The story of who Brent Williams was, is and always will be begins with four dusty corners.
After graduating eighth grade, a 13-year-old go-getter from Van Alstyne, Tex., found work in his hometown to earn cash. Money was tight, and Williams understood at an early age that hard labor around town was the only way to get to where he wanted to go, wherever that was.
So Williams began working every day in the farm town of 1,500 people. He mowed yards, fed and branded cows, dug and filled fence holes, hauled and bailed hay and roofed houses. Whatever work he could find, Williams was there with a pair of gloves, work boots and, most important, an unquestioned work ethic that drew the attention of many.
“I knew that if I ever wanted to buy a car, if I ever wanted to buy school clothes, if I wanted to go to the prom, if I wanted to go to college, I would have to pay for it,” Williams told Paint Touches in an exclusive 1-on-1 interview.
For years, Williams plugged away on the farms of Van Alstyne and earned just enough money to get by. It wasn’t much, but it was the only way. And word spread around town – as it will in a town spanning just 3.4 square miles – that young Brent Williams was willing to work any job for whatever pay the employer found fitting, no questions asked.
Included in that list was the music minister at First Baptist Church of Van Alstyne. He got wind of Williams’ work ethic from the preacher, the father of Williams’ then-girlfriend. The music minister’s father had recently passed away, and a 400-square foot cabin located in Lake Dawson – 2 ½ hours from Van Alstyne – needed cleaning as the family readied to sell their father’s estate.
As he had done for years, Williams, then a senior at Van Alstyne High, jumped on the offer.
After working all weekend, the pair was driving home on Highway 31 and Williams was asked where he would be attending college in the fall.
Williams’ answer was an easy one: “I have no idea. Wherever I can afford it.”
It was then that the music minister pointed to a small school the pair was driving by: Navarro College.
Williams did the math based on the money he had collected and saved for four years and decided he could make the two-year junior college work. He agreed to pay $100 a month to live in the unheated, un-air conditioned cabin he had just cleared out over the weekend and would take the 40-mile drive to school each day in the 1974 Ford Courier he also had purchased on his own.
That fall Williams furnished his cabin as best he could and traveled to Corsicana, Tex., for the first day of school. He walked to the business office to pay for his first semester of school, and when he got to the front of the line pulled out his hard-earned cash, placing $1,200 in hundred-dollar bills — $1,189.45 to be exact – to pay for 15 hours, drawing the expected reluctance of Ms. Barbara Duncan, who asked where Williams had received the cash.
If only the woman Williams refers to as “Miss Barb” knew.
So in only a way Williams could, he retold his story and, by the end of the conversation, Miss Barb offered him a job filing papers and doing clerical work at the business office in which he had just paid for school. Not quite the farm jobs he had worked on the last four years, but another job nonetheless.
But since Williams had already taken the 40-mile drive to school, he wanted to make the most of his trip. He also wanted to get back into his own environment, something secretary work couldn’t fill. And with no farm work to be done on the school grounds, he flocked to his other safe haven: the basketball court.
It was there he ran into the team’s legendary head basketball coach, Lewis Orr.
Without ever formally introducing himself, Williams asked Orr if he could sit in on the Bulldogs’ practice. Orr obliged, telling the freshman he could sit in the last row of bleachers, where Williams silently took diligent notes and observed practice.
Williams showed up every day for 30 days – he had no friends in the area, could only file papers in the business office for so long and knew that “going home” meant sitting in a tiny, hot cabin alone – so Orr decided to make use of his nameless coaching prospect, asking Williams to come to practice early and sweep the floors before taking his seat atop the bleachers.
Not a problem, Williams told Orr. Another job, another opportunity.
For another month Williams, after three hours of classes and three more in the business office, arrived early for practice and swept the floor as best he could: Go down the court, shake off his broom. Turn around and head down the court again, shake off his broom again, repeating until he had covered every inch. Then sweep the baselines with dust remnants into a basket.
And then on Day 60, it all went awry.
Before one preseason practice, Orr called Williams over to talk with his still-nameless janitor for the third time.
“He said, ‘Hey, I don’t want you to come back to practice anymore. I’ve asked you to sweep the floor for a month and you’ve yet to do it right, and I only want people around me that are gonna do things the right way,’” Williams recalled. “You’ll never make it.”
Perplexed, Williams frantically tried to figure out what he had done wrong. For five years he had mowed grass down to the last blade, not missed a straw of hay while moving a bushel and sturdily secured every fence he erected. How could he have messed up a job as easy as this?
Sitting there and watching practice, taking notes every day, silently, had become the one thing Williams could look forward to. If he lost it, what else did he have?
“I really looked forward to going to the gym because it was brand new. It was like my paradigm was so small that I didn’t really understand. The man asked me to sweep the floor, well I can sweep the floor. I had swept a lot of floors on my journey to that point.”
So how did he screw up? Four dusty corners.
Williams wasn’t about to start an argument with the man he respected yet barely knew, but he wasn’t about to give up that easily and pushed back on Orr’s assessment that he hadn’t swept the floor correctly.
“I don’t have any friends I don’t have nothing to go home to. It’s not like I’m living at home or living with my folks. It’s me, I’m paying for it. This is somewhat my identity. I go to school, I go to the business office, I go here, I go home. And I ain’t got nothing else, so I’m not giving that up.”
Orr grabbed the broom from Williams, took off the brush from the metal frame and walked over to the corners; dusty corners Williams had overlooked.
“And [Orr] goes, ‘Well, what am I missing?’ And I say, ‘Right there,” an embarrassed Williams said, pointing at one of the out-of-bounds corners he had missed. “And [Orr] goes, ‘Well, you don’t think that’s important?’ Yes sir, I think it’s important.”
After cleaning up the corners, Orr allowed Williams to keep his job, permitting he never missed another corner.
By the end of that first semester Williams had earned a scholarship from Orr, becoming a student assistant on the basketball team. He had also earned the nickname “Buzz” for the way he now correctly moved around the floor sweeping. The next semester Navarro’s athletic director gave Williams his own office, and by the time he graduated in 1992 he was living on campus – away from the $100-a-month cabin – on scholarship.
The rest isn’t history – Williams detailed at the 2011 NCAA Tournament the next step of his journey in full – but it all started in that dusty gym, when he learned the value of hard work. And more than two decades later, it has become the foundation of what he has built the Marquette program on.
Four dusty corners have become completing a practice drill completely. Four dusty corners have become daily schedules with every hour of every day categorized by color on a schedule his entire staff receives. And four dusty corners has become the fiery passion he exudes every day in something as small as an individual workout or as big as an Elite Eight game.
He’ll never again miss a metaphorical corner because he knows how fragile this all is, that missing a “dusty corner” can be the difference between having the job he loves and sitting unemployed in a rented cabin.
“I didn’t know then, nor could I have ever dreamed that it would all turn into this,” Williams said, “that 20 years later I would hire Coach Orr to be a consultant here. There’s no way you could have imagined something like that.”
Williams doesn’t have to imagine it anymore, because it happened. So when the floor aboard the U.S.S. Yorktown became wet with condensation last year, it was second nature for him to get on his hands and knees with his team and fix the problem as best he could.
And as for his floor-sweeping abilities now? Since Orr set him straight in 1990, there hasn’t been another dusty corner in any gym Williams uses.
“I’m the best floor sweeper of all-time,” Williams said with a smile. “The best, ever.”
This is the first of an exclusive four-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.