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’
When it comes to sports, particularly as it pertains to high-major collegiate athletics, Herm Edwards hit it right on the head.
You play. To win. The game.
Unless you’re Buzz Williams, of course.
Don’t get it wrong, Williams wants to win as much as much as any coach, turning into a self-described “monster” on the court. He has swept through the coaching ranks by putting in endless hours scouting, recruiting, and motivating in search of more and more victories. This isn’t trophy-league pee-wee ball where participation guarantees a ribbon. Any coach at this level who says he doesn’t want to win is a liar, plain and simple.
Go back in time 14 years. Williams is an up-and-coming assistant coach and recruiting coordinator at Northwestern State. Just 26 years old, he’s already logged five years of experience at Texas-Arlington and Texas A&M-Kingsville. He has his whole life in front of him and that future exudes brightness.
So what does a guy like that dream about? What is the thing that drives him to log arduous hours in stuffy gyms each and every day? We don’t have to wonder. Marquette athletics found a page from a Northwestern State media guide focused on Williams. In it he revealed his ultimate coaching fantasy.
“As a Division I head coach, my team wins the conference championship in a game televised by ESPN with all of the players’ families in the stands.”
While the specificity of the details is vintage Williams, the overarching point remains that his dream is to win. That brings us back to the overarching point that winning is the main objective for any coach. You play to win the game.
Now flash forward to 2013. Williams has achieved his ultimate coaching fantasy, winning a share of the Big East regular-season title by defeating St. John’s in a game carried live by ESPN. All of the players’ families may not be at the Garden, but the rest stands. His goal is no longer a dream but a reality. What now?
What does Buzz Williams say his ultimate coaching fantasy is today? Is it making a Final Four? Winning a national championship? Building a dynasty?
None of those.
In the 14 years that have passed, Williams’ outlook has drastically changed. Success in the eyes of fans and reporters may lie in the win-loss column, but for him, that is but a small part.
“I think I’ve matured to where my goal is not necessarily number-oriented; I think it’s more people oriented,” Williams told Paint Touches. “How many people can I be a part of, helping be an angel of change in their life? How many kids can we bring here like Junior Cadougan, who graduated out of here on time, and they rent a bus from to Toronto to take a ‘team picture’ with every cousin and nephew [at graduation]. I mean people off the street. I didn’t understand the power of something like that in that media guide. I better understand it in this media guide.”
Even at the turn of the millennium you can see the people-oriented side of Williams shine. It’s not enough to win on ESPN. No, he wants the parents in the building to share that glory. His success won’t be told by how many banners he puts up, but rather how many players, assistants and coaches he lifts up. Williams’ life is built on relationships, ones that he cultivates continuously.
We detailed in Part II how Williams has a contact list 120 people deep that he touches base with every single month, but he writes two notes a day on top of those in encouragement to various people and coaches he has met in his past.
This all began back in college as a young man driven to succeed and hitting every last dusty corner for support.
“Every college coach that I met from the moment in time that I met them, I wrote them a note once a week, every week until I graduated,” Williams said. “And when I graduated from college there were 425 coaches that were on that list.”
Having had to work for every last dime, Williams had to be creative in coming up with money for up to 425 stamps, stationary and envelopes on a weekly basis.
“I knew the people in the mailroom, I knew the secretary in the financial aid office. I knew the secretary in the music school, and I would go to them, ‘Hey, you have some envelopes and stationary?’ And then I would write them and take them back and say ‘Hey, will you mail these for me today?’ I knew the mailroom guy and I would give him all my gear and say ,‘Hey man, take care of these for me?’”
Always building relationships, Williams has stayed in the habit of writing these weekly letters because he still remembers how encouraged he was when he received a letter back from one of the coaches. He’s not trying to show off or brag about his position — in fact he uses blank stationary made specifically for his note writing, with no trace of Marquette University or basketball –and only talks about basketball half the time. Inspiration and encouragement is the name of the game.
This people-person mentality has been fostered over the years through his rise up the coaching ranks, but it’s one he still works on to this day. He didn’t become Marquette’s head coach on his own and this is but one way he pays back what he has been given.
Which brings us back to today. Williams doesn’t pretend to have it all figured out, but he has grown since being tapped to take over the program in 2008 in all facets of his life.
On that day in April when he succeeded Tom Crean, Williams only had one thing on his mind, and that was proving doubters wrong by winning.
“I wanted to prove that the Journal-Sentinel was wrong for saying, ‘Who the hell is Buzz?’ I wanted to prove that I was worthy of the job, that I could manage it, I could handle it, that I could coach, that I could recruit.”
Five years later, shoving victories in anyone’s face isn’t what drives him on a daily basis. It’s forging relationships with coaches like Tony Benford, helping to get them and their families in a better situation. It’s not having the Jimmy Butlers of the world become starters on championship-quality teams, but helping to make their lives better through their experiences at Marquette.
“I’m so incredibly proud of the lives that have been changed because of the experience for the better. I’m more driven not for the winning and losing as a way to keep score, as much as I am for the lives that have changed to keep score. That’s what makes me go. So I find myself giving more of what I think I know, and my wisdom, to that assistant to that assistant, to that player, to that manager, to these students. You guys are the next generation and I’m proud of that. I want to make sure I’m helping as much as I can.”
Cheesy? Yes. Sincere? Touchingly so. Williams isn’t one to talk about himself very often and does a minuscule amount of clinics and commercials in comparison to what he’s offered. But he gushes when talking about Jimmy Butler showing up unannounced to his house on Williams’ birthday to spend the day with his former coach and play upstairs with his kids. He beams at the thankful texts he still gets from former players, both in the NBA and on the altar. Williams may drag his players through hell for four years kicking and fighting, but eventually they all come back grateful for helping them through it.
“I think in 2008 I knew what to do. I think in 2012 I was convinced on how to do it. I think in 2013 I know why I do it. I think I’m a lot better at why. I know why. Everybody knows what. How do you do it? Well if I read your stuff I could tell you where you could get better, or where I think you’re weak. Ya’ll do the same to me. The how separates a lot of people. But the elite is why. So ‘what’ is my goal in the media guide, it would be why-centric, not how. At that point it was what-centric but in 2010 it was how.
“It’s not what we do, it’s how we do it. That makes good sense. But really the next layer is why we do it.”
His motivation is not the fame, fortune or adulation, but the lives he can touch using basketball as his conduit.
That’s why Buzz Williams plays the game.
This is the fourth of an exclusive five-part series chronicling the growth of Marquette head coach Buzz Williams. Each Monday we’ll share a new part of his journey. Mark Strotman contributed to this story.