Buzz Williams is Don Draper in a certain sense, but another man in the history of basketball acquired this identity long before Buzz updated it and put his own twist on it.
First, what is this particular identity?
In Mad Men, Don Draper wants to run away with a mistress in the first season of the show. He goes to California on business in season two and then disappears. Again and again throughout the show, Don wants to get away from where he is right now, thinking he can find more happiness elsewhere, if he could just change the scenery, much as he also changes the women he sleeps with.
Don is the nomad, the restless person, the wandering soul, the person who isn’t comfortable sitting still.
Wait a minute, you might say — almost every coach goes from one job to another. This is not a permanent-stop business. This is not an industry marked by stability. True… but when we talk about coaches swinging the vines from one school to another, they usually climb a ladder.
Coaches typically make various kinds of climbs in the business: They can go from a mid-major job to a high-major job, or from a mid-major to a tweener (a program in the middle tiers between mid and high majors, such as the Mountain West or Atlantic 10). They can go from a tweener to a high-major, or from a non-blue-blood high-major to a blue-blood high-major. They can hit three or four of these stops in succession — mid, tweener, high, blue-blood.
Gregg Marshall went from Winthrop to Wichita State, and everyone is wondering if he will go to a blue-blood program one day. If he does, no one will be surprised.
Bill Self went from Tulsa to Illinois to Kansas — this was the mid-major to high-major to blue-blood climb.
Tubby Smith went from Tulsa to Georgia to Kentucky, a path similar to Self. When Tubby was unable to last at his blue-blood job (Kentucky), he then had to make downward moves.
This is how the business normally works: Coaches rise as long as they continue to succeed. They move downward after they fail at the blue-blood or high-major job.
While it is true that Larry Brown was hounded by the NCAA whenever and wherever he coached college basketball — something which has not applied to Buzz Williams — it remains that he had no appetite for sticking around at any of the places he coached, college or pro. His results were so great that in normal situations, a coach of his caliber would have stayed for at least a decade at a job before thinking of moving on. At certain college programs or on specific NBA teams, a coach in a “normal” situation never would have thought of leaving.
UCLA — especially not in 1981 — was a job a “normal” coach would have left.
Kansas in 1988 was not a job a “normal” coach would have left.
The Detroit Pistons in the NBA — after two straight NBA Finals appearances and one championship in 2004 and 2005 — represented a job a “normal” coach would not have abandoned.
Larry Brown was simply not a normal coach.
He was the Don Draper nomad long before Buzz Williams came along.
ABA Carolina Cougars. Denver Nuggets. UCLA. New Jersey Nets. Kansas. San Antonio Spurs. Los Angeles Clippers. Indiana Pacers. The Pistons. The New York Knicks. The Charlotte Bobcats. SMU.
That’s 12 jobs at which Brown did not coach beyond five seasons. Only one job in his career lasted more than five seasons: The Philadelphia 76ers… with six.
The man just didn’t want to stay in any one place very long.
Maybe it is the case that Buzz Williams, a native Texan, will settle down in College Station and remain with Texas A&M for 20 years and build a superpower. A&M has money, the SEC is easier to win than the ACC, and the Houston area provides a rich local talent pool to draw from. Maybe Buzz will love AggieLand.
Yet, can we acknowledge that twice this decade, Buzz has made a move which — based strictly on program-based prestige — did not make sense?
Marquette is a program laden with tradition and history. Going from Marquette to Virginia Tech was indisputably a downward move. This move from Virginia Tech to Texas A&M isn’t a downward move, but it sure ain’t an upward move. It has been extremely hard to win at Virginia Tech over the years — harder than at A&M — but the prestige of ACC basketball compared to the SEC represents a counterbalance. Moreover, Williams had already changed the nature of Virginia Tech basketball. Had the Hokies possessed a full and healthy (and eligible) roster this past season, they might have been good enough to be a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. This was, all things considered, a lateral move… just when Virginia Tech was showing signs of becoming a possible Final Four program.
Maybe Buzz wanted to come home to Texas, the state where he grew up. Maybe the nomadic, wandering ways are over for Buzz at age 46. Maybe this is where he wants to spend the rest of his coaching career.
Right now, Williams — albeit in his own unique way, making downward or lateral moves as opposed to hopping from college to the NBA or from one NBA team to another — is following the path of Larry Brown, the original Don Draper of basketball coaches.
Buzz the Nomad might be gone for good, but given his penchant for unusual coaching movements, why do I get the sense that A&M will make the Final Four in the next six years but then search for a coach the year after that?
We will see in the 2020s if Buzz Williams’ restless, wandering ways — recalling Larry Brown — will continue.
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