This is Part 5 of an exclusive six-part series documenting how Marquette head coach Buzz Williams has grown since he took over the helm in 2008.
Part I (Sept. 9): Four dusty corners: Where it all began
Part II (Sept. 16): Bringing order to a chaotic life, one day at a time
Part III (Sept. 24): Buzz Williams: The caring ‘monster’
Part IV (Sept. 30): With Buzz Williams, it’s not what, but why
Junior college was all Buzz Williams had when someone decided to give him a chance.
A student at Navarro College in Corsicana, Tex., Williams was allowed to sit in on practices run by head basketball coach Lewis Orr, later earning Williams a position on Orr’s staff as a student manager. Williams parlayed that opportunity into the same position at Oklahoma City — where he earned his degree — and two years later he received his master’s degree at Texas-Arlington, where he also acted as an assistant in 1999.
Six more stops and Williams is now the head coach at Marquette, a school with more than 1,500 all-time wins, a national championship and national lore as one of the top programs in the country. His office inside the Al McGuire Center is the same size as the cabin he rented out for $100 per month while at Navarro, and he hired Orr to his staff as a team consultant.
Williams’ career, perhaps his life, has come full circle because a head coach gave a junior-college student a chance, seeing potential when few did and working with said student to realize that potential.
So forgive Williams if he has a soft spot in his heart and a hard stance to those who question him when it comes to junior-college transfers who arrive at Marquette.
“Think about the ridicule I receive for signing junior-college players. Think about my third year, when that was the talk at every news conference, that we were a team full of castaways,” Williams told Paint Touches. “Jeff Goodman said it to start, and then by the end of the year that’s all anybody wanted to talk about.”
That “third year” Williams mentioned included junior-college transfers Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder, Dwight Buycks, Joe Fulce and Darius Johnson-Odom. Four of those players — injured Fulce not included — led the Golden Eagles in scoring in 2010-11, accounting for 52 points, 19 rebounds and 10 assists per game for a group that won 22 games and advanced to the program’s first Sweet 16 since Dwyane Wade.
And “castaways,” they were. More than a few critics were quick to denounce the notion that junior-college transfers were anything more than lazy, unmotivated players who helped balance out Marquette’s recruiting classes. Crowder and Buycks failed to qualify out of high school, and the former received bad advice attending a non-accredited junior college in Georgia. For the other three, a lack of Division I interest and/or funds to attend a university straight out of high school — just like Williams — was the only route those players had.
Three years later, those four players are on NBA rosters. Butler was selected in the first round by the Chicago Bulls, Crowder made last year’s roster with the Dallas Mavericks, Johnson-Odom had a cup of coffee with the Los Angeles Lakers and is back in training camp this season, and Buycks will back up Kyle Lowry in Toronto.
Since 2011, seven former junior-college transfers have been selected in the NBA draft. Three of those came from Marquette, thanks in large part to Williams knowing where to look, what to look for in each player and how to handle student-athletes that have taken the exact path he did in Texas years ago.
“I think we’ve recruited the right people that would allow me to coach them,” Williams said. “You talk about 2008-09, how I coached Jimmy Butler? Wow, I mean like, woo. I was out of this world to him every day.”
Perhaps the detractors would have a point if all those players did was perform on the court. After all, that’s what makes the headlines and, when Williams was first beginning at Marquette results were the only thing he really cared about.
But consider that Butler, Fulce and Johnson-Odom all graduated from Marquette after spending a year at their respective junior colleges. Two-year transfers Buycks is six classes away from a diploma and took summer-school classes this summer, and Crowder, whose transcript was an absolute mess when he arrived in Milwaukee, is just seven classes away.
Now Crowder texts Williams almost every day telling him he loves him and how much he has meant to his basketball career and life. The same goes for Fulce, who Williams describes with a smile on his face, as “the best guy ever…ever.” Williams has a special relationship with his four-year players, too, but it’s impossible for him not to root for those who had a rough path to get to Milwaukee, just like him.
“Buzz is finding these guys that fit our culture. They just so happen to be in junior college,” Jamie McNeilly said. “I don’t think it’s anything deeper than that. I don’t think there’s a special bond that he’ll have with junior-college guys as opposed to new guys. It just so happens that junior-college guys tend to have that kind of edge that coach Buzz likes.”
Without junior college and without a coach who believed in a non-traditional student, Williams isn’t where he is today. Someone else is coaching Marquette, and there’s a good chance the Golden Eagles would have fewer than 122 wins, two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight the last five seasons.
This year’s team features just one junior-college transfer: power forward Jameel McKay. The Milwaukee native didn’t have the grades to attend a Division I school, but one conversation with the 6-foot-8 junior makes it clear that he’s no different than any glorified five-star recruit, and he’s no different than Williams.
Want to get Williams riled up? Bring up JUCOs. But just know that he’s going to defend those players, and those players are going to succeed on the court and in the classroom. Those players who went through the drive-thru to order their meals and traveled in vans to games for two or three seasons will always be a part of what Marquette is, because it’s where Williams got his start. There’s a piece of Williams in every junior-college transfer.
“I’m a f—–g junior-college guy. So you look at me different because I’m the coach, but you’re going to talk about those guys? I’m not good with that,” Williams said. “I am an ass when it comes to that sort of stuff. I’m going to protect my people, no matter what you think of them.
“Is it really that Jimmy was a first-round pick or that he’s going to be a starter this year? No, it’s really that that’s evidence that his life has changed for the better because of his experience here.”
Chances received in a small Texas town years ago, chances given back as Marquette’s head coach.
This is the fifth of an exclusive six-part series chronicling the growth of Marquette head coach Buzz Williams. Each Monday we’ll share a new part of his journey. Andrei Greska contributed to this story.