The Shadow League’s Championship Drive: Buzz Williams

During Final Four weekend in Houston, The Shadow League went behind the scenes for some conversations with some big names in the college basketball tapestry. In the first installment, we bring you the head basketball coach for the Virginia Tech Hokies, Buzz Williams.

Williams is one of the game’s best young teachers. Combining a rare passion with an unparalleled work ethic and a drive to succeed, don’t be surprised when he takes the Virginia Tech program to heights they’ve never achieved.

The Hokies head man hopped in my Buick Enclave for a ride around H-Town and shared some of his thoughts and insights on what has made him so successful at this early juncture of his career. 

Stay tuned over the next few weeks for more installments from our latest series, The Shadow League’s Championship Drive from the 2016 Final Four.

Virginia Tech’s opening game this year was a home loss to Alabama State. Last year, their first under head coach Buzz Williams, they only won two ACC conference games. But if you knew anything about Williams, you knew that his early days in Blacksburg were pretty congruent with his overall career trajectory. 

Buzz didn’t start out with a coaching silver spoon in his mouth. He didn’t play for a big-time program, wasn’t mentored early on and groomed for success by a college basketball legend at a blueblood program. Nothing was ever handed to him.

But in the same way that the Hokies finished with 19 wins this year, with a 10-8 record in the ACC and a postseason appearance in the N.I.T., Williams has defied the odds doing what he always seems to do: knuckling up through adversity and outworking everyone else around him. 

When most people look at a situation and see bleakness, Williams stares with a laser focus and sees potential. He also knows that success is the residue of hard work. And it’s doubtful that you’ll find many others with the stamina to outwork Buzz Williams.

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(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Williams doesn’t turn programs around with McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-Americans, though he’d love to have them. What he excels at is finding players who mirror his own personal makeup: guys who were overlooked, under-recruited and under-appreciated. 

Everybody might know who Jimmy Butler, Wes Matthews and Jae Crowder are now since they’ve attained NBA success, but when Williams had them at Marquette, only the most hardcore recruiting junkies were familiar with them before they suited up for the Golden Eagles. Matthews wasn’t known much outside of the state of Wisconsin coming out of James Madison High School, and Butler and Crowder were Juco castoffs. 

In his first year as Marquette’s head man in 2008-2009, Williams took them to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The next year, he had them in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003.

In 2013, they’d reached the Elite Eight, one step away from the college coaching penthouse and a berth in an elusive Final Four. 

Now, he’s taken on a huge reclamation project that left many scratching their heads when he left Marquette. Virginia Tech hasn’t made any noise since Dell Curry was splashing jumpers in Blacksburg, and the Hokies have not won a game in March Madness since 1967.

But all of that is about to change. Remember that I told you so.

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(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Williams’ route to becoming both the youngest coach in the Big East while at Marquette, and now in the ACC with Virginia Tech, has been circuitous to say the least.

As a freshman at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas, he began his climb up the coaching ranks while working as a student assistant. He wrote handwritten letters to every coach he met, from the biggest names to the most obscure, asking if he could work their summer camps. 

He was not deterred by the lack of responses.

His persistence forced people within the business to take notice. He worked his way up from a restricted earnings coach, where he earned $100 per month at The University of Texas – Arlington, to assistant gigs at Texas A&M – Kingsville, Northwestern State and Colorado State. His big break came at Texas A&M from 2004 to 2006 as Billy Gillispie’s recruiting coordinator.

By then, the word was already out: Buzz Williams had one of the best recruiting eyes and was one of the top young, up-and-coming coaches in America.

After one year as the head coach at the University of New Orleans in 2006-2007, he was an assistant at Marquette for a year before taking over for the departed Tom Crean.  His first recruiting coup with the Golden Eagles was plucking Jimmy Butler from junior college.

When you get to know him, you’ll soon find that, in addition to a raging desire to win, he also takes his role as an educator seriously, that he does things the right way, that he knows how significant this time is, in terms of the personal and character development of the young men he leads.

We hope you enjoy this first installment of The Shadow League’s Championship Drive. Stay tuned for more to come in the days and weeks ahead.

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