BLACKSBURG, Va. — Buzz Williams finished writing on the whiteboard Saturday afternoon and capped the blue marker, setting it on the tray and carefully adjusting it so it lay even with its green neighbor.
He hadn’t said anything for a long time, instead writing statistics from a postgame summary — the obituary of Virginia Tech’s 21-point loss to Miami, an NCAA tournament bubble team, on the Hokies’ home floor — before folding the paper, using two fingers to press down so the crease was perfect. “They was booing us,” Williams said finally, turning to face the players he inherited almost a year ago.
His team hadn’t just lost; it had been lazy and uninspired, deadly sins for a coach who sees himself as an overachiever. Two players missed a weightlifting session two days earlier, he had been told, because they didn’t want to walk in the snow. Now this: Virginia Tech’s 10th Atlantic Coast Conference loss by a double-digit margin, a bottom-half finish in 18 of the 21 statistical categories maintained by the ACC and seven consecutive losses to end a miserable first season in Blacksburg.
“I’m not going to endure this just because I’m getting paid,” Williams, 42, told the players, who remained quiet. “I’m just . . . not.”
Last March, Williams surprised the college basketball universe by abruptly leaving Marquette, which he had led to five NCAA tournament appearances and the 2013 Elite Eight, for Virginia Tech, one of the country’s toughest rebuilding projects. He didn’t just leave a comfortable job where he could continue overachieving in peace; he took a roughly $500,000 annual pay cut, taking on a stepchild program in men’s college basketball’s most difficult league and moved his family from Milwaukee to a small town his wife, Corey, had to find on a map.
The town and school have spent the past 11 months hoping for better days — that this season’s 2-16 conference record will someday be forgotten — and adjusting to Williams, known as much for his high intensity as his peculiarities. When someone from the athletic department’s marketing staff asked him to get students excited to attend a home game, Williams said sure — but then told the kids he didn’t care if they came or not. “What you think I’m going to do,” he said, “it ain’t what I’m going to do.”
He has kept a daily journal since 2008, writes in ink colors specific to the topic — green is a team activity, blue is a reminder, red is recruiting. He obsesses about the tiniest of details, from the weight of his stationery to the color of his argyle game sweater. In Williams’s world, everything can be rationalized with a tidy, satisfying reason.
There’s only one thing he can’t explain: Why he’s here at Virginia Tech.
Five days after Selection Sunday last year, a rumor made its way through Marquette’s BMO Harris Bradley Center: Williams would be leaving the Golden Eagles.
Although this was the first school officials had heard of it, by then it was more than a rumor. Williams, who had been courted in the past by other schools but had never so much as interviewed elsewhere, already had an agreement in place to join Virginia Tech.
Almost immediately, the machine to generate a satisfactory reason began humming. Lewis Orr, Williams’s first mentor in coaching, wondered if lingering resentment of a power struggle between Williams and the Marquette athletic department had pushed him away. Bitter Golden Eagles fans figured there must be some scandal Williams was trying to outrun — but even Marquette officials, some still sour as they were then, insist Williams ran a squeaky-clean program.
Steve Roccefort, a longtime friend who would later join Williams’s staff at Virginia Tech, believed Williams had been put off by an NCAA measure to grant autonomy to the “Power 5” conferences, granting benefits Marquette and the Big East wouldn’t have access to. Marquette officials pondered whether Williams had really taken that season — the Golden Eagles finished 17-15 and missed the NCAA tournament — that hard. Corey Williams, the coach’s wife, just assumed her husband is the way he is — the same man who spaces hangers in the closet the same distance apart — and it was time for a change. “He’s not normal,” she said, “and I would never want him to be.”
Williams would say that none of his contemporaries’ theories were correct. It was, he said, much more visceral than that. “I had peace about the decision in my heart,” he said.
On a Sunday night in late January, Williams entered the Virginia Tech team meeting room. A few hours earlier the Hokies had lost by three points to Virginia, at the time the country’s second-ranked team.
Now, the memories fresh in players’ minds, Williams hoped to reinforce the good and bad things, asking players to turn to the blank pages in their notebooks and to write down one thing they had learned today. “Take your time,” Williams said, beginning his own list on the whiteboard. Ten minutes passed, and Williams started calling names.
Chris. “You should not be told congrats for playing hard,” forward Christian Beyer said.
Satch. “You get what you earn, you earn what you get,” forward Satchel Pierce said.
Devin. “It’s extremely hard to win when you’re accustomed to losing,” guard Devin Wilson said.
Williams and his staff spent much of the past 11 months trying to address this notion, making changes large and small to a program that has played in one NCAA tournament in the past 19 seasons. Williams insisted the team practice how to stand during the national anthem — back straight, hand over the heart, no chewing gum — and declared that being on time actually means arriving six minutes early.
This is part of Williams’s personality, but it also represents the beginning of a change in culture — the first step coming when school officials heard Williams might be “moveable” at Marquette and Athletic Director Whit Babcock invited Williams to Blacksburg; Babcock kept the discussion going until an agreement was in place. Babcock says Williams never said why he was leaving Marquette or why he wanted to take on the Hokies. They just kept talking, Williams making requests and Babcock usually saying yes.
The athletic department authorized more frequent usage of a private jet for basketball recruiting, a significant selling point for Williams. Between September 2008 and mid-March 2014, spanning the tenures of Seth Greenberg and James Johnson, head coaches flew privately 20 times on recruiting trips; since last April, Williams has already taken 21 such trips. “I did not set out to make a statement, but I do believe it makes one,” Babcock said of the symbolism of hiring Williams.
Six players left the team early in Williams’s tenure, and anticipating broad changes, coaches invited more than two dozen prospects to campus last June. From there, coaches began scouting elite prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans — “We ain’t never getting one here,” top recruiter Isaac Chew said — but targeting a kind of player the staff refers to as an “OKG”: our kind of guy. The kind of player who believes in a long-term plan, isn’t afraid to work hard and won’t miss a weightlifting session because of snow, and — perhaps most important — can understand Williams, or at least not be scared away. He is, Chew said, the program’s most intriguing selling point.
“Here, you don’t have a tradition. You don’t have a culture of winning,” Chew said. “You have to have families who believe in your vision — because that’s all we’ve got.”
Years ago when Williams’s career was beginning, he set modest goals, though they didn’t seem modest at the time: someday climb high enough to drive a company car, coach at a school whose name didn’t have a hyphen or a direction in it, appear in an NCAA tournament game, earn $1 million per year. His ambitions kept rising, so he kept challenging himself, and again and again he arrived at the finish line.
Once he reached an appropriate level of comfort, he began depriving himself of things. Williams stopped dipping snuff last September after 26 years, and he quit his gallon-a-day addiction to sweet tea; with his daily workouts — he alternates running five miles and lifting barbells. he has lost nearly 25 pounds. His Virginia Tech contract pays him $2.3 million per year, but because he once associated money with success, his family lives off $500,000; the rest goes toward savings, donations or insurance. In fact, Williams allows himself $54 per day, funneled at the beginning of each month into an account labeled “Daddy’s Money”; during the final days of each month, the employees at Joe’s Diner, his favorite breakfast joint, are no longer surprised when his debit card is declined.
A life well-lived, he believes, is about overcoming test after test — learning how you react and overcome. Although there are a dozen understandable reasons he left the relative comfort at Marquette, taking on a long and so-far fruitless rebuild, he says there was no tipping point. But maybe the one that makes the most sense — at least for Williams — is that it was a new, steeper challenge no one thought it wise to take on.
The Hokies lost this year, but Williams is optimistic. Just wait, he says, until more determined players are here. Just wait until prospects and the university start adapting to Williams and his way. Just wait. Then what’ll they say?
“I don’t know that I fit in any typical category on reasons to leave,” he said, sitting in an office and basketball facility whose renovation he will soon oversee. “But I also didn’t fit into any typical category on how I ever got there, either.”
Yet here he is, whatever it was that brought him here, standing near the bottom of a mountain whose peak almost no one else can see.