Bob Ryan

Persistent Williams refused to buzz off

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / March 20, 2011

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CLEVELAND — We’ll get right to the Curly thing.

The head coach of Marquette bears a startling resemblance to Curly of the Three Stooges. Every time Marquette is on TV, you just can’t get enough cutaways to the Marquette bench. You want to check. Could Moe and Larry be his two chief assistants?

Fortunately, Buzz Williams doesn’t take offense.

“Doesn’t bother me one way or the other,’’ he says.

The last thing 38-year-old Brent “Buzz’’ Williams happens to be is sensitive. Compassionate? Sure. But overly sensitive? Anyone who did what he did to get here has to be oblivious to harmless jokes about his appearance or perceived slights. He’s a keep-your-eye-on-the-prize guy whose major goal, aside from winning enough basketball games to remain employed at a high level, is to turn out responsible young men.

“I think he’s big on competing and being the toughest player that you can possibly be,’’ says Jimmy Butler, Marquette’s splendid all-purpose 6-foot-7-inch whatever.

“I think every day he expects the best out of you,’’ agrees junior forward Jae Crowder. “Past coaches [I’ve had] may slack, but every day he wants the best for our players, and he’s big on character.’’

“And he does a great job of helping us off the court being people, just being normal people, and giving us a chance in this world,’’ points out sophomore guard Darius Johnson-Odom.

We know this much: No one looks forward to playing Marquette, which comes into today’s match with Big East rival Syracuse at 21-14. The Golden Eagles may be undersized, they may be this and they may not be that, but they are a hard-playing team that may well have maximized its potential as much as any top-30 team in the land.

But that is to be expected if we apply the ancient maxim that a good team is a reflection of its coach.

If I may be so presumptuous to put words in his mouth, Buzz Williams would admit to being a nobody from nowhere (Van Alstyne, Texas) who was willing to do whatever it took to become a coaching success. Asked a reasonably innocent question as to whether he had modest career ambitions or big career ambitions when he started out, he spun a lengthy tale of which, as he said somewhat near its conclusion, “Only God could author something of that magnitude.’’

Among the highlights:

■“From the beginning of my first day of college [Oklahoma City University], any college coach that I met, regardless of title and regardless of classification, from that point forward I wrote them a letter once a week. That’s before iPhones and Internet and Twitter . . . and I didn’t know anything about college basketball, to be honest with you, but I knew how to say, ‘yes, sir’ and ‘no, sir.’ I wasn’t scared to work, and I knew that being polite and being honest would at least give you a chance.’’

■Still an undergraduate, he secured what he termed an “emergency loan’’ of $1,200 from the school, buying a suit, a shirt, a tie, a belt, a pair of socks, a pair of shoes, and a round-trip ticket to Charlotte, N.C., for the 1994 Final Four. Truly penniless, he stood in the lobby of the Adams Mark Hotel for three days and nights and handed out as many résumés as he could.

■On the Saturday night of the semifinals, he was told of a possible opening at Texas-Arlington. When he got home, he drove to Arlington, located the house of head coach Eddie McCarter (a very long story), and sat outside for a day until McCarter pulled up. “And when he got out of the car, I got out and I said, ‘Hi, Coach McCarter. I just want to say one more time how much I really wanted the job.’ And he said, ‘You have to be the craziest son of a bitch that I’ve ever seen.’ ’’

■One snag: He had yet to graduate. The next part of the story is a strange, involved tale in which young Buzz manages to secure the necessary requirements to get his degree by consolidating this and that between a Friday and a Monday, when the job at Texas-Arlington would commence. It helped that he was on track to be magna cum laude.

The nobody from nowhere was embarked on a coaching career. Having already been an unpaid, or barely paid, student assistant at both Oklahoma City and Navarro (Community College), Texas-Arlington was stop No. 3 by the time he was 22. He went from Texas-Arlington to Texas A&M-Kingsville to Northwestern State to Colorado State to Texas A&M to his first head job at New Orleans and, in 2007, as an assistant to Tom Crean at Marquette, succeeding him when Crean took the Indiana job.

The nobody from nowhere had become a Big East head coach.

“I’ve told everybody, ‘I’m living the dream, 1,075 days into being the head coach at Marquette,’ ’’ he says. “And I’m unbelievably humbled and grateful for the opportunity.’’

A lot is being made out of Marquette having five former junior college players on the roster. It all sounds so very un-Big Eastie. The ready Buzz Williams answer is that it was a necessity to fill out a roster. But why should he apologize? It won’t always be that way. And a coach has to do what he has to do.

Anyway . . .

“I like guys that have had to ride on 15-passenger vans,’’ Williams says. “I like guys that when they order, they just use a number. ‘I’d like No. 2, the combo meal No. 2.’ I like those kind of kids. I think recruiting, as things have evolved, tends to spoil kids. And within the culture I coach in on a daily basis, spoiled kids really struggle dealing with me.’’

Up there in that coaches’ Sky Box In The Sky, I can see Al McGuire hoisting a cold one for this guy.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on He can be reached at