Williams' odd path has Marquette one step away from Final Four
If not for mortgage payments, Buzz Williams might not be Marquette's coach. Williams -- a win from the Final Four in Atlanta -- is different but delivers wins.
WASHINGTON -- Buzz Williams had been on the job for about eight months when he walked into Tom Crean's house and was informed his boss was heading to Bloomington, Ind. The entire Marquette staff already was at Crean's house, since Williams had been on the road recruiting down in Tyler, Texas.
"You've got to come with me," Crean said.
Williams told Crean it wasn't happening. He still owned his own home in New Orleans, where he had given up a Division I head coaching job to return to the life of the grind as an assistant months earlier. He and his wife, Corey, also bought a home after arriving at Marquette. Two hefty mortgage payments, three kids and a fourth on the way, while making $212,000 per year. Williams couldn't swing it.
Senior associate athletic director Mike Broeker was told by athletic director Steve Cottingham, a lawyer who had been on the job for a few months at the time, that Crean was bolting for Indiana. Cottingham flew back from the women's WNIT game in Colorado and met with Broeker and senior vice president Greg Kliebhan. Broeker, who's as plugged into the college basketball coaching industry as just about any administrator in America, recommended four names, none of which he felt was truly attainable for the program. Then there was a Tier B list, but Broeker suggested that Cottingham take a hard look at Williams before going that route.
"Tom had spoken so highly of him as a coach, and Buzz was really thoughtful, incredibly researched, his attention to detail is freakish and his preparation is scary," Broeker said.
Williams was hired within the week to take the reins of a program that had made a Final Four in 2003.
"I didn't think I had any shot at first," Williams said of his initial meeting with Cottingham after Crean left. "At that point, I had no idea where I was going -- except that I wasn't going to Indiana. I couldn't."
Williams met with Cottingham on multiple occasions. He also met with the president, the former president of the board and several other influential people. By his overall count, there were 14 meetings before the final one.
"They called right after we landed in San Antonio," Corey said. "I hate flying and I told Buzz I wasn't going back."
But they did. They immediately got on a connecting flight through St. Louis and returned to Milwaukee.
"I knew it was real then," Williams said.
Williams was introduced as the head coach at Marquette University on April 8, 2008. Broeker's advice to Cottingham was simple: Don't answer your phone. Not now. Not for the next six months.
"We're going to get killed for this," he said. "We knew that, especially because there wouldn't be any basketball games for months."
Corey said, "Why wouldn't they say that? We came from New Orleans and he quit. I understood it, and I have thick skin. It was fine."
Williams won 14 games at one of the most difficult spots in America in 2006-07 while at New Orleans. The former broom-sweeper at Navarro College had grinded his way to the D-I head coaching gig, but in the wake of Hurricane Katrina the deck was stacked heavily against him. He knew he couldn't win, so he left and joined Crean's staff.
"I resigned knowing I'd probably never get another chance to be a Division I head coach," he admitted.
But Williams did get another shot, much sooner than anyone could have imagined, and he's taken full advantage. Broeker knew Williams was special while watching the new head coach's first individual workout session with holdovers Dominic James and Jerel McNeal. They were seniors, all-league players, stars. Here was Williams going toe-to-toe with McNeal about not giving 100 percent effort in a zig-zag drill.
"I thought they were going to come to blows," Broeker said. "But he kept making Jerel do it until he did it right. That's what makes him to special. He finds a way to connect with the players and gets them to play so hard. Those kids play their tails off for him."
On the surface, Williams is an odd fit in the midwest. He's a Texan who chews tobacco and his accent is difficult to pick up for the Wisconsin natives. However, what the Marquette fans comprehend is that this guy wins. He's 122-53 in his tenure, has twice as many Big East victories as losses, and is 8-4 in NCAA tournament games. He's now a victory over Syracuse away from getting this program back to the Final Four for the first time in a decade.
"It's amazing," Williams said while considering his coaching path.
"I'm so proud of him," his wife added. "Watching his dream unfold."
UCLA is looking for someone to replace Ben Howland. Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens already have politely declined. Now athletic director Dan Guerrero doesn't know where to turn. How about Williams? Sure, he doesn't appear to be the ideal fit on the surface, but the same could and was said when the Golden Eagles made the outside-the-box hire five years ago.
He's only led them to five consecutive NCAA tournaments, three consecutive Sweet 16s and one step away from the Final Four.
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