Buzz Williams had it all.
The money: He was Marquette’s highest paid employee and was set to make just under $3 million next season, a sum that made him one of the most well compensated coaches in all of NCAA basketball.
The security: He had a rollover contract that never expired. Listen to that again. He never had to worry about negotiating a longer term or asking for a pay raise, as it happened automatically whether his team reached the Elite 8 or missed the NIT.
The adulation: He was the most revered coach at Marquette since Al McGuire capable of doing no wrong. He was landing the top high school talent, sending players to the NBA and bringing Marquette an extended run of success not seen since the 70s. Even when he flirted with other schools, the majority of MU fans never held it against him as they did with his predecessor Tom Crean.
The power: In very few walks of life will you have the influence to run off a superior. But there was Buzz, undoubtedly the big man on campus, having won the standoff with former Athletic Director Larry Williams.
Yet, there was Buzz Williams on CBS on Saturday, laughing with Charles Barkley as his Virginia Tech pin and orange pocket square blared the double middle finger at any Marquette fan looking on.
Having it all obviously wasn’t enough, though the question all have asked is why. Why would he leave a place where he had proven he could win at the highest of levels? Why would he leave with a top-10 recruiting class set to come in? Why would he leave with his family supposedly happy in Wisconsin for seven years, the longest amount of time they had ever stayed at one spot?
Most puzzlingly: Why Virginia Tech?
Why would he leave a school with a legacy of basketball royalty to coach at a school where football comes first, second and third? Heck they don’t even know what he looks like.
Sources told Mark (and Jeff Goodman has written as much) that it had something, if not a everything, to do with the state of the Big East and the promise of coaching in the vaunted ACC. I’m sure it had something to do with it, but this is as much bullshit as it is the determining factor. The Big East may no longer be THE Big East, but Buzz’ failures this season had nothing to do with the conference. It was a mediocre team that was poorly coached and would have been this way in the America East. There’s TV, recruiting, prestige and all that, but that calls for a separate analysis.
The truth is it had nothing to do with Marquette or the Big East or the ACC. It had everything to do with Buzz Williams.
The rain had never been so refreshing, the beer so sweet. Marquette had just taken down Murray State to reach a second straight Sweet 16 in what turned out to be a true road game with BBN in full force in Louisville.
Still a student at the time, I had difficulties separating fan from reporter. It was the last night I was to spend in Louisville and even though I had a 5 a.m. wake-up call for my 8 a.m. flight the next morning, this night would not be complete without a celebration.
By some divine stroke, I was part of a group invited to hit a local establishment with some of the national reporters at the site. You can imagine my excitement walking in and seeing Pat Forde regaling Jeff Goodman and Adam Zagoria with some story or another.
As a relatively introverted person, I just sat there listening to these heroes of mine shoot the shit, not quite believing everything that had just transpired. After some time, the topic of interesting press conferences came up and I finally chimed in, professing my adoration of Buzz Williams. I had been swimming in the kool-aid for three years at the point, and the stench was obvious to any seated near me.
Goodman just looked over and laughed, with a look that said he felt sorry for me. He knew Buzz better than anyone in the country, serving as his personal message boy whenever called upon. He gave a snide chuckle and responded by saying Buzz deserved his own Broadway show.
Buzz was as good a showman as any in the country. In fact, he was gone in 2011. He wanted the Oklahoma job and would have accepted it on the spot, only Oklahoma backed out with the sexual assault allegations involving his players swirling in the news. He had a stench at that point that hadn’t had the time to air dry.
One of the best days of my life up to that point ended with my naivete pinned to the Louisville bar.
It wasn’t a matter of IF Buzz was leaving Marquette, but WHEN.
Where did it all go wrong?
When Buzz Williams said he’d stay as long as Marquette would have him in 2010 he truly meant it. The university had taken a little known coach with a huge stain (quitting New Orleans after one year) on his resume and given him the keys to the kingdom. He didn’t deserve it at the time and he knew it, that’s why his affection for Steve Cottingham, the AD who took that risk and hired him over protests from higher ups, was so great.
Then the sexual allegations happened.
The demise of Buzz at Marquette began when his national ascension truly began. As the legendary Bob Ryan began evangelizing the gospel of Buzz, police began investigating two alleged sexual assaults that hadn’t been turned over from Marquette’s DPS to the Milwaukee Police Department.
Although charges were never filed, it caused quite a stir in the local and national media,with the Chicago Tribune running a front page story that summer, serving very negative publicity in the heart of Marquette’s out-of-state population.
That wasn’t the end of it, either. Marquette was part of a federal investigation that ended in a rebuke and a university-wide change of how sexual assault claims were handled.
More importantly to this story, Steve Cottingham fell on the sword, resigning that summer. One sentence in particular from that story never truly garnered national attention, but did cause panic behind the scenes.
“In the case dating back to October, one of the accused athletes said the athletes and coaching staff met and discussed the incident before any law enforcement officer was able to interview the suspects, according to Milwaukee County District Attorney John Chisholm.”
This wasn’t just an athlete gone bad, there was illegal assistance in the immediate aftermath from people that know better.
Buzz had been beyond reproach with his midas basketball touch until then. Not anymore.
That’s without mentioning that a new sheriff was getting ready to take over. Father Robert Wild, the president who signed on to hiring this unknown southerner was retiring, and Father Scott Pilarz was taking the reigns.
No one will mistake Pilarz for a basketball junkie. Whereas Wild was front at center in his trademark yellow sweater vest at almost every game, Pilarz recognized the intrinsic value of basketball to the program but didn’t put it over everything. It was a top resource, not THE top resource.
Add this to the fact that closer supervision of Buzz and the program had already begun, and it was a recipe for disaster, culminating in the dismissal of assistant coach and close friend Scott Monarch for lying about a recruiting violation. I wrote about this at length, but it bears re-reading. Buzz felt he was under attack by a new administration.
There were increasing admission standards for junior college players and all incoming freshman were now required live in the dorms, as opposed to the waiver basketball players had gotten before to live in Humphrey Hall, the site of the allegations. All of this and more culminated at the end of the Larry Williams saga, with Larry “stepping down” last winter after Pilarz had done the same. Buzz had won out and fans could breathe a sigh of relief that no “Domer” would tell Buzz how to run his program.
Of course, no one mentioned that he was looking to get out before either Pilarz or Williams began. Who would buy the narrative then?
It’s easy to see through a gimmick after-the-fact.
Duh, Dorothy. Of course there was no wizard, just an old man behind the curtain.
And much like the wizard, Buzz is not a bad guy. He’s insecure, insensitive, and desperate for attention, but not evil.
Buzz Williams’ act wasn’t quite so hidden. Everyone knew he wasn’t some country bumpkin. He’s caring, loyal and incredibly smart.
In fact, that might be one of the biggest drivers of this move. His biggest complaint when we talked to him last year was that the media had this character of him dancing on the sidelines and dancing on West Virginia’s floor. He thinks he’s seen as a clown first, tremendous coach second and he wants to change that. (Don’t bring up Brad Stevens; it’s a touchy subject.)
He was so tempted by the SMU job last year not just because he’s from Texas, but it would be a complete rebuild. He could bring in his guys, coach his way and get complete credit for bringing them to prominence. He wouldn’t have to share honors with Tom Crean or Al McGuire. It would be just him.
But how would that have looked, leaving a team he had just taken to the Elite 8 and three straight Sweet 16s. The optics weren’t right, and he still had the potential to make it four straight Sweet 16s.
A 17-15 season later, there was nothing left to salvage. A new AD and president weren’t going to keep his rollover contract with that kind of production. He had no more safety net of being in the vaunted Big East as an excuse. Any failure would be on him, success on the lack of competition.
Now he can go to a place with no expectations and a blank slate. He will endear the fan base and draw recruits through his tireless work and endless connections because he really is a tremendous relationship manager.
Should he succeed, brilliant, he’s an undoubted hero and will have his pick of jobs should he want them. Should he fail, no one really expected him to compete with Roy, Boeheim and K and Pitino at a place like VT.
There is a growing sentiment among the Marquette faithful that they were done wrong by a snake oil salesman. Stop with that.
Was the manner in which he left tasteful? No. Was parading himself on CBS one day later prudent? Doubtful.
But Buzz brought some of the best memories to a fanbase starved for success and exceeded all expectations placed upon him six years ago.
Don’t look back in anger. It’s not a good look.
Marquette is in a very tough spot right now having to hire a coach without a president or AD in place, but there are already coaches throwing their hat in the ring to take on that challenge. I have no idea who will ultimately be chosen, but that’s for another day.
For now, it’s just about Buzz.
Buzz’ eccentricities were losing their charm. Public sentiment was turning, student support had died and his intentions were never hidden, if you knew where to look. He felt this was the right call for whatever reason, and he will live with the consequences.
I’m thankful for the one interview he granted us in five years of covering him and the memories I will always have from my four years at Marquette.
“When I was losing, they called me nuts. When I was winning they called me eccentric.”
Here, as in most things, Al knows best.
And you, Buzz Williams, are no Al.