Commentary

Marquette happy with its unknown Buzz

Originally Published: July 1, 2008
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

MILWAUKEE -- The armchair athletic directors wanted a headliner, a front man to replace the one they'd just lost, a basketball coach who could generate off-the-bat buzz.

Instead, they got Buzz.

[+] EnlargeJerel McNeal
Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty ImagesJerel McNeal's return from the NBA draft waters, along with the presence of classmates Wes Matthews and Dominic James, gives new coach Buzz Williams a Big East contender.

Three months later, Marquette athletic director Steve Cottingham still hears it from alums who wanted him to make a big-splash coaching hire after losing Tom Crean to Indiana. Guard Jerel McNeal still gets asked about the little-known coach who will steward his senior season with the Golden Eagles.

"It's funny," McNeal said. "You see somebody and they're like, 'So who's this Buzz guy?' They don't really have a clue about who he is."

Here's Clue No. 1 about Brent "Buzz" Williams: He has never let name recognition stop him before, and he has no plans to start now.

When Williams enrolled as a freshman at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, his path to a coaching career seemed littered with potholes.

"Couldn't play, had no relationships, had nobody in my family in college coaching," he said. "Had to pay my own way to college, so that restricted where I could go."

Determined to make it in coaching, he began to form a network, working as a student assistant at Navarro. Each week, he wrote letters to every coach he met, regardless of their rank or affiliation.

He contacted every Division I coach, asking whether he could work at their summer camps. A "very small percentage" replied, but the lack of responses didn't stop the letters from coming.

"I didn't know what to say. I just knew I wanted to be a college coach," Williams said. "It was your typical 17, 18-year-old's handwritten note."

Coach X,

Hope you're doing good. Hope recruiting's going good.

Have a good day. I'll send you a note next week.

-Buzz

The name at the bottom of the page didn't mean much back then, but Williams' persistence built relationships that helped launch and accelerate his career. Don't be fooled by the buzz cut. Williams got his nickname for his energy.

After an extended tour as an assistant coach and a star-crossed season as head man at the University of New Orleans, Williams takes over a program that reached five NCAA tournaments in Crean's nine-year tenure. Promoted to head coach after a season as Crean's aide, the 35-year-old Texan inherits a likely preseason Top 25 squad led by seniors McNeal, Dominic James and Wes Matthews.

Despite working on successful staffs and making waves as a recruiter, Williams is a relative unknown outside coaching circles. But he refuses to get caught up in the name game.

"If it's a challenge, I don't see it," he said. "I'm not concerned about my reputation. I'm only concerned about my character. Character is what I can control."

***
You can tell a lot about Williams before he opens his mouth. The coach leaves quite a paper trail.

A pile of color-coded pages sits on one end of his desk. Game charts, Williams explained, from his season at New Orleans. The colors serve little purpose other than to keep him organized.

"That's more my OCD problem," he said. "Just how I operate."

On the other side of a container of Copenhagen pouches dipping tobacco, Williams has daily to-do lists for himself and his assistants. The lists have calls to make and e-mails to write, and also include recruiting depth charts for 2009 and 2010.

Williams never skips an item.

"If that No. 3 thing out of 10 on Monday isn't done, his day is in a tailspin," said Lorenzo Watkins, a former assistant on Williams' staff at New Orleans who holds the same post at Campbell University. "He's the greatest organizational guy I've ever seen, down to the colors of pens and colors of pieces of paper. It's to that extent."

Williams' organizational skills will be tested as he takes on a new role in a new environment.

He's a tireless worker, but most importantly, he cares about the people he's involved with. • He'll do well there. It's a great situation.

--Billy Gillispie on Buzz Williams

Before joining Crean's staff last July, Williams had been to Milwaukee only once. After his freshman year at Navarro, he'd worked the camp of former Marquette head coach Kevin O'Neill. His Texas drawl seems ill-suited amid the elongated vowels of Wisconsinites, but he's doing his best to fit in.

Marquette lost two recruits during the coaching change, including standout guard Tyshawn Taylor, who landed at Kansas. But Williams retained Chris Otule and Joseph Fulce, both Texans, and added Fulce's junior college teammate, Jimmy Butler, this spring.

The 2009 class is also shaping up. Williams went into Wisconsin's backyard and landed Jeronne Maymon from Madison Memorial High School, the same school Crean mined for Matthews four years ago. Williams has made good impressions on several local AAU coaches and is pursuing Jamil Wilson, the state's top prospect.

"He's a tireless worker, but most importantly, he cares about the people he's involved with," said Kentucky coach Billy Gillispie, who had Williams on his staff at Texas A&M from 2004 to '06. "He'll work hard enough, he'll be organized enough. He'll do well there. It's a great situation."

***
Before Marquette's game at Connecticut on Jan. 20, Cottingham was chatting with his UConn counterpart Jeff Hathaway when the subject turned to Williams. Hathaway knew Williams from their days at Colorado State, when Hathaway served as athletic director and Williams an assistant coach.

"We both agreed he'd be a high-major coach soon," Cottingham said. "Of course, I didn't expect it to be at Marquette. The issue was, how long are we going to be able to keep him as an assistant?"

Cottingham's priorities changed after Crean left for Indiana on April 1. The next day, he met with Williams to discuss the top job.

Big names like Washington State's Tony Bennett and Xavier's Sean Miller came up, but Cottingham chose Williams after just a six-day search and awarded him a six-year contract. Skepticism greeted the hiring. Many thought the school could have hooked a higher-profile candidate to succeed Crean, whose name constantly had come up for other jobs since the team's Final Four run in 2003.

Crean's pre-Marquette credentials mirrored those of Williams -- thirtysomething rising star, gifted recruiter, assistant for a successful program -- but he was a Midwesterner who had cut his teeth at Michigan State, not faraway ports like Texas A&M and Colorado State. Williams' familiarity with a team stung by Crean's departure was seen as a benefit during the transition, but Cottingham insists he wasn't looking for a stopgap.

[+] EnlargeTom Crean
AP Photo/Julie JacobsonTom Crean was a well-liked figure at Marquette for nine years, making five NCAA tournaments and one Final Four.

"I don't get paid to just pick a name off a list that the alums are, in the short-term, going to pat you on the back and say, 'That's a great hire,'" Cottingham said. "In my heart, I would have felt I did that out of being chicken. Buzz is the guy that's right for Marquette.

"When you've got that, you have to have the fortitude to say, 'He's going to get it done, so that's who we're going to hire.'"

There was the issue of Williams' lone prior head-coaching stop, a one-year stint at a program still recovering after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Williams maintains that his decision to resign from New Orleans last July was based solely on personal reasons, not professional ones, adding that the situation there was "not unstable." But he filed a lawsuit last year claiming the school breached his contract by failing to fulfill pledges relating to facilities, academic support and basic assurances such as meal money and transportation. The school's hurricane-damaged home facility, Lakefront Arena, didn't reopen until May 2.

"[Williams] told me certain things that were promised to him didn't get done," Watkins said. "His word is, 'Hey, I'm going to work no matter the situation, but you've got to give me something to work with.'"

Added Crean: "He took a real leap of faith. He did not believe in the way things were going there, and he was excited about what we were doing. I looked at it as we'd be fortunate to have him for two, three years at the most, and then he'd be a head coach again."

New Orleans has been seeking a $300,000 buyout from Williams for leaving the school. Athletic director Jim Miller, through a spokesman, declined to comment for this story.

Williams knew there was risk in giving up a Division I head-coaching job.

"I actually discouraged him," Gillispie said. "I thought he would be better off to make the most of his opportunity there. I said the only reason he would leave is because of family considerations, and obviously that was the reason.

"He got into a great situation at Marquette. He's very grateful, and he understands he got a little bit of a lucky break, but the lucky break was made by his hard work."

Williams had first met Crean when the coach spoke at a Nike consortium for top assistants. The charismatic Crean struck a chord with Williams, then an A&M assistant, who reverted to his "old ways" and wrote Crean a letter.

"It was the only letter I received other than the thank-you from the Nike people," Crean said. "It makes you root for that person. I sure paid a lot more attention to what he was doing."

The two stayed in touch and began discussing an opening on Crean's staff last June.

"I wasn't working or plotting or scheming, trying to figure out how to be the next head coach at Marquette," Williams said. "God had a plan. He's the author of my story. I'm not smart enough or good enough to dream of something like this."

***
Taking a dip of snuff, Williams recalled his first coaching job. He was a 22-year-old assistant at Texas-Arlington in 1994, making $400 a month -- $330 after taxes -- and living in a dorm room smaller than his current office at the Al McGuire Center.

He had school-issued furniture and splurged on a 20-inch TV. And he loved it.

"I thought I was rollin'," he said. "I thought I was the richest guy in the world."

Williams has never undervalued his coaching opportunities: the student assistant positions at Navarro and Oklahoma City University, the assistant-coaching posts at six schools, the year in New Orleans.

But there's no doubt this is different.

"He's one of those guys who will never forget where he's from," said DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright, who began exchanging letters with Williams in the early 1990s. "He had no free passes. There's no question Buzz was a la carte, and now he's got one of the entrée jobs in the country."

Williams' prior knowledge of Marquette's personnel will help, and he plans to run an offense similar to Crean's.

But there will be differences, as Williams brought in a completely new staff -- and a new approach.

"His personality is a big change," McNeal said. "He's always himself, and he gives everybody a chance to be themselves a lot more. In some situations, he understands the players a lot better.

"I'm just happy we've got somebody who understands the culture of our program. The things that didn't need to change stayed the same."

One thing that won't change, despite his more public role, is how Williams relates to others.

He plans to reply to every e-mail and letter he receives from alumni, supporters, maybe even detractors. They might not know his name, but they'll know he cares.

"I'll do it the same way I've always done it -- treat everybody important," he said. "It's kinda like Oprah says, 'Everybody has their own story.' I try not to judge anyone's story. I want to know their story."

In time, he hopes fans will come to appreciate his own.

Adam Rittenberg covers college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.