Now that San Jose State football has dropped to 1-5 in Ron Caragher’s fourth season, let’s go beyond the obvious. It would be easy to write a long article bemoaning the wrong direction the football program is taking. Instead, let me offer my personal reflections of following the coaching hires of athletic director Gene Bleymaier for football and men’s basketball.
San Jose State had two prominent new coaches in 2013. For football, Ron Caragher replaced Mike MacIntyre after MacIntyre took the job at Colorado. Dave Wojcik came in as men’s basketball head coach after the firing of George Nessman, who never had a winning conference record in eight seasons.
To put it briefly, Caragher’s teams have shown very little, if any, improvements in four years, even though Caragher has always had a talented pool of players, whether MacIntyre’s recruits (whom he controversially denigrated as “built for the WAC”) or his own recruits targeted for the Mountain West. Unlike MacIntyre or his predecessor Dick Tomey, Caragher has always had a full scholarships and practice time.
In contrast, Wojcik had to build his team from scratch and had a hand tied behind his back from day one. Just four players from Nessman’s final team stuck around to play for Wojcik. Then in his second season, the NCAA reduced practice time due to a low Academic Progress Rate from Nessman’s final season. That combined with a young team, injuries, and disciplinary issues led to a two-win season. Men’s basketball won just one Mountain West Conference game in Wojcik’s first two years. Once those sanctions were lifted prior to the 2015-16 season, the results showed the difference, as the team won seven more games than the last season, including four Mountain West games.
Beyond their teams’ directions on the field, a major factor in how these coaches get things done stems from their personalities. Having watched their press conferences since their first seasons and interviewed them multiple times over the past year and a half, here are things you or I notice with Caragher and Wojcik.
Caragher always appears calm and sedated and serves canned, happy-talk spin after losses. For instance, after the 44-10 loss at a winless Iowa State team dropped San Jose State to 1-3, Caragher hand-waved away the bad record.
“Coming back, non-conference is behind us, and we got a new slate ahead of us. We got conference play, and right now we’re undefeated,” said Caragher in his weekly press conference on Sept. 26. Two weeks later, San Jose State lost the first two conference games.
As fans have often pointed out, Caragher has a history of cringe-worthy post-game remarks, most notoriously the “were we favorites in this game?” question he shot back at Mercury News reporter Jimmy Durkin after a 35-21 loss in 2015 to Oregon State; San Jose State had given up a 21-14 halftime lead. After the 40-23 loss to Boise State in the regular season finale, Caragher received criticism as being “defensive” from both Mark Purdy and Jon Wilner of the Mercury News for stating after the game: “I want to go to a bowl game each and every year. But I think you have to take into account that we moved into the Mountain West Conference. We’re not playing in the WAC anymore.”
Wojcik, in contrast, has always been a no-nonsense coach who takes responsibility and constantly demands high expectations for his team. He had difficult circumstances early on but never complained about them. One quote in particular from Wojcik’s first season stood out. “You’re either a player, or you’re not a player, and you either make plays, or you don’t,” said Wojcik after a 78-69 exhibition loss to Division II Cal State Monterey Bay in his first overall game as head coach.
In fact, I attended Wojcik’s introductory press conference on Apr. 2, 2013, when I was still a student. From the beginning, when Wojcik thanked the various supporters of the program who came out to see him, to his story about being hired and moving his family to San Jose, Wojcik came off as a genuine, down-to-earth person. He became emotional when he discussed growing up in Wheeling, W.Va. and how his father worked for over 30 years at a mill. Quickly, he composed himself and told a humorous story about how his son defined Spartans as “tough” and “yell[ing] a lot.” Wojcik also quoted his son: “You’re going to be the best Spartan, dad.”
Nearly two years later, I began writing for this website. Among my work was covering the Dec. 30, 2015 Mountain West home opener against Utah State, which San Jose State lost 80-71. After Utah State hit a three-pointer to go up 34-23 with just over four minutes before halftime, Wojcik called a timeout. First, he walked to the referee to complain about a missed out of bounds call that should have awarded the ball to San Jose State before the three-pointer. A steaming Wojcik then took a clipboard from a staffer, sat down at the bench huddled up with his players and assistant coaches, slammed the clipboard to the ground, and screamed something like, “Rebound the ball!” That is the best I can recall of his outburst, which I could hear all the way from the media table on the other side of the court.
At the postgame press conference, I asked Wojcik how that timeout influenced his team. Wojcik responded, “Trying to spark them, trying to show them energy, trying to show them something to get them going...I thought they responded pretty well to it.”
In contrast, I have yet to see this kind of outburst by Caragher on the field towards players. At last weekend’s homecoming game, when San Jose State fell behind, during timeouts I saw Caragher staring out on the field with his arms crossed, while his assistants led huddles. Anyone who can produce video of Caragher screaming and going in-your-face at his players at San Jose State similar to the Wojcik situation aforementioned, whether during a game or at a practice, gets a reward of a free one-year subscription to this site, either for yourself or, if you’re already subscribed, a friend. For an example of what I am expecting of such a video, watch these videos of a particular former San Jose State coach now in the Pac-12.
The bottom line I can observe from the directions that football and men’s basketball at San Jose State have gone is that the players take on the personalities of their head coaches. Sure, Caragher comes off a respectful person you would love to have dinner with at Main Street Burgers, and he deserves praise for partnering his team with the Autism Tree Project, to mentor children who have autism. That, however, is something that other coaches are not incapable of doing. Caragher’s shtick might have produced a couple of mediocre seasons in the past three years, but it clearly is not working anymore. In contrast, Wojcik has been getting results from his players, after years of kicking ass and taking names. He has gotten his players to respond and buy in to his expectations. That episode at the Utah State game where he called a timeout to yell at the referee showed the players that he has their back.
Bleymaier must not be blind to the differences in results that his two most prominent coaching hires have generated. Wojcik has shown a slice of what effective coaching looks like, and should circumstances compel the search for a new football head coach, Bleymaier should find a coach who can get his players fired up and hungry for wins. By the way, our invitation for Bleymaier to address the future of the football program is still open.