This is why we like Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams.
Williams brought a group of veterans onto the court at Casell Coliseum on campus to stand in front of his players and show them the importance of respecting the National Anthem and give them an appreciation for those who serve this country. The event occurred before the season in Blacksburg, Va. as Williams does before every season as part of his own Veterans Day tradition, but a touching video of it recently surfaced and went viral on Facebook.
Williams printed out the lyrics to “The Stars Spangled Banner” and read them aloud with his team until every player could recite them. Then he talked about sacrifice.
“These veterans, when they were you age, interrupted their life, they paused their education, they changed their career and they gave their life for those chairs . . . not us,” Williams told his players, who were standing in front of their chairs. “So when the anthem is played we’re going to stand like grown man and we’re going to honor this, that they gave their life, so we can have a chair to sit in.”
During a poignant speech, Williams spoke about the proper etiquette his players should follow while listening to the song and also the meaning behind the “Stars Strangled Banner. “I don’t care if you sing but I want you to know the words and I want you to be respectful of the words because the words represent people’s lives,” he said. “And when we stand, we’re going to put our right hand over our heart and our left hand behind our back. . . We’re standing still with perfect body language and all that we’re thinking about is these man who earned the right for these chairs to be here.”
With Williams, it’s all about respecting traditions and building new ones.
Williams became the first coach in Atlantic Coast Conference history to take a last place team to eight more victories the following season. He coached the Hokies, who finished 9-22 and were dead last in the 15-team league with a 2-16 record in 2015, to a 20-15 record and an 10-8 regular season in toughest conference in the country. Virginia Tech finished sixth in the ACC, ahead of Syracuse and Pitt.
The Hokies opened the season with a disappointing home loss to Alabama State, but his young team rapidly improved. On Jan. 4, Virginia Tech defeated their in-state rival, fourth-ranked Virginia at home, making Williams’ biggest win at Virginia Tech to date. The team continued to play well through the conference schedule, ending the regular season with five straight victories and an upset of then seventh-ranked Miami, then advanced to the quarterfinals of the conference tournament before losing to the same Hurricanes, 88-82, in Washington, D.C. Tech. Virginia Tech received a bid to the NIT. They defeated Princeton in a first round before losing to BYU in a second round road game.
The 43-year old Williams is a rising star in this profession.
Given the fact the ACC had six teams– North Carolina, Virginia, Miami, Duke, Notre Dame and Syracuse– advance to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen over the weekend, Williams’ accomplishments may have been overlooked. But he compared favorably with Jim Larranaga as a candidate for ACC Coach of the Year. Larranaga won the award after coaching the more experienced Hurricanes to a 25-7 record, a Top 10 finish in the AP poll and a 13-5 record in conference play, good enough for a tie for second place.
Williams can take consolation in the fact his team was the biggest surprise in the conference.
No one expected Tech to grow up this fast.
But those people underestimated Williams as a teacher and motivator who paid his dues. Williams comes from a small town in Texas and paid just own way to Navarro Junior College to become the student basketball assistant, then took a similar job at Oklahoma City. He real name was Brent but so much energy the coaches named him, “Buzz.” Once he decided he wanted to be a basketball coach, he wrote 425 letters to schools around the country.
The 21-year old Williams took out a $1,200 emergency loan and used the money to buy a suit and an airplane ticket to the 1994 NCAA Final Four in Charlotte. Williams camped out in the lobby of the coaches’ hotel, passing out resumes to everyone. He had no money left for money and bummed snacks from bartenders. One coach mentioned an opening at University of Texas-Arlington, so Williams left hourly messages for the school’s coach Eddie McCarter. Eventually he got a brief face to face meeting with the coach. When he got home to Oklahoma City Monday, he promptly drove to Texas to camp outside McCarter’s house to re-emphasize his interest.
There was only one problem. Williams didn’t know where McCarter lived. So when he got to Arlington, he stopped at a gas station, looked up in a phone book and asked for directions. He finally found his way there and waited until McCarter drove up that night. Williams got out of the car and told McCarter how much he wanted the job. McCarter just shook his head in disbelief but he was impressed enough to hire him.
Williams, if nothing else, has been persistent. He spent 11 years time as an assistant at Texas-Arlington, Texas A & M- Kingsville, Northwestern State, Colorado State and Texas A & M before taking the head coaching job at New Orleans in 2006, then moving to Marquette in 2007 as an assistant to Tom Crean, who had coached the Eagles to a Final Four in 2003. Williams was elevated to head coach a year later when Crean left for Indiana.
Williams coached Marquette to five NCAA appearances in six years, a pair of NCAA Sweet Sixteens and an Elite Eight. He loved the challenge of coaching in the old Big East, but when the league started to break apart, he knew it was time to move on to a Power 5 conference.
Virginia Tech was the ultimate challenge. Williams inherited a team devoid of ACC caliber talent, but restocked it quickly, cleansing the roster and using the same unconventional methods he used to build Marquette into a national power with transfers, junior college stars and under valued high school prospects who blossomed under his individual player development. Williams transformed three relative unknowns — Jimmy Butler, Jae Crowder and Wesley Mathews Jr. — into NBA players.
One of Williams’ greatest strengths is his thirst for knowledge. He once took it upon himself to memorize the names of every president in order because he felt he was important. He is a veracious reader of motivational books and he loves to teach, coaching his two young sons in junior league basketball. He even took time out from a huddle in his first ACC tournament game to go out to the floor and coach a girl who was competing in a free throw shooting contest.
Unlike most top tier programs in the ACC, Virginia Tech does not have any lock first round NBA draft picks on its roster.
But Williams has rebuilt this program around two transfers– junior pick and roll guard Seth Allen from Maryland and 6-7 junior stretch four Zach LeDay from South Florida and signed enough complimentary pieces like 6-9 freshman center Kerry Blackshear, a creative 6-6 freshman guard Chris Clarke who can score off the bounce and two wings– 6-5 sophomore Justin Bibbs and 6-5 Jalen Hudson– who can spread the floor from the perimeter to compete against anyone in the conference. And he has let them grow up.
There’s a Buzz about this program and Tech fans sense it. Tech is playing to sellout crowds of 10,000 screaming undergrads and Cassel Coliseum has become one of the most difficult places to play in the league.
Williams is notorious for playing the underdog card. But he won’t be able to do that much longer.
“We were picked 14th– what do you think?” Williams said. “If you’re picked 14th and finished sixth, what other mentality should we take? Without being a jerk, if you Google my story, you’ll find that I’ll always be able to answer that question that same way.”
Williams has been a hot commodity ever since he was at Marquette and was mentioned as a candidate for two Big 12 jobs Texas Christian and Oklahoma State opened last week. But he isn’t going anywhere. Williams has made Virginia Tech relevant again and returns every important face on his roster. It shouldn’t be long before the Hokies earn their first invitation to the NCAA Tournament since 2007.