In today’s culture of big money athletics, it’s about wins and losses. And the new Hokie men’s basketball coach, Buzz Williams, brings winning credentials to the Virginia Tech program. He took over the Marquette basketball program, which was already playing in one of the toughest conferences in basketball at a high level, and took them to even greater heights. The Golden Eagles, during Williams’ tenure, played in the tournament every year and more importantly, with the exception of one season, they played as far or further into the Big Dance every year, culminating in making the Elite Eight last season.
The question that comes to my mind is “How?”. As I’ve progressed in my own career, the principles of leadership have become more relevant and more important to me and so I have studied them. It’s not like James Johnson wanted to fail. He had been in coaching for 19 years and though this was his first job as a head coach, he’s a good recruiter and understands basketball fundamentals. But his time leading the VT basketball program was absolutely awful. So I wanted to learn about why Buzz Williams has had the type of success that he’s had, see what he has in common with other great leaders and what he may do differently. To that end I’ve spent the past week watching every Buzz Williams clip I could find and reading stories about him all the way back to his first head coaching gig at New Orleans in 2006. And for those fans expecting the Hokies to come out and start competing for NCAA tournament berths right away, I’ve got a surprise for you - that isn’t likely but even if it happens, it’s not what Buzz Williams is working on with the 2014-15 Hokie basketball team right now I can assure of you that.
If you saw the press conference introducing Williams as the Virginia Tech men’s basketball head coach (and if you haven’t here’s a link), you heard him say a lot of what people describe as the “right things”. He talked about building men, not players, about how this is going to be a process that takes time but that he considers the program a “sleeping giant”. Coaches have said these things in press conferences for a long damn time. But the more I learned about Buzz Williams, the more I learned that these cliches aren’t cliches to him. They are foundational principles on how he approaches his own life as well as his job as a basketball coach.
Buzz Williams is a man on a mission. He is spiritually driven to mold the players who play for him into a true team. He does’t do that to win, though that ends up being a by-product. He does it because he feels called to do it. To his core, Williams is convinced that by making these players learn to give themselves to a bigger cause, it will not only make them the best team they can be, it will make them into good men, good members of their community, good husbands, good fathers. In short, Williams feels a responsibility to help young men navigate a very important transition in their lives, by making them give everything they have to their brothers in that locker room. He feels this responsibility so strongly that when he gets the sense that the university he’s at doesn’t live up to their part of this mission, he would rather resign as head coach and become an assistant somewhere else, based on his principles. That’s exactly how he ended up leaving the University of New Orleans for Marquette.
It’s hard to believe in principles anymore because of the society we live in today. Here’s a guy making $2.3-$2.7M a year, and he’s putting together a career. Surely he, like almost every other basketball coach, wants to jump from bigger job to bigger job to make it to the NBA with the best players and coaches in the world, right? This is where I would say “Not so fast, my friend” except I hate Lee Corso. The truth is I really think that Buzz Williams’ highest aspiration is to be like a Tom Izzo, a Coach K, aka a fixture of the college basketball landscape. Now that means that Virginia Tech probably isn’t his final stop. And the nature of the business is that how soon he leaves depends on how much success the Hokies have and in what period of time. But I’m completely convinced that Williams intends to build the Virginia Tech program for long term basketball success and leave when or if it’s the right time for him and his family - which is basically what any of us in our careers would do. It’s about a restlessness to push himself, challenge himself and see just how far in college basketball he can go.
That restlessness is what drove Buzz to leave Marquette for Virginia Tech. He built the Golden Eagles for long term success and he saw that with the collapse of the Big East conference, that success was at risk. Combine that with the new challenge of building a program that was in one of the basketball superconferences, and his restless nature to push himself and all it took was the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place. That final piece was new Hokie AD Whit Babcock - whom I insist on sometimes sophomorically calling Bab Whitcock because he looks more like Bab Whitcock than Whit Babcock. Anyway, Whitcock was determined to bring the VT basketball program into relevance and he had a critical connection with Williams through Mick Cronin - the head coach at Cincinnati. Mix in enough of a competitive salary for Williams - and importantly his assistants, too - and the decision was a lot more of a no-brainer than I first thought it was when I heard Buzz Williams was coming to the Hokies.
Now don’t let that press conference fool you. Yes, there’s a lot of lovey-dovey with alumni/donors, there’s a lot of smiling for the cameras, there’s a lot of human interest stories about Buzz Williams doing these camps for disadvantaged kids that he keeps on the down-low. But trust me, this guy is intense. There’s NOT a lot of love for the media, he doesn’t have patience for players who aren’t willing to be physical and his practices are high energy. I think the stories about how he handled Trevor Thompson (and I’m a fan of Thompson’s game) and the recruits who de-committed today speak for themselves about his no-bullshit approach. Buzz Williams is going to go all-in with the players who want to play for him and the coaches who want to coach for him and he has little time for anyone outside of that circle.
But the result of that is you are going to see accountability in a Buzz Williams locker room. You know that West Virginia game that everyone watched the clip of Williams dancing around on the court after winning that game ON THE ROAD? Well, did you know that before that game, Williams suspended 4 players for a half of that game (including 3 starters) for a violation of team rules? This is a guy that walks the walk. And the result of that is when you watch some of the Marquette basketball practices, you’ll see something that is a common thread between Williams and other great coaches - the players coach a LOT. You hear it across all sports from the great hall of fame coaches - the best teams are those where the players and coaches have built enough trust to let the players take ownership and lead.
When the players coach each other and push each other in practice, you don’t get any loafing, any slouching. The challenge is how do you get these players to push each other and prevent it from spilling over into confrontation in practice? And as remarkably physical as the Marquette practices were (and believe me I’ve seen a lot of physical basketball practices), I never saw a clip of serious confrontation. The reason is because Williams has created an environment of love, trust and honesty in his locker room. That’s how the players can get on each other. They understand and BELIEVE that their intentions are to improve each other. It creates mental toughness, belief in one another and belief in their coach.
Now this article isn’t going to run James Johnson down. He did what any of us would have done if offered the position to be a head coach and that much money. And the irony is that despite how I opened this piece talking about wins and losses, it honestly wasn’t the record that had me convinced James Johnson had to leave. It was the lack of mental toughness, the lack of player leadership, the mismanagement of the team/roster (see: Raines, Cadarian). I mean when you name an incoming freshman captain of your team over your two seniors, you think you’re sending a message and you are, but that message is - I didn’t develop my future leaders on this team last year and now I have to rely on an incoming 18 year old to run my locker room.
So I do sincerely wish James Johnson well and I know he’s going to do well in coaching. He will be much better at it the next time he gets a chance to be a head coach. But Virginia Tech has a coach coming in with some junkyard dog in him. You know what the first thing Buzz Williams told his team in the post game locker room after they won their 1st round NCAA tournament game last year? “We had 17 offensive rebounds”. He was prouder of that stat than anything. The guy is a fighter, his teams are going to be fighters and it may take a few seasons to build the culture to the level that Buzz Williams is looking for but know this - regardless of what VT’s record is next season, you’re going to see a tighter, tougher basketball team on the court for 40 minutes every game. Because teams take on the persona of their coaches and the way Buzz Williams asks his players to give everything they have to the team is by giving everything he has to it.