Nine players and four Marquette University administrators stood behind him. A national championship banner and the visage of Al McGuire hung above him. The pristine McGuire Center surrounded him. His wife and two young sons sat in front of him.
This was perfection.
It took that, and no less than that, for Steve Wojciechowski to walk off the campus of Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.
He was gone for one basketball season from fall of 1994 through the spring of 2014 – nearly two decades of his 37 years. Without question, the man affectionately known as "Wojo," bled Duke blue.
"It's a place where I grew up," he said Tuesday of his alma mater. "I have amazing relationships and it's a place that made me better every single day. So I wasn't going to leave for just any job. I was only going to leave for the job that I thought is the perfect job for me, and I feel like Marquette is that place."
Wojciechowski admitted he had been approached to leave several times in his 15 years on the bench next to Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski, "coming close" only once.
There is job security. There is tradition. There is the ability to work side-by-side with the coach with the most wins in NCAA history. And of course, it was home.
The fit had to be right.
Marquette University and its commitment to men’s basketball provided it.
"It’s not just a job for us, it’s a passion," Jeff Capel III said of the feeling in Durham.
Capel III, who played with Wojciechowski for three seasons and coached with him for the last three at Duke, knows. He was a head coach at Virginia Commonwealth University and Oklahoma before returning to his – their – alma mater as an assistant.
"To me, what it shows is, as someone who knows him very well, is how highly he thinks of Marquette and thinks of that job, what it is, and what it can be and what he can do there for him to finally make the move," he said. "When you work here, when you’re an assistant here, and you work for coach, you see the investment made in men’s basketball so it makes you – I don’t know if settle is the right word – but it makes you cognizant of the fact that when you leave it has to be a place that has a similar investment."
The U.S. Department of Education reported that the Marquette men’s basketball program earned over $16 million in 2012-13 and spent $10,726,622 – or an average of $226,168 per player.
It’s a level of commitment Wojciechowski has come to expect as first a player, then a coach. Duke spent $176,697 on its players that year and $15,170,813 on its men’s basketball team. Its revenue was in excess of $25.7 million.
"The fact that basketball is big in the culture of the university and woven into the fabric of who the university is, played a huge role," Wojciechowski admitted. "I'm coming from a place like that where it's a basketball school. People are excited. It's important to them. People are passionate. They want to see teams that win, but win the right way.
"So there's not a lot of those schools out there. You know, if you think around the country where you look at a school and say, you know what? When you talk about the fabric of that university, the basketball program is a huge part of it. When you look at Marquette, you can say that. To me, that was incredibly attractive."
Krzyzewski was unavailable for comment Tuesday, but he did address Wojciechowski’s departure on his weekly Sirius XM talk show, "Basketball and Beyond with Coach K."
"This is a time where it’s tough for us to let him go," Krzyzewski said on the show, which will air Thursday on College Sports Nation, Channel 91 at 4:45 p.m. CT. "He’s been with me for 15 years as an assistant coach and my top guy. In the last – more than half of his life has been spent at Duke as a player and coach."
"Marquette is fortunate to have him and he’s fortunate to be at a school with that rich basketball tradition. There’s nobody who’s played any harder or given any more for me and my program at Duke University than Steve. I just wish him the best. We have to figure out how to make up for him."
It’s not hyperbole on Krzyzewski’s part.
Wojciechowski was heavily relied upon in on-court instruction of players in practice, especially the big men, as well as the guards once Capel III returned to Durham. He handled off court obligations as well, like a weekly coach’s show and halftime interviews.
"Steve has been a head coach," Capel III said. "It’s just he hasn’t run his own program. But he’s had some of the same responsibilities that a lot of head coaches have had, or have."
He was also an invaluable recruiter for the Blue Devils, especially in the talent-rich Chicago Public School System in Illinois. Wojciechowski helped form a pipeline from the Midwest to North Carolina, which included 2014 All-American Jabari Parker out of Simeon Career Academy.
The best player out of Chicago – and the nation – this year is Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor, and he is headed to Duke as well.
"I think he’ll be able to get a lot of recruits here now, just off the strength of his name and players that he’s recently received and picked up and recruited," said Marquette sophomore Steve Taylor, a former teammate of Parker’s at Simeon and the only player from Chicago on the Golden Eagles roster. "I think he can pull some strings and get aligned with Chicago players to come here now. That’s what I think."
Wojciechowski began his tenure in earnest Tuesday, his official start as a head coach, and the cap to a tumultuous 24 hours where it all came together – where Marquette University and he became synonymous.
"At the end of the day, we kept coming back to it just felt right," he said. "I'm a guy who has always tried to do things with my heart, for better or worse. It's usually worked out for the better, and it just feels right."
Jim Owczarski is an award-winning sports journalist and comes to Milwaukee by way of the Chicago Sun-Times Media Network.
A three-year Wisconsin resident who has considered Milwaukee a second home for the better part of seven years, he brings to the market experience covering nearly all major and college sports.
To this point in his career, he has been awarded six national Associated Press Sports Editors awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, breaking news and projects. He is also a four-time nominee for the prestigious Peter J. Lisagor Awards for Exemplary Journalism, presented by the Chicago Headline Club, and is a two-time winner for Best Sports Story. He has also won numerous other Illinois Press Association, Illinois Associated Press and Northern Illinois Newspaper Association awards.
Jim's career started in earnest as a North Central College (Naperville, Ill.) senior in 2002 when he received a Richter Fellowship to cover the Chicago White Sox in spring training. He was hired by the Naperville Sun in 2003 and moved on to the Aurora Beacon News in 2007 before joining OnMilwaukee.com.
In that time, he has covered the events, news and personalities that make up the PGA Tour, LPGA Tour, Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, NCAA football, baseball and men's and women's basketball as well as boxing, mixed martial arts and various U.S. Olympic teams.
Golf aficionados who venture into Illinois have also read Jim in GOLF Chicago Magazine as well as the Chicago District Golfer and Illinois Golfer magazines.