If Aggies squint hard enough, they can see that their new basketball coach is … Chris Beard.
In his third season in Lubbock, Beard has led Texas Tech to its first Final Four. Buzz Williams, who was officially named Texas A&M’s new basketball coach Thursday, shares a similar hardscrabble background. The main differences: Beard has checked the Final Four box and Williams’ sideline style favors vests that make him appear to be a bartender who can whip up a knock-you-back Old Fashioned.
With the Southeastern Conference now serious about basketball – four of its schools will have new coaches next season and six jobs have turned over in the last two seasons – Texas A&M is now “it just means more” in a sport that ranks behind football, baseball and spring football in College Station.
Also, following last year’s big money hire of Jimbo Fisher, the Aggies now have a potent coaching combination in football and basketball. (And never mind that Jimbo and Buzz sound like a couple of characters from the old Mickey Mouse Club.)
The Aggies hope Williams can accomplish what Beard has in Lubbock. Both coaches have deep Texas roots. Beard grew up in Irving, Williams is from Van Alstyne. Neither played college basketball. Both started coaching at the bottom. It can’t be said that they pulled themselves up from their bootstraps … neither had boots nor straps.
Five years ago, Beard was coach at Division II Angelo State and now is on college basketball’s biggest stage. His career path has been a game of Twister. Williams’ coaching career started with a story that has become the stuff of legend even though it’s not a tale that is widely known.
March, 1994. Brent Williams was about to graduate from Oklahoma City. After graduating high school, he had attended Navarro Junior College in Corsicana. He was a manic manager for legendary coach Lewis Orr, who bestowed the name Buzz that also describes Williams’ hair style. Williams wanted to be a basketball coach because he couldn’t be a player. His ability would make him the last guy chosen for pickup games at the Y.
During his two years at Navarro and two more Oklahoma City University, every coach that Williams met received weekly with written “keeping in touch” notes. With the goal of job hunting, Williams was desperate to attend the 1994 Final Four in Charlotte, N.C. He obtained an emergency $1,000 loan (Williams considered it an “emergency”). He bought his first and only suit and a round-trip ticket.
The lobby of the coaches’ headquarters hotel at Final Fours is the ultimate sports hangouts. Coaches of all levels, usually wearing warmup suits, are joined by ticket brokers, autograph seekers and hangers on. For every coach he spotted, he handed his resume – printed on grade-school quality, multi-colored construction paper.
One of the coaches he knew told Williams that UT-Arlington had an opening for a graduate assistant coach. Williams used the house phone to call UTA coach Eddie McCarter’s room to leave messages about his interest in the job. Lots of messages. Every time McCarter returned to his room, his phone message light was blinking and there were half a dozen calls from some guy named Williams who wanted a job that paid $400 a week.
McCarter laughs now when asked if he thought he was being stalked. “Nobody has ever wanted to talk to me that bad,” he said. McCarter eventually relented.
“We talked in my room and I told him that I would be in touch once I got home,” said McCarter, who is now an assistant coach at Shelton State Community College in Alabama.
Williams flew back to Oklahoma City the Monday night that Arkansas beat Duke in the national championship game. The next day, he packed up his ride – a 1974 Ford Courier pickup that he bought for $1,000 – and drove to Arlington. When he got in town, he looked up McCarter’s name in a phone book at a convenience store. After a few stops for directions, Williams journey ended, and he parked in front of McCarter’s house.
That Tuesday night, McCarter arrived home and was greeted by some guy who had been sitting for over 12 hours in a beat-up truck parked on the street.
“I pull up to my house and wondered, ‘Whose car is this?’” McCarter said. “I’m getting out of my car and he comes running up to me as I’m getting my luggage, he walks into my house with me. We sat down and talked, and I decided, ‘If this guy wants this job this bad, I’ve got to hire him.”
The 2011 NCAA regional in Cleveland, Hall of Fame writer Bob Ryan asked Williams, then the coach of Marquette, about his hopes and dreams when he had been at Navarro. Williams needed 1,500 words to tell his coaching life story. It might have the longest answer ever in an NCAA news conference.
Because there’s more.
After being told by McCarter he had been hired and was to report to work the following Monday, Williams had a problem. He needed his degree. He was on pace to graduate, but he needed his degree. Pronto.
Williams was taking 15 hours and says he was on pace to be magna cum laude. He returned to OCU and started cajoling, coercing and completing the necessary work to get the precious parchment.
That weekend, he drove his truck back to Arlington. He had no money and no place to live. He slept in his truck in the parking lot at the UTA athletic office.
“Monday morning at 8 a.m. I walked in there and I said, ‘I’m here.’” Williams said as part of his answer to Ryan’s question eight years ago. “That’s how it all started.”
McCarter never had a regret and says today that “he feels blessed” that he had Williams on his staff.
“At UTA, all our recruiting trips were driving around Texas,” McCarter said. “One thing Buzz can do is talk. It seemed like we’d be in the car and he’d start a story and by the time he finished we were back home.”
When Mike McConathy took over as coach at Northwestern State, one of those 350 or so programs that is Division I in name only, he hired Williams as an assistant. Williams landed three recruits that helped the Demons make the school’s first NCAA appearance in 2001.
“We’d go on recruiting trips, driving for seven days and sharing $35 LaQuinta rooms,” said McConathy, who is still coaching at Northwestern State. “Buzz was and is methodical. He’s meticulously organized. I visited him after he bought his house and his closet looked like a rack of clothes at a department store.
“He knew at every job he’s had he has had to work hard, being diligent and dedicated so he could check every box to be able to move up to the next job.”
Williams’ first head coaching job came at the University of New Orleans – seven months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city.
Buzz Williams left New Orleans after one season to become an assistant at Marquette. The move resulted in a lawsuit with claims from Williams that the school couldn’t provide what a D-I program needed and the school wrangling over his $300,000 buyout.
“He called me, and I couldn’t believe he wanted to make that move,” said McCarter, who was then an assistant at UAB. “I told him, ‘You might never get another head coaching job.’ I’m glad he didn’t listen to me.
Williams told McCarter that because of the huge recovery efforts in New Orleans, he didn’t believe he could raise his family there and that was why he wanted to make the move.
From 2004-06, he was an assistant coach at Texas A&M under Billy Gillispie and he helped recruit the key players that enabled the Aggies to reach the Sweet 16 in 2007. ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla likens Williams return to A&M to Bear Bryant saying that “mama called” when he had the chance to coach at Alabama.
Texas Tech had not reached the Elite Eight until last season. Texas A&M has never been that far in the NCAA Tournament. The Aggies’ best March Madness moment when it stunned North Carolina in double overtime in a second-round game. A&M was SEC co-champs in 2016 and has made the Sweet 16 in 2007, 2016 and 2018. Six of the school’s 14 NCAA appearances came consecutively between 2006 and 2011.
But for the most part, Aggie whoops have not included hoops. Enter Williams.
In 11 seasons coaching at Marquette and Virginia Tech, Williams won a total of 230 games and won 20 or more nine times – impressive considering the competition (Big East and Atlantic Coast Conferences. His teams have made eight NCAA appearances, reached four Sweet 16s and one Elite Eight. In his last two seasons with in Blacksburg, the Hokies beat Duke twice and nearly upset the high and mighty Blue Devils in this season’s Sweet 16.
Williams should be able to recruit well in Texas, which is becoming a hotbed for high school talent. He preaches attention to detail and maximum effort. Williams is a human energy drink who is always taking notes. He goes everywhere with a sheaf of papers folded crisply. The sheets include statistics (he’s a numbers nut), notes from recent conversations, a list of recruits/parents/coaches he needs to call plus a page with the names of people he prays for.
Gregg Doyel, the Indianapolis Star columnist, who was then writing for CBSSports.com, wrote about Williams and his care for others. When word got out via Twitter that Doyel was writing about “Buzz’s Bunch,” the organization he founded for children with special needs, Doyel got dozens of unsolicited messages.
One was from a former Big 12 assistant coach who told Doyel that when the staff he was on was fired, one of the first calls he received was from Williams with an invitation to work at Marquette’s camp for three weeks that summer. Williams worked the phones to try to find the assistant a job and even bought diapers for the coach’s son when money was tight.
At Virginia Tech, Williams continued Buzz’s Bunch and also established two scholarship endowments for students with disabilities and female athletes who are the first in their family to attend college.
“There are givers and takers in the world. Buzz is a giver,” McConathy said.
McConathy thinks the comparison to Chris Beard at Texas Tech and Williams at A&M makes sense. McCarter both believes that for Williams has found his “forever job.” Dale Layer, who hired Williams as his assistant at Colorado State and worked for Williams as an assistant at Marquette, cited the factors that could make him a successful fit.
“He’s part country bumpkin, part Copenhagen, part sweet tea,” Layer told the Newark Star-Ledger. “And all at about 1,000 miles per hour.”
There’s now a palpable buzz in College Station and it will be up to Buzz Williams to get the Aggies up to speed in basketball.
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