Can Tulsa revive its program after slide?

Originally Published: December 7, 2005
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

The run of quality coaches, in retrospect, is almost unbelievable.

Nolan Richardson was replaced by J.D. Barnett and Tubby Smith followed him. Steve Robinson replaced the current Kentucky coach, then Bill Self and Buzz Peterson followed.

It would be a good streak of hires at almost any school in college basketball. That it happened at the University of Tulsa, a private, 4,200-student institution, makes it even more impressive.

That's not a knock on Tulsa; it's a reflection on how difficult it is to repeatedly make good head coach hires, regardless of whether the school is a high-major or a low-major. It's even more difficult for schools to make good hires when the candidates are assistants who have never led their own programs.

Doug Wojcik
Wojcik is eager to get Tulsa back to its former status.

As a result, Tulsa was the top mid-major program during the 1980s and '90s. In the 22 seasons between 1981-82 and 2002-03, Tulsa advanced to the NCAA Tournament 12 times and played in the NIT four others. Smith took the Golden Hurricane to consecutive Sweet 16s in 1994 and '95 and left for Georgia. In 2000, Self led Tulsa to the Elite Eight -- where Tulsa was defeated by North Carolina -- and was then hired away by Illinois. Peterson set the land speed record for fastest time in and out of Tulsa, leaving for Tennessee after only one season and an NIT championship.

It was then that the Tulsa administration -- apparently tired of being raided by major conference schools -- changed the way it did business. Instead of looking for a good, young head coach or a promising assistant from a big-time program, the Golden Hurricane looked for one of its own.

John Phillips was an assistant for Self at Tulsa and stayed on when Peterson was hired. A native of the city, Phillips wasn't a climber, rather a guy who wanted to be the Golden Hurricane coach.

It was an experiment that, ultimately, didn't work. Because while Phillips led Tulsa to the NCAA Tournament in each of his first two seasons and won a first-round game each year, the Tulsa program slipped mightily under his watch. How far off the radar has Tulsa fallen? The Golden Hurricane isn't even the best program in its own city. Not with Oral Roberts across town.

In 2004, Tulsa went 9-20, the school's second-worst record since 1980. Last season, the Golden Hurricane won only two of their first seven games and Phillips resigned on Christmas Day. Things didn't get any better after that, as Tulsa finished 9-20 for a second consecutive season. It was the worst stretch at the school since going 9-18, 7-20 and 9-18 during 1975-78.

When it was time to make a permanent hire last spring, the Tulsa administration didn't fool around, immediately pulling out that old how-to-find-a-young-coach-with-upside file and went to work.

The result was the hiring of Michigan State assistant Doug Wojcik, a guy who certainly fits the old-school Tulsa mold. Wojcik isn't a name that immediately jumps off of the tongue of those who aren't serious hoops fans, but his pedigree is awfully impressive. Consider:

• His high school coach at Wheeling (W.Va.) Central Catholic was a guy named George Edward Prosser. Never heard of him? He's better known as Skip Prosser, the high school social studies teacher turned Wake Forest coach.

• He played at Navy, starting every game for three seasons at point guard. His biggest responsibility there? Get the ball to a dude named David Robinson.

• He worked for Don DeVoe at Navy during a stretch in which the Midshipmen went to the NCAA Tournament three times in five years.

• Wojcik then served as an assistant coach to Matt Doherty at Notre Dame and then North Carolina. While Doherty's tenure at Carolina didn't go as anyone had hoped, he and his staff deserve a lot of credit for recruiting virtually every player on last season's national championship UNC team.

• His next stop was East Lansing, Mich. There Wojcik was Tom Izzo's top assistant coach and the Spartans advanced to last season's Final Four.

Wojcik's task? Restore the luster to a program that was Gonzaga before Gonzaga.

"It's been good, but I can't say it hasn't been frustrating," Wojcik said after his team improved to 2-4 with a 68-52 victory at Northern Arizona. "It's been wonderful to be a head coach, it's great to make decisions. And I love practice. [The players] do everything we ask them to do and they play hard."

The turnaround isn't going to be immediate, as this Tulsa team is simply too limited. The Golden Hurricane -- a team with only four guards on its entire roster -- is picked to finish at or near the bottom of Conference USA, a step up in level for the school after spending most of its recent history in the WAC and the Missouri Valley.

Because of that, Wojcik appreciates the small victories. Tuesday night's win, for example, isn't going to turn any heads. It certainly doesn't have the same weight as the Spartans' victory the same night over Boston College. But Wojcik said it was very important.

Why? Last year's Tulsa team won one road game in 13 tries. This team now has one road win in three tries and it will almost certainly win away from home at some other point this season.

"We're trying to scratch and claw to win," Wojcik said. "It really makes you appreciate everything you get. It's the way it was at Navy."

Can Wojcik get the Golden Hurricane turned around and back to being a dangerous opponent? There are certainly reasons why it can happen.

"We can sell the history of Tulsa. A lot of teams don't have that," Wojcik said.

There's also support for the team in town. While both Oklahoma and Oklahoma State are big deals in the state, the Golden Hurricane are as well. Despite last season's record, Tulsa still averaged nearly 6,000 fans per game. In 2000, when things were rolling, more than 8,000 fans per game packed the 8,355-seat Reynolds Center. That season, the Golden Hurricane averaged more fans than Villanova, Washington, Virginia, Stanford or Georgia Tech.

Why is that important? Because fans translate into money for athletic departments. And more money often means a larger budget. In addition, Tulsa has good facilities and there are plenty of quality players within a few hundred miles of the town.

"We have a lot to sell," Wojcik said. "We can offer a private education and a lot of basketball tradition."

A tradition that indicates that Wojcik is going to have success.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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