Building and sustaining a bigger, stronger, faster team.
“What a difference a year makes. I like where our program is and where it is heading,” San José State men’s basketball coach Dave Wojcik said under bright television lights on Media Day at renovated Yoshihiro Uchida Hall.Clad in a navy blue blazer and Spartan blue tie, the clean-shaven Wojcik (pronounced WOE-jick), along with personal recruits Jalen James and Rashad Muhammad, stood together to assure a skeptical press that the Spartans will be a legitimate threat in the Mountain West Conference.
James, a 6-foot-3 point guard from Chicago, and Muhammad, a 6-6 guard from Las Vegas, echoed their coach’s enthusiasm:
“I feel blessed to be here and a part of all of this,” James said.
“It feels like a real basketball program now,” Muhammad added.
Feeling “blessed” or optimistic about a team coming off a 7-24 season (1-17 in MW play) and a program that has had just one winning season in the last 21 might seem surprising. Yet, despite the Spartans being picked by the media to finish 11th out of 11 MWC teams in the 2014-15 season, these two Spartan athletes appeared as upbeat as their coach.
The Yoshihiro Uchida Hall renovation has provided the team with a new locker room, players’ lounge and upgraded practice facility. The 500-square-foot blue and gray lounge features a big-screen TV, refrigerator, kitchen area, table and several cushy chairs. Each player’s locker displays his name and hometown, along with a Spartan emblem.
“All that stuff helps,” Muhammad said. So does having Wojcik and his five-man staff in the same building. (Last year, Wojcik’s office was tucked away in a small administrative building on the South campus.) The coach’s new workplace is spacious and features a 60-inch interactive whiteboard touch-screen where he diagrams plays and offensive and defensive schemes.
“Want to see the coolest part?” he said in a private demonstration. After drawing up a quick play, he saved it, turned it into an attachment and emailed it to his team and coaches. “Instead of waiting for practice, I can send plays out any time of day,” Wojcik said with the excitement of a kid in a candy store. “It keeps us all connected.”
Wojcik is also excited about a bolstered roster of experienced players, among them Pepperdine transfer Jordan Baker, a 6-4 shooting guard, and 6-9 USF transfer Frank Rogers. Both are juniors and join the team’s three returning leading scorers, Muhammad and seniors Jaleel Williams and Devante Wilson. Other additions are 6-11, 240-pound post Leon Bahner, a freshman from Germany, and 6-2 freshman guard Darryl Gaynor II, who led the state of Nevada boys high school players in scoring last year with a 24.9 scoring average for Las Vegas’ Durango High School.
“Last year we had seven new guys and sometimes five freshmen on the court at the same time,” Wojcik said. “This year we have a lot more size, depth and experience. We’re bigger, stronger and faster.”
Patience, diligence, commitment
Wojcik’s impeccable 23-year coast-to-coast assistant coaching resume preceded his arrival at SJSU for his first college head coaching position. He learned well from such greats as Lefty Driesell and Skip Prosser—his former high school coach. As an assistant, Wojcik helped his teams gain six conference titles and 11 postseason appearances. At almost every stop, Wojcik helped to either rebuild floundering programs or improve mediocre ones. The most dramatic turnaround occurred at his alma mater, Loyola University in Maryland. The year before Wojcik and Prosser took over, Loyola had a 2-25 season. With Wojcik and Prosser onboard, Loyola pulled off one of the top-15 turnarounds in NCAA Division I history, winning the 1994 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Tournament title and earning the Greyhounds their first NCAA Tournament appearance in 105 years.
Immediately prior to SJSU, Wojcik spent three seasons (2011-13) at Boise State as the Broncos’ associate head coach under head coach Leon Rice. The 2013 squad earned an NCAA Tournament bid and a second straight 20-win season, while moving from the Western Athletic Conference to the MWC.
“He’s been in a lot of different places,” Boise State’s Rice told the Associated Press at the time of Wojcik’s hiring at SJSU. “The thing that Dave really brought to the table with me is that he’s had to go and rebuild a lot of programs. That (ability) really helped our transition from the WAC to the Mountain West.”
The keys to rebuilding, according to Wojcik? “Patience, diligence and a true commitment. There is no doubt in my mind that we will be successful here at San José State. The pieces are all here for us,” he said.
“Character, drive, enthusiasm—those were traits so critical in filling this (coaching) position,” said SJSU Director of Athletics Gene Bleymaier. “We needed someone to roll up their sleeves and be excited to go out and work everyday, to see obstacles not as problems but opportunities. That’s Dave. He’s very, very enthusiastic and very passionate about what he does.”
Wojcik has also “rolled up his sleeves” in terms of interacting with the community. Last year he started a monthly 7 a.m. “Wake Up with Wojcik Breakfast” to meet with fans, discuss X’s and O’s, recruiting and other college basketball topics. The positive response and turnout prompted the scheduling of a second round of breakfast chats during the 2014-15 season at Plant Shopping Center’s Conference Room.Broad-shouldered, thick-chested Wojcik is, by all accounts, a blue-collar, look-you-square-in-the-pupil, break-your-hand-with-a-handshake sort of guy who has earned a reputation as a “people person” and “player’s coach.” Those kinds of personal attributes help to inspire young, ambitious athletes who are trying to move mountains or, in this case, win a fair share of Mountain West Conference games.
“It’s all about relationships,” Wojcik said. “There are a lot of coaches who don’t care about the relationships. They just go to practice and leave practice and go to the games. I’ve just never been that way. I like being around people. I enjoy talking. I like learning new things. That’s my whole thing with my players. We have a bond there. They know I’d run through a wall for them, and I think they’d do the same for me.”
“We give the Ubuntu award weekly to the player who epitomizes how we want our program to be. The player is a hard worker, both on the court and in the classroom. He also picks up his teammates, takes charges, listens, and plays hard and unselfishly.” —Coach Wojcik
In a quiet moment away from Media Day, relaxing in the players’ lounge, Muhammad got a little choked up when describing the relationship with his coach.
“He’s like a father figure to all of us,” he said. “He’s a big influence in everything. He told me he was going to push me when I got here, and I really liked that. He’s going to take care of us. But if we’re not doing right, he’s going to discipline us. He’s going to let us know. He gives us the constructive criticism that we need.”
James came to SJSU strictly on the recommendation of a high school coach who played for Wojcik at Tulsa. The three-star recruit had offers from Arkansas, Alabama, Colorado, SMU and Illinois but was so confident in Wojcik that he opted for the move west.
“I knew nobody here and didn’t even know where San José was,” James admitted. “But when I met coach Wo, we clicked right away. He’s a great guy. I know if I need to talk to him about anything—even if it has nothing to do with basketball—he’s there for me. He’s there for us. He’ll always have our backs.”
Bleymaier shares James’s confidence in Wojcik. In fact, he’s so certain Wojcik can turn the program around, he gave him a five-year contract. “I told him that he has time to build it the right way,” Bleymaier said. “It’s going to take time.”
This season, the Spartans need to take care of the ball much better and develop more of a low-post game, Wojcik said. “But,” he added, pulling Muhammad and James toward him, “if we get guys playing like these two, we’re going to be all right.”
“We won only one game in the Mountain West last year,” Muhammad said, “but Coach Wojcik was still inspiring us every day. We feel the love. We’re going to work our tails off for him and do whatever we can to turn this thing around.”
Mitch Stephens is a senior writer and columnist for MaxPreps.com, and high school sports content provider for the San Francisco Chronicle.