BLACKSBURG, Va. — New Virginia Tech men’s basketball Coach Buzz Williams stood behind a black curtain on Monday evening, fidgety as ever. At one point, while the players he had been introduced to only two days earlier taught him the words to his new fight song, he began dancing.
A few feet away inside Cassell Coliseum stood about 2,000 fans waiting for a news conference unlike any held on this campus before. The pep band blared music, cheerleaders performed flips and the familiar chords of Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blasted from speakers.
Freshman shooting guard Ben Emelogu said it resembled a basketball game, except when the Hokies stumbled to their third consecutive last-place finish in the ACC this past season, there were often not this many people in the stands. This, Williams would soon tell the masses, was why he decided to come to Southwest Virginia.
“I think it’s a sleeping giant,” he said.
Virginia Tech Athletic Director Whit Babcock officially introduced Williams on Monday night with a coronation that doubled as a pep rally and signaled a new era for a program that has long been overshadowed by Coach Frank Beamer’s football team.
Williams’s presence on campus will provide instant credibility after he led Marquette to five NCAA tournament appearances in six years, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2013. Virginia Tech, in contrast, has qualified for two NCAA tournaments over the past 25 years.
Williams is dead set on changing that trend.
“I think it’s been done here before and I think it’s time to do it again,” he said.
Williams, 41, signed a seven-year contract worth $18.2 million, with a starting salary of $2.3 million that will increase by $100,000 each season. Babcock said it includes a buyout that “will be very expensive for us if we want to get rid of him . . . and for him, it would be very expensive for him to leave for three” years.
Williams earned about $2.8 million last year while at Marquette, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Virginia Tech has also increased the basketball program’s assistant coach salary pool to $725,000 after none of the team’s assistants earned more than $200,000 previously. Babcock will also add additional positions to the program’s infrastructure, although “there were some things that we would have to say no to that maybe he was used to hearing yes.”
Babcock said this sort of financial commitment will “stretch” the athletic department’s coffers thin over the next few years, especially since Virginia Tech owes former coach James Johnson more than $800,000 over the next three years and Johnson’s predecessor, Seth Greenberg, is still due about $600,000 from his buyout. Former athletic director Jim Weaver is also set to make $930,000 over the next two years as an athletic department consultant.
Babcock said he hopes an increase in ticket sales and fundraising, as well as the ACC’s lucrative television contrast with ESPN, will help pick up the tab. No donor funds were used in signing Williams.
Babcock’s courtship of Williams began last week when he fired Johnson after two seasons, including the worst campaign the program had gone through since 1955 this past year.
The two first made contact last Thursday and Williams was in Blacksburg, Va., by Friday night. Babcock said his relationship with Cincinnati Coach Mick Cronin, who shares the same agent with Williams, helped move the process along quickly. Babcock was athletic director at Cincinnati before taking over at Virginia Tech last month.
So as Williams energized the arena, cracking jokes, leading cheers of “Let’s Go Hokies” and even recreating a huddle with his new team in the center of the court, Babcock gazed out at the sea of maroon and orange and smiled. This, he would later say, was exactly what he hoped for.
“I like to try to hit a home run pretty early,” Babcock said.