Buzz Williams isn’t kidding — even a little bit — when he says, “What I’ve been able to do at this point in my life goes well beyond my dreams.”
He isn’t talking about money, although he’s being paid quite well these days to coach Virginia Tech’s basketball team, which gave him the first significant win of his time in Blacksburg on Monday, 70-68 over No. 4 Virginia . He isn’t even talking about the three straight trips to the Sweet 16 at Marquette, the last one culminating in the Elite Eight. And he isn’t bragging, because that’s not what he does.
He’s just remembering.
“Part of me has always felt like I was the underdog, regardless of circumstances,” Williams said Friday morning before the Hokies left to play at Duke on Saturday, an 82-58 blowout win by the No. 14 Blue Devils that underlined his latest project is still in the rebuilding phase. “I haven’t forgotten that I came from a town [in Texas] with a population of 1,000 people, paid my way to go to junior college [Navarro] and was the basketball manager there.
“I mean, I should not have gotten the Marquette job when I did. I’d been there for seven months, I had one year of experience as a head coach and my record had been 14 and 17. It took a good deal of audacity for them to hire me at that point.”
Williams was 35 when Tom Crean left Marquette in the spring of 2008 to take the job at Indiana. He had gone on from Navarro to Oklahoma City University and then straight into coaching after graduating in 1994. New Orleans hired him in 2006, less than a year after the city and surrounding areas had been ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
“I don’t think I can really articulate what the storm had done to people down there,” he said. “The school’s student population was down 50 percent. There just wasn’t enough money, even for small things like a bus to the airport or pizza after the game. The arena floor had been flooded, so we had to play in the old rec gym. There were no locker rooms, so the kids changed in our assistant coaches’ office because it was undamaged.
“In a lot of ways, I cherish that year because of the people I worked with and the kids who played on that team. But I told my bosses I felt like if I didn’t leave I would end my career there, and I was 34 with a young family [three kids ages 4 and under], and I couldn’t do that.”
So he accepted Crean’s offer to come to Marquette, and two years later he won 25 games in his first season as the head coach. Then the best players Crean had recruited graduated, and everyone waited for the collapse. It didn’t come. In Williams’s first five seasons, the Golden Eagles never won fewer than 22 games. In 2013 they won 26 before the loss to Syracuse at Verizon Center, one game shy of the Final Four.
By then, Williams was a hot young coach, the kind of frenetic character with a well-earned reputation for bluntness that the media loved. But storm clouds were slowly forming at Marquette. The “real” Big East — as Williams calls it — was going, going, gone. Syracuse, Pittsburgh, Notre Dame and Connecticut were all leaving. The future of the new Big East was uncertain. And there was instability at Marquette during the 2013-2014 season that included an interim president and an interim athletic director who had returned to the school temporarily to try to clear up what had become muddied waters.
“It was a lot of things,” Williams said. “The league wasn’t the same, and because of the success we’d had, we’d kind of built a monster that was going to be hard to feed going forward. People around the school felt like we should dominate the new conference. Plus, I didn’t know who I was going to be working for long term.”
Enter Whit Babcock. He had been at Virginia Tech only a few months, and he needed a new basketball coach after firing James Johnson, who had gone 22-41 in two seasons. Babcock and Williams met three times, and on the first Friday afternoon of the NCAA tournament, word began to spread that Williams was leaving Marquette for Virginia Tech.
“There was not a thing wrong with my contract or the money I was making at Marquette,” Williams said. “It was just something in my gut, and it was the challenge. I knew people would look at the Marquette job on paper and the Virginia Tech job on paper and say the Marquette job was better. I’m not even saying they were wrong. I just liked the challenge.”
Williams took the job without visiting Blacksburg. All of his meetings with Babcock were away from campus.
Taking over a program that has just finished a 9-22 season is very different than taking over one that has just gone 25-10. Williams understood that.
“When you get a job in the spring, you want to win as much as you can as soon as you can,” he said. “I think because of that there’s a tendency for a new coach to recruit kids who maybe aren’t quite as good as what you need to compete long term or who might not fit in to the culture you’re trying to establish. When you do that, there’s attrition, and sometimes you look up in the third or fourth year and you still aren’t ready to compete.”
Virginia Tech’s attrition the last two years has come from the departure of players already in the program when Williams arrived. In all, eight have transferred, meaning that only one player, Devin Wilson, remains from the team that took the floor for Johnson’s last game as coach in March 2014.
“Twelve of 13 guys are new,” Williams said. “I said this past summer that I thought we had a third-year schedule with a second-year team. For the most part, it’s worked out that way.”
Virginia Tech opened with a home loss to Alabama State — a defeat Williams blames on himself. “I scheduled two scrimmages when I should have scheduled one scrimmage and one exhibition,” he said. “The lights came on, and our guys were like deer in the headlights.”
The four losses since then have been to good teams, and conference play began with a come-from-behind overtime win over North Carolina State and Monday’s stunning upset of Virginia.
“They were both home games,” Williams said. “That said, the first step you have to take is defending your home court. I was really pleased that the guys came back 52 hours after the State win and were ready to go against Virginia. That’s an important step.”
Williams knows there are lots of steps left to take, but that’s okay, too.
“Five years from now maybe people will be saying, ‘I told you so. He never should have left Marquette,’ ” he said. “But I like people thinking that. I like the ACC being as tough as it is. I’m not telling the guys we recruit we absolutely can do it. I’m telling them I believe I know what has to be done to do it.
“The more people doubt you, the more it gives you an edge. I’ve always liked having that sort of edge for myself and for my teams.”
The Hokies have eight players on this year’s team who play at least 18 minutes a game. None are seniors. Williams may have to deal with not being the underdog sooner than he thinks.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.