coming.'”

Martin removed his name from consideration late Sunday night, paving the way for Wojciechowski to woo the Marquette decision makers and become the Golden Eagles’ 17th head coach, officially, on Tuesday.

“It was a pretty interesting experience because it was all rumors,” Wilson said of the coaching search. “Nobody really knew.”

Mark Strotman contributed to this report. 

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