Head Games: Marquette's issues became mental

Rod Carew was one of the greatest pure hitters in baseball history. He was the American League batting champion seven times, including six of seven years between 1972-78. He retired with an astonishing .328 career average. He was also one of the game’s best students. Carew was notorious for taking hours of extra batting practice, often just laying down bunt after bunt. He had an innate understanding of the science of hitting that was part gift from above and part forged through hard work.

Nonetheless, by the time he was brought in to be hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2000, 15 years removed from his playing career and after a seven-year stint in the same role for the Angels, something seemed amiss. The Brewers of 2000 and ’01 were not good-hitting teams. Carew was put under the microscope. It was generally believed that, somehow, he just couldn’t get through to the likes of Richie Sexson and Geoff Jenkins as they, and others, would enter prolonged mid-summer slumps and the Brewers would continue a longstanding trend in that era of going into a summer swoon. On the one hand, Carew couldn’t figure out how to motivate his players to work as hard as he did at the art of hitting. On the other, he couldn’t translate all the things he knew to the guys he was hired to teach. After helping open Miller Park in 2001, Carew was relieved of his duties with the Brewers after just those two years. He hasn’t coached at the major-league level since.

The lesson of Carew’s stint as Brewers hitting coach was this: Being good at something, and being good at teaching others to do something, aren’t necessarily correlated. How you figured out how to do something might not be how others’ figure out how to do it. As a teacher, if you can’t translate how you did it to others, they might not pick up on it.

This was part of what occurred to me when pondering what Steve Wojciechowski and Marquette are going through while their tournament seeding, and perhaps their season, slide downward.

FS1 likes taking us inside of huddles. In a recent one, we got sight of Wojo telling his team to relax while saying it in the most terse, stern, unrelaxed way possible. That’s a moment where being a bit demonstrative — giving that command with a smile and a less-tense posture, like someone who actuallyis relaxed — might have helped. I understand that might sound like pure theater, but when dealing with men who are only aged 18 through 22, a little theater might help get the message across.

I don’t think Wojo ever really is relaxed. He never played like it, being the scrappy, undersized, never-say-die hustle guy that he was. You don’t sense it in the way he talks, as it seems like he’s carefully trying to pick out the right words every time he’s on camera, even when breaking down in tears talking about Matt Heldt. I’ve said he’s hard to read. He’s had times when he’s implied he was joking or trying to be lighthearted in press conferences where I’ve thought, “No, that’s not coming through.” It’s hard to tell, at least in my mind, when we’re getting the real Wojo, or when he’s saying what he thinks needs to be said rather than what he’s really thinking. He’s got a kind of corporate way about him in that sense.

That’s fine when things are going well. But when things aren’t going well, that sort of nose-to-the-grindstone approach can be, well, grinding. When things started going bad in the final four minutes against Seton Hall. back when the losing streak was only at two, there was a feeling of panic. The shots Markus Howard and Sam Hauser started jacking up got progressively more forced. Nothing from Saturday’s season-ending loss to Georgetown, where shooting was an issue on the whole, made me think they’ve gotten any more relaxed. I can’t help but wonder if that’s a reflection on the coach. Wojo isn’t the kind of guy you see doing anything but trying to work harder and harder when things weren’t going right. That might have worked for him as a player, the way taking hours of batting practice worked for Carew. But I’m not sure it works for his team, or was what his team needs, as a coach.

The losing streak, to me, isn’t as concerning as how much it looks like Marquette is pressing. It was notable that Brendan Bailey may have had the best game of any Marquette player against Georgetown. As a freshman who almost always has something to prove, he’s used to that feeling of having to fight. I’m not sure the combination of things going wrong and having the BIG EAST title literally slip away before their eyes is something the other guys are as used to dealing with.

Back on Wojo, leaders lead, which means they’re the ones who sometimes have to cut against the grain and enact change. Wojo has said that when things are going wrong, it’s his responsibility. As a leader, it’s his job to not get panicky with his team, or too down on himself, when adversity sets in. That starts becoming the team’s mentality, too, and that’s not a good mentality for them to have. It’s his job to be demonstrate calm and confidence when he needs his team to have more of it. It’s in these moments when you wonder if he’s doing that, if only because that doesn’t seem to be his personality.

Mike Holmgren didn’t get Brett Favre more wound up — if anything, he made him better because he calmed him down. It seems counterintuitive, but sometimes, when you’re pressing and caught up in the moment, the best thing to do is step back, breathe deeply, settle and reboot. Fans have to hope Marquette are doing that in this week’s run-up to the BIG EAST Tournament. It’s a valuable skill, not just in sports, but in life. Here’s hoping they can learn just how valuable it is.

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

IT’S ON: Having fallen to the second seed in the tournament, Marquette definitely wants to get to the title game to show it’s over its late-season woes. Does it need to win the tournament? No, but getting hot again now wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world for a team whose psyche seemed to get significantly shaken for a stretch of about two weeks. Let me put it this way, though: One and out wouldn’t be good at all, and could impact NCAA seeding pretty badly.

NEW YORK STATE OF MIND: There will be a time in my life when I escape to (not from, to) New York to go cover the BIG EAST Tournament personally. Not yet, though. It’s kind of odd – in past years, Marquette Courtside’s coverage has kind of fallen off as the team has approached the postseason rather than picked up. There have been reasons: Helping coordinate logistics for NCAA events when they’ve been here in Milwaukee has been one, an inability to travel to games and general business in life has been another, and Marquette’s lack of much of a postseason presence has been a third. The one year in the Wojo/Courtside era that Marquette was in the tournament was when Milwaukee was also hosting, while the only other time they’ve made it beyond Manhattan was last year’s NIT run.

This year might be different, though. We’re going to do our best to keep things up through MU’s tournament run. Join us for the ride. It starts later this week in New York.

Photo: Getty Images

Georgetown v Marquette

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