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Strotman: Buzz Williams kept his promise to himself

Buzz Williams did what was best for him when he accepted the job at Virginia Tech yesterday. (USA Today)

Buzz Williams did what was best for him when he accepted the job at Virginia Tech yesterday. (USA Today)

Buzz Williams has always been one of the best quotables in college basketball. Whether it came in the form of a blunt assessment on his team, a five-minute anecdote from a simple question or an honest and tearful response to how proud he was of one of his players, any time Williams stepped in front of a microphone you were in for a treat.

So when Williams spoke with the Journal-Sentinel’s Todd Rosiak in March 2010, his quotes, as always, were something to read and consider. Here’s what Williams said that day:

“I don’t ever want to change what I believe in my heart to be right,” he told Rosiak. “I’ll be here as long as they’ll have me here.”

On the surface this quote was pretty cut-and-dry. Williams had been rumored to be a target at Oregon during March Madness, and though his name hadn’t been connected directly to any other schools, he was a hot commodity in the college basketball world after 47 wins and a pair of NCAA Tournament appearances in two seasons after taking over for Tom Crean in 2008. So Williams, at least for a moment, ended the speculation by saying he’d be the head coach at Marquette until the day he was given his papers.

The next four seasons Williams’ name popped up each offseason with a number of programs: Oklahoma, Arkansas, Illinois, Missouri, LSU, Southern Methodist, UCLA, Texas A&M, Minesota, Auburn, Southern Florida. Do some research and you’ll find that Williams, at one point or another, was linked to these head-coach openings, whether it occurred via simple speculation, unnamed sources speaking to reporters or Williams himself having a part in the rumors — it happened more often than you’d think or like to know.

But three offseasons came and went with Williams fulfilling the promise he made to the fans, media and student-athletes. Marquette wanted him, and so he stayed, just like he said he would.

That changed on Friday, five days into Williams’ fourth offseason since uttering the words that many believed attached him to Marquette for life. Williams accepted a job at Virginia Tech, a team that won a league-worst two games in the ACC this past season before firing head coach James Johnson. The deal is worth nearly $18 million over seven years, and he joins a league that features powerhouses Duke, Syracuse, North Carolina, Virginia and, next season, Louisville.

It’ll be a steep test to turn around a program that has made only eight NCAA tournament appearances since 1967 and hasn’t advanced to the second weekend since 1967, when it made the Elite Eight. The Hokies have won two conference championships (1960, 1996) in their history and haven’t been to the Big Dance in seven years, and only twice in the last 28 years.

Williams left Marquette after 2,137 days, but he did it on his own terms. And that’s a promise he is keeping.

A year and a half after Williams made himself open to a lifetime contract at Marquette, he stood at the podium at the team’s official media day and again was asked about his name inevitably appearing in the coaching carousel rumor mill. The previous offseason Williams’ name had been linked to Oklahoma, Arkansas and Texas Tech. Those three programs filled their respective vacancies with men other than Williams, pitting Williams back at Marquette for a fourth season.

So when he was asked about Year 2 of coaching-carousel fun, Williams responded:

“Like momma says,” he said, referring to his wife, Corey, “‘Don’t mess with happy,’ and I’m happy.”

Williams’ exact reasons for leaving aren’t known, and may never truly be known. But what we do know is that Williams was no longer happy at Marquette, and he stuck to the promise he made to himself to only look for change if he found himself in such a situation.

A source close to the situation told Paint Touches that part of Williams’ unhappiness stemmed from his growing concern with the future state of the Big East. The conference had lost significant luster in 2013 when the football schools departed for the ACC and the creation of the AAC, leaving the basketball schools to fend for themselves in a conference relegated to mid-major prominence, both on a playing scale and the recruiting trail.

Williams played the humble role to a tee during his time at Marquette, but he yearned for the spotlight. He wasn’t able to do that playing in a conference that ranked fourth in RPI but had little prominence on a national scale and, as we’ve detailed thoroughly all year, god-awful TV ratings.

For recruiting purposes, each 2013 recruit Paint Touches spoke to said the two things they were looking forward to most were 1) playing the likes of Syracuse and Louisville, and 2) playing at Madison Square Garden. And though the latter will continue, conference prestige plays a far greater role than it may seen on the surface. The 2014 recruiting class was able to watch Marquette play some of the nation’s best teams on ESPN before committing, but going forward recruiting undoubtedly was going to take a hit, making life more difficult on Williams.

The ongoing head-butting with the Marquette administration reached a peak this season, when athletic director Larry Williams resigned in December, specifically because of his rift with Williams — and in reality, Williams played a role in that resignation coming about. That announcement came three months after president Father Scott Pilarz resigned for a bevy of reasons that aren’t relevant here.

That left Marquette without a president, athletic director and provost (John Pauly resigned in May 2013), and though the university replaced the first two on an interim basis with Father Robert A. Wild and Bill Cords, respectively, the unknowns of the future at the school’s most important positions became an issue. His top two assistants, Aki Collins and Tony Benford, left, close friend Scott Monarch was fired for lying about a recruiting violation and, as much as Williams and his family loved Milwaukee, the Texas native was still out of place. Things were going south on an administrative level, and it made him uneasy.

Williams no longer was happy as Marquette’s men’s basketball coach. You could hear it in the way he spoke at postgame press conferences. His words and demeanor didn’t necessarily exude unhappiness, but it was different. Marquette’s 15 losses didn’t help, but it went further than that, and those in the media certainly would agree.

He’s not, however, absolved of fault in this whole situation. The coaching carousel rumors were innocent at the start, and in 2010 then-athletic director Steve Cottingham noted “I’m happy for him in that respect. Hey, given the business, of course other people will look at him. I mean, they look at any coach that’s successful.”

But the apparent need for attention and ego-stroking can’t go without note. Williams was one phone call away to Jeff Goodman or Gary Parrish to ending any rumors that came as way. Every year programs look for new coaches, and every year the media announces that Coach X is no longer a target for one reason or another. Not once did that happen with Williams, and his annual reasoning for not doing exactly that — “I don’t want to talk about it because we’re still in-season” — wasn’t good enough to convince anyone.

The annual offseason merry-go-round of whether or not Williams would accept another job is finally over. One can debate for hours on if he went about business in the right way, but when he accepted the job at Virginia Tech on Friday afternoon he was doing what he felt was best for him: leaving an unhappy situation and finding himself a better one. Say what you will about the Hokies program, but if Williams wanted to be there — or be anywhere but Marquette — it was the correct decision for him.

He was not at Marquette “as long as they’ll have me,” leaving a Golden Eagles program that certainly would have had him back for a seventh season as head coach. When he made that bold statement in 2010, he was one of the best young head coaches in the country’s best conference and realistically couldn’t have said something to the tune of, “I’m going to bolt as soon as a better job comes along.” Some may call Williams selfish for leaving Marquette, but if he truly felt he was better off as the Hokies head coach then it’s difficult to blame him. He’s taking less money and going to a worse basketball program, so personal gain isn’t at play, either. This will be a challenge for him, but he believes he’ll do it with a smile on his face he couldn’t make appear at Marquette.

Buzz Williams is happy at Virginia Tech, and as long as he stays that way it’s something he won’t mess with.

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5 Comments on “Strotman: Buzz Williams kept his promise to himself”

  1. James
    March 22, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    Va Tech wasn’t in ACC until 2004 so I don’t understand the 1960, 1996 conference championship references.

  2. Myers
    March 22, 2014 at 2:31 pm #

    Uhhh they won in other conferences genius

  3. March 22, 2014 at 4:58 pm #

    Ummm. I am a source close to the situation and can tell you buzz left because of a disagreement of some sort within the university. That’s pretty open ended. But suggests he did not leave because he personally wanted to. But probably OK because his coaching style was questionable. He could definitely recruit good players. Just could not coach very well.

  4. March 22, 2014 at 5:05 pm #

    Buzz left due to internal reasons. Not because he wanted a new job. Disagreements within. But for MU this is ultimately a good thing. Buzz could recruit. But could not coach.

  5. March 23, 2014 at 5:36 pm #

    I’ve loved the program since 1972 and I’ve been proud to wear the MU colors. Why is no one asking about the “in house” illegal allegations… rapes and after hour bar fight. Could these be the reason Buzz and so many others have fled? Did Buzz finally realize that the administration would no longer support his spin machine? Perhaps the NCAA is not far behind! It saddens me to think this could be the reason; however, why else do you walk from a program that is second in the NCAA for funding a program and a top 20 recruiting class????? Something smells!

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