The New Faces of Cougar Basketball

The New Faces of Cougar Basketball

Women's head basketball Natasha Adair talks with senior center Latisha Harris. (Photo by Colin Johnson)

In the past year, the College of Charleston has said goodbye to two legendary basketball coaches.

Nancy Wilson, whose 542-win résumé stretches back to a time when the NCAA did not even recognize women’s sports, had planned to retire after the 2011-12 season. But the sudden, mid-season departure of the larger-than-life Bobby Cremins – a former national coach of the year who had 570 wins to his credit – shocked the basketball world.

Replacing these two titans of the game, who combined to win more than 1,100 games in 61 years on the bench, are a pair of coaches who have combined to win … 140 games in six years.

Actually, new men’s coach Doug Wojcik has won 140 games in six seasons. Natasha Adair has never been a head coach before.

If you think either of them are intimidated by the shoes they’ve been asked to fill, you haven’t met the new faces of Cougar basketball.

“Comfortable” transition

Adair comes to the College after spending eight years on the bench at Wake Forest, where she helped coach the Demon Deacons to four Women’s NIT appearances in the past five seasons. She describes her tenure in Winston-Salem, N.C., as a time spent maturing into the coaching role, and growing in the profession.

“It was just a good opportunity for me to grow. Eight years flew by,” Adair said “The good thing under (Wake Forest head coach Mike) Peterson was that he allowed me to coach. He allowed me to do so much. I see that more now, as a head coach. I am so prepared because I was allowed to do pretty much the same things.

“I coached, and I dealt with the parents, and I recruited. If there was a crisis, I handled it. People ask me, ‘How do you know how to do these things, and how do you know how to say those things, and how do you know how to address the media?’ One, because I was a Communications major, but two, I was very, very hands-on while I was at Wake Forest.”

When asked how it feels to transition from the role of an associate head coach to running her own program, Adair just smiles knowingly.

“It hasn’t been different at all. It honestly seems like I’ve sat in this chair for a very long time,” she said. “I feel very comfortable in this chair because of the assistant coaches around me. I think that if I did not have my staff, it might not be as easy or as calm. I’m able to delegate; I’m able to trust; I’m able to just kind of have a good balance.

“Am I OK making the tough decisions? Yes. Am I OK delegating who does what? Yes. But I feel very good about being in that seat, but I believe my assistant coaches really do make me better.”

Men's head coach Doug Wojcik fields questions from the media before Maroon Madness. (Photo by Colin Johnson)

Tulsa-tested

Wojcik already has a number of stellar lines on his coaching resume. After cutting his teeth at North Carolina and under former NCAA champion Tom Izzo at Michigan State, the former Navy point guard was hired to turn around a flailing program at the University of Tulsa.

In the two years before Wojcik joined the Golden Hurricanes, the team posted back-to-back nine-win seasons. In just his second season as a head coach, he had Tulsa up to 20 wins, with 25 the season after that. The next year he guided the Hurricanes to another 25-win season, and a second-place finish in Conference USA, behind only a Memphis Tigers team that entered the NCAA Tournament as a No. 2 seed.

He now takes over a program that won 26 games just two seasons ago, and is returning one of the most talented squads in the Southern Conference. He admits that he is enjoying working with a strong team, instead of facing the sort of rebuilding job he tackled in Tulsa.

“It’s been fun coaching good players. It’s much more enjoyable,” Wojcik said. “Tulsa had, in some ways, higher expectations, and they were going into Conference USA. So there was a conference change. I’m about to experience that again, but that’s neither here nor there right now. But I would much rather have good players, and I feel like I have good players.”

Wojcik is intense, even while carrying on a genial conversation in his third-floor office TD Arena, overlooking the Ravenel Bridge through one direction and the cruise ship terminal through another. People who have watched him running his Cougars through a hard-nosed, grinding practice invoke memories of the glory days of College of Charleston basketball, when John Kresse’s teams slew giant after giant in the old gym on George Street.

He wants his players to be ready to live up to the legacy of Kresse’s NCAA Tournament squads.

“Believe it or not, I feel this way: I hold kids accountable, but I really consider myself a player’s coach. But I hold them accountable,” Wojcik said, explaining his theory of coaching. “At times, it looks like tough love, but to get where they hope to get, to play professional basketball, you really have to be a good player, but you also have to have a lot of things going for you.

“I believe that I’m a player’s coach, in the sense that I’m going to try to make players better. Not just offensively, but defensively. So many people just look at the game from the offensive side. Well, this isn’t football; you’re not just a defensive player, or an offensive player. It’s an action-reaction game. So, I hold them accountable at both ends.”

“Is it different? Absolutely.”

Adair is ready to push her players, as well, to the point of calling for a series of 6 a.m. practice that took advantage of Charleston itself to push her players out of their comfort zones. After grueling early-morning workouts over the Ravenel Bridge, or in and out of the surf at Folly Beach, she believes they are ready.

“I think that the players have been phenomenal. I really do. What we’ve asked them to do, in such a short time, and for a team that 90 percent of them are returners, it’s been nothing short of amazing how they have adapted,” Adair said. “Is it different? Absolutely. Am I asking a lot? Sure. But every day it gets easier.

“To see them play at a pace that I’m excited about, I think that they now appreciate what they had to do since the first day of practice, since preseason. Running across the (Ravenel) Bridge at six o’clock in the morning (connected by a rope) probably didn’t make sense to them. Going to Folly Beach in the sand at 6 a.m. and running in and out of the water, probably didn’t make sense to them. But to be able to press with 10 minutes to go, to be able to play at a pace that is uncomfortable for many, and to be able to put points on the board, and have multiple possessions in a game, they will enjoy that. They have gotten a taste of that and they don’t think about the alternative. They don’t think about, ‘Oh gosh, we had to run today.’ They don’t think about that they’ve been up and down so many times today. They see that this is going to help them win basketball games.”

“I hope,” she added, laughing.

Photo by Colin Johnson

Representing history

As both Adair and Wojcik begin to put their stamp on the Cougars, they are acutely aware that they are following in the footsteps of the coaches who have lifted the College of Charleston up from its humble NAIA beginnings – Kresse jokes that the acronym for National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics actually stood for “No air conditioning in arena” – to a name known throughout Division I basketball.

“Institutions are going to be around well beyond my time, or anyone’s time. That’s reality. So, it’s my responsibility as the ‘CEO of Charleston basketball’ now to represent the school, to represent the community, to represent the athletic department, to represent Coach Kresse and the history in the right way,” Wojcik said.

“I’ll make mistakes. We all make mistakes, or perceived mistakes, but I take the responsibility of running the ‘basketball company’ very seriously. Whether it’s from a community standpoint, from a recruiting standpoint, from a budget standpoint, from an educational mentor standpoint with my players. I do believe that there is a right way and a wrong way.”

Wojcik learned the craft of running a basketball program at Michigan State, under the tutelage of Tom Izzo, who has guided the Spartans to four Final Fours and a national championship. His basketball education started early, however. In high school he played for Skip Prosser, who went on to coach at Loyola, Xavier and Wake Forest. Wojcik lists his high school coach as his first coaching influence, but credits all those with whom he’s worked.

“Skip Prosser, and then everyone influences you in some way,” Wojcik said. “My first major job was with Don DeVou at Navy. I think that working for him for seven years had a huge influence for me, in keeping things simple, and being really good at a few things. Certainly (North Carolina’s) Matt Daughtery and the ‘Carolina way,’ and recruiting. I thought Matt was a high-level recruiter. And then certainly Tom Izzo, with running a program, being a caretaker, being the CEO of a program. Budget, community, Board of Trustees, facilities. Tom Izzo has had the greatest influence on me.”

Player to coach

Before they were assistant coaches, leading their trade in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and the Big East and the Big 10, both Wojcik and Adair were successful players. Adair still holds the single-season rebounding record for South Florida, while Wojcik, a three-year starter for Navy, set several records for assists.

Adair became thoughtful when asked her biggest asset as a player, before answering quietly.

“I was a leader. In every way. I was vocal. I led by example. But I was also the first one to admit if I messed up,” she said. “I was never perfect, but if I got a negative, I followed it with eight positives. I just never, never wanted to lose. I never wanted to get beaten. There was just competitiveness in me that was contagious. You’ll see that in me as a coach. Hopefully you’ll see that in my players. You’ll see that in my staff. You see that in my kids. You just see that in anyone around me.”

When asked the same question, Wojcik quipped: “David Robinson.”

(If you don’t think that’s funny, you need to Google David Robinson.)

“For my own, individual talent? Probably my intellect for the game, and coachablity. I think those two things. It certainly wasn’t physical,” Wojcik said.

One stat for success

After talking about the school, their mentors and themselves, both coaches looked forward, contemplating what their players would need to do to live up to the tradition of College of Charleston basketball. When pressed, they both offered the impossible: one, single stat that would indicate whether their teams would be successful this season.

“Probably shooting percentage, in my mind,” Wojcik said. “But there are a lot more stats than that. Gosh, if you shoot it pretty well, and we do what we think we can do defensively… That’s a tough one, but at the end of the day, you still have to be able to make shots.”

After saying that compressing a successful season down to one stat couldn’t be done, Adair encapsulated what she wanted to see from her team this season.

“Just one? Oh, gosh. Second-chance points. Points off turnovers. If there is a stat for hustle points, I want us to be that team that scores and creates opportunities off of hustle plays. That’s who we’re going to be,” Adair said. “We’re going to be that team that creates opportunities off of hustle. Whether it be taking a charge. Whether it be trapping someone to the point of disruption. Getting that stop, that deflection, that loose ball, that 50/50 ball. However we can change the game with hustle plays, then that’s going to be who we are.”

Hustle. Intensity. Passion.

Natasha Adair and Doug Wojcik are stepping into very large shoes. Large to the tune of 1,100 combined victories. If you have any trepidation at all about these two leading College of Charleston basketball into the future, take a minute to look into their eyes, and talk to them.

They’re ready.

It’s game time.

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