You never forget the first time you meet Buzz Williams. He was that young, eager, small-time assistant coach in the off-the-rack suit who handed you a resume in a hotel lobby teeming with big-time head coaches, then called to follow up — 15 times — and the next day showed up at your front door. He was that charming but flat-broke admirer whose idea of a first date was frozen yogurt and deep-talking until 4 a.m. He was that one recruiter, alone among all the coaches trying to get your signature on that letter-of-intent, who never once talked to you about basketball, only about life.
“That’s Buzz,” said Eddie McCarter, the coach who gave Williams his first Division I job, just so the dude would stop stalking him.
“That’s Buzz,” said the former Corey Norman, who met Williams when the latter was coaching in Kingsville, Tex., accepted his marriage proposal when they were in Natchitoches, La., and wed him in 2000 when they were in Fort Collins, Colo.
“That’s Buzz,” said Vander Blue, the Marquette University shooting guard, who calls Williams by his first name because you don’t call family members “Coach.”
To the millions who know Buzz Williams as simply the coach of the Marquette Golden Eagles — who are in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, and who meet Miami on Thursday night at Verizon Center in the East Region semifinals — he is the sweat-soaked, high-strung sideline-stalker with the uncanny resemblance to Curly from the old Three Stooges, a guy known to break into dance moves when his players dunk and who can turn a single question at a news conferences into a 15-minute soliloquy. To those folks, he is someone who just might be half-crazy.
But to the people who know him well — who have given him jobs, who have played for him or coached for him, who have loved him and been loved by him — he is not at all like his on-court persona. “He wants you to think he’s half-crazy,” said Liberty Coach Dale Layer, who hired Williams in 2000 when he was head coach at Colorado State. “He’s probably only about 19 percent crazy, but he wants you to think he’s 84 percent.”
“If you only see me on game day,” Williams, 40, said Wednesday, “probably what you think of me is — I don’t want to say diametrically opposed, but it’s distinctly different” than reality.
Would someone who is crazy, for example, be able to come up the following formula for in-game success: less than 13 points allowed in transition, at least 72 percent of offensive possessions resulting in the ball getting into the paint, at least 19 free throws made, more free throws made than the opponent has attempted, less than 10 turnovers, at least 13 forced turnovers, at least a plus-3.5 rebounding advantage and an opponents’ field goal percentage worse than than 39 percent?
What Williams is, is relentless. The story of his landing that first Division I job is the stuff of legend, except it’s 100 percent true. He really did finagle a $1,200 “emergency” student loan at Oklahoma City University, an NAIA school where he was a student assistant preparing to graduate. He really did use the money to buy a suit and a plane ticket. He really did show up at the Adams Mark Hotel in Charlotte for the 1994 Final Four, penniless, and hand out his resume, printed on colored pieces of construction paper, to anyone who would take one. He really did bum snacks off the bartenders for sustenance and wash up in the morning in the lobby restroom, then go back to working the lobby, wearing the same suit.
He really did call McCarter’s hotel room more or less once every waking hour that weekend, because he heard the head coach at the University of Texas-Arlington had an opening on his staff — “Every time I went out and came back in, there would be another message from this Buzz Williams,” McCarter recalled — and he really did, upon landing back in Oklahoma City, immediately get in his white 1974 Ford Courier truck and drive straight to Arlington, Tex., asking for directions at convenience stores until he located McCarter’s house. He really did sit there for nearly 24 hours, waiting for McCarter to show up.
“You have to be the craziest [expletive] I’ve ever seen,” McCarter told him when he finally pulled up in his driveway the next day. But he really did invite Williams in, and after an hour of conversation, he really did decide that this was the man he was going to hire.
“Anybody that wanted the job that bad, I knew I needed to hire him,” McCarter recalled, “So I checked a couple of references, and we got it done.”
The job paid $400 a month, with a free dorm room kicked in. It really did happen that way, because as Williams is fond of saying, “Only God could author a story of that magnitude.”
What Williams is, is loyal. In 2008, on the day after Lewis Orr retired after 32 years as the head coach at tiny Navarro College in Corsicana, Tex., he got a call from Williams. Williams had just been hired as Marquette’s head coach after just one year as an assistant to Tom Crean, who was departing for Indiana, and he wanted to know if Orr would come work for him at Marquette as a consultant. It was Orr who, in 1990, gave Brent Williams, then a 17-year-old freshman, his first job in basketball, and it was Orr who started calling him “Buzz” — because that was the sound he gave off as he flitted from one task another, never stopping.
And that is how Orr, at age 70, went from the Southwest Junior College Conference to the Big East in one leap.
“He was always moving, with this nervous energy,” Orr, now 75, recalled Wednesday as he watched Marquette’s practice at Verizon Center. “And he was always calculating, thinking through things. Even now, he doesn’t sleep much, because he’s always thinking.”
What Williams is, is clutch. On March 19, as the Golden Eagles’ team plane was en route to Lexington, Ky., for their NCAA tournament opener against Davidson, Corey Williams, his wife, started having sharp pains in her abdomen. Buzz Williams arranged to have him and his wife taken straight to the emergency room, where she was admitted with appendicitis. Had they waited any longer, the appendix might have ruptured.
“I guess you could say he’s good under pressure,” Corey Williams said Wednesday, still under the weather but watching practice from 20 rows up in the stands. “He has to be — we can’t get a 10-point lead for the life of me.”
He spent the night in his wife’s hospital room, left at 4 a.m. to get ready for the next day’s practice, returned to check Corey out of the hospital — then, that weekend, guided Marquette to a pair of tense, last-possession victories over Davidson and Butler that were decided by a total of three points. After the Butler game, with what little energy he had left, he broke out in a goofy dance at midcourt.
There might have been an easier way to go about things, with less stress and more shut-eye. He might have benefited from an actual hotel room, a couple of 20-point blowouts and a quiet trip home. But that wouldn’t have made any sense. That’s not Buzz.
Photos: Scenes from the tournament