Buzz Williams was struggling. The Marquette University head men’s basketball coach had gained some 30 pounds, and he was swollen and bloated, heavier than he’d ever been, adding more stress to an already stressed life.
Finally, he sought help at the Mayo Clinic: With wife Corey by his side, he met with doctor after doctor until one specialist finally shed light on the problem.
Williams was stunned – and angry.
“I stood up and got in his face, and I said, ‘Don’t talk like that in front of my wife!’ ”
Ever the calming influence, Corey patted Buzz’s leg, and he sat back down. The doctor tried more soothing words.
“ ‘Listen, I don’t completely understand what you do,’ ” Williams recalls the doctor saying. “ ‘but I know that it’s stressful, and I promise what I’m saying is true.’ ”
His life was in peril, the doctor said, for a simple reason: “You are not sleeping at all.”
Williams protested. He slept. Well, maybe not as much as most. After all, coaching Big East basketball doesn’t lend itself to regular shuteye, especially the way he coaches.
A CBSSports.com survey of college coaches named Williams the second-most relentless recruiter in basketball. “He just won’t quit,” says Lewis Orr, the man who gave Buzz his first crack at collegiate coaching. “He’ll just work another hour, another hour, another hour, if that’s what it takes.” His days are scheduled down to the minute because he has so much to squeeze in.
“Stop and think about all the things he’s worrying about on a daily basis,” says longtime friend and colleague Brad Autry. “His players, former players, the next players. He’s got all these people coming at him.” MU basketball is so important, Autry adds, “that in a lot of ways, he’s the face of the whole university. You can see where he struggles sometimes to shut his brain off.”
But he needed to start doing that, at least at night. “When you think you’re sleeping, you’re not sleeping,” the doctor explained. Williams had a sleep disorder, and he would have to make changes in his lifestyle.
Some two years after that Mayo visit, the condition is under control. No, his players and colleagues haven’t seen any let up in Williams’ fierce intensity. But his sleeping has improved, his weight is back down to normal, and he’s eating healthier. There may be no more telling sign, says Corey, than eliminating his longtime habit of guzzling sweet tea. The wake-up call worked.
The first thing you notice inside Williams’ Marquette basketball office is the pictures. Hundreds of them cover every available wall and ledge and whatever area of his desk isn’t being used for work. Shots of current and former players, of Corey and their children, and lots and lots of other children, legions of special needs kids in Buzz’s Bunch, the support group he’s created.
“He asks me about once a week,” Corey says, “ ‘Can you take more pictures of the kids?’ ”
The pictures mingle with pieces of memorabilia. One plaque quotes Mother Teresa: “People are often unreasonable, irrational and self-centered. Forgive them anyway.” Perhaps she started out as a basketball coach. But the office is orderly enough to pass Marine inspection. Even his closets are meticulously categorized, with each hanger spaced at specific intervals, Williams reveals.
“Does it have to be perfect? Not to a lot of people. But to me, within how I function, yeah, it’s gotta be perfect.”
He’s obsessed with organization, explaining his meticulous practice plans, reams of daily reading material and notes-to-self notebooks stretching back 18 years. He can show you month-by-month charts of phone calls he plans to make, with scores of names ranging from current basketball recruits to the first player he ever wooed, from Marquette administrators to everyday people, from church pastors to Charles Barkley.
It all seems to have paid off. Barely known when he was hired, Williams was an immediate success. Each year, he’s guided the Golden Eagles to at least 22 wins and an NCAA tournament bid. This season, they’ve been regulars in the top 25 rankings. And last season, in what was supposed to be a rebuilding campaign, Marquette ended up in the NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. Other colleges lined up to hire him away, but Williams reiterated his commitment to Marquette and signed a new contract, reportedly with a big raise in salary. And he was already earning $2.8 million in salary and bonus money, according to Marquette’s most recent (2009-10) federal tax filing.
But there’s little sign of the 39-year-old Williams easing back to enjoy the fruits of success. He’s a devout Christian, but his profanity-laced practices are anything but biblical in tone. Williams came from nowhere, and you get the sense he is still doing everything he can – driving himself and his players – to make sure he never returns there.
Maybe that’s why he surrounds himself with all those signs of love. Besides all the pictures, he keeps what he calls a “love letter box,” packed with cards and notes from people offering praise and thanks and consolation. At one point in our interview, Williams brought out the near-overflowing box and read aloud a letter from an elderly man whose identity he declined to reveal but who
clearly meant a great deal to Buzz. As he read the letter, the MU coach began to choke up.
Brent “Buzz” Williams grew up in the obscure northeastern Texas town of Van Alstyne, whose entire population would fit in the Bradley Center’s lower bowl. He is the child of divorced parents and declines to talk about that childhood, but does volunteer one high school sports story.
In small-town Texas, playing football is practically mandatory for boys, but Williams wasn’t interested. Instead, he volunteered to be a kind of assistant coach for the football team, which was full of his friends. But on the sidelines, he wasn’t their buddy, he was their coach. Which meant plenty of shouting matches when those friends messed up, because Williams was too intense to let anything slide.
But basketball was his true passion. He was good enough to be a high school guard, but smart enough to figure out he wouldn’t play in college. So he set out to be a coach in the sport he loved, not easily done without the benefit of a collegiate playing career.
It was Lewis Orr – head men’s hoops coach at Navarro Junior College in Corsicana, Texas – who gave Williams his first collegiate coaching role, making him a student assistant in 1990. Orr also coined the “Buzz” nickname because of how he buzzed through every aspect of the job, be it sweeping floors or absorbing every spare bit of coaching expertise. “We wanted you to work like you were being paid a million dollars,” Orr says. “And he did.”
Still, it was just a student gig, which was followed
by a similar job at Oklahoma City University. And there, as an OCU senior in 1994, he devised a plan to get a real, paying job in the business.
Williams once did an impromptu 10-minute soliloquy explaining the plan, leaving a room full of cynical NCAA tournament media slack-jawed at his tenacity. Just 21, he finagled a $1,200 emergency student loan, using the cash for two things: a suit and an airplane ticket to Charlotte, N.C., for the NCAA’s Final Four weekend.
Camped out in the lobby of the NCAA’s main hotel, Williams passed out résumés to everyone. He had no money left for food and bummed whatever snacks he could from bartenders. One coach mentioned an opening at the University of Texas-Arlington, so Williams left hourly phone messages for the school’s coach, Eddie McCarter. Eventually, Williams got his face-to-face with the coach, but it was a brief, perfunctory encounter. So, after flying back home to Oklahoma City on Monday, he promptly drove overnight to Texas to camp out in front of McCarter’s house, just to re-emphasize his interest in person.
Problem was, Williams didn’t know where McCarter’s house was. So when he got to Arlington, he stopped at a gas station, looked up McCarter in the phone book, fortunately found that he was listed, and asked the attendant for directions. A few more stops for directions at other stores finally got him to the right home. He waited in his car for hours until McCarter drove up that Tuesday night. Williams exited his vehicle, said hello, and told McCarter again how much he wanted the job. McCarter said he was crazy, but invited him inside his house nonetheless.
And Williams got the job. It’s a story, he often says, “Only God could author.”
He stayed at UTA until 1998, then started quickly rising up the coaching ladder. Rungs included assistant jobs at Texas A&M-Kingsville (1998-99), Northwestern State in Louisiana (1999-2000), Colorado State (00-04) and Texas A&M (04-06).
Along the way he would cross paths with Brad Autry, another young assistant coach, on the basketball recruiting trails of the Southwestern plains.
“He used to call me all the time. All. The. Time,” Autry says. “He would call me and ask about this player, ask about that player. ‘What do you know about this guy? How good is this kid?’ And one night, I pulled into my apartment complex, and who’s calling at 10 o’clock at night? Buzz Williams.”
In 2006, Williams got what looked like his big break: The University of New Orleans named him its head coach. But he resigned after only one season, believing the school wasn’t properly supporting the program. As it turned out, the real break was just another assistant coaching job: In 2007, Tom Crean hired him at Marquette, and within a year, Crean abruptly left for Indiana University. The names of several big-name coaches were mentioned as possible replacements, but instead, Marquette hired Crean’s little-known assistant: Williams became the university’s 16th head coach on April 8, 2008.
Lewis Orr was Navarro’s coach for 32 years before retiring in 2008. He never expected to coach again.
Then he got an unexpected call. Buzz Williams by now had a network of contacts that stretched nationwide, many of whom would’ve jumped at a Big East job. But he had not forgotten the man who gave him his start, a man with a wealth of knowledge about basketball and life, a man who’d watched him grow from floor-sweeper to head coach.
“I think I was retired for one day,” Orr says, his accent betraying a lifetime spent in eastern Texas, his soft tone conveying the grandfatherly wisdom of his 74 years. “And Buzz calls the next day and says, ‘Would you be interested?’ And I said, ‘I might want to talk to my wife, but I’m interested.’ ”
Mrs. Orr indeed signed off, and Orr has been working as a consultant for Williams ever since. He recounts how he’s come to
love the Marquette campus and the people around him, how the situation is perfect, how Williams brought the relationship between student and teacher full circle.
“It brings tears to my eyes,” Orr says, wiping those tears from his well-earned wrinkles, “because God’s plan’s a lot better than mine.”
“When you’re in Buzz’s inner circle, you’re there for life,” says Scott Cross, head men’s basketball coach at Texas-Arlington.
Cross should know. He was the first kid Buzz ever recruited after Eddie McCarter hired Williams at UTA. Cross vividly remembers a game in which Buzz stood on a chair, “yelling and screaming for us to play harder.”
Cross still gets regular phone calls from Williams, and Buzz has flown down to UTA to speak to the team. “He keeps in contact with all his guys,” Cross says. “Even guys who played lesser roles than I did who aren’t in the business, he still keeps in contact.
“He’s one of the most loyal guys around.”
Brad Autry, the assistant coach Williams used to call all the time for tips on players, can testify to that loyalty. After Buzz had landed as an assistant at Marquette, Autry was out of a job. His foot was in a protective boot because of surgery, and he couldn’t walk. “I was really down,” Autry says.
“There was one dude who called me every day,” he marvels. “Every day. Buzz. Nobody else. I’m like, ‘Buzz, quit calling me, man. I’m fine.’ ” But in addition to lending a supportive ear, Autry says, Buzz was keeping him up to date on the business. “Had nothing to gain by calling me.
“But that’s who Buzz is.”
When Buzz ended up as Marquette’s head coach, Autry was coaching a high school team in Texas. Buzz made another phone call. Autry was offered and accepted the job of Marquette’s coordinator of student-athlete development.
Orr is impressed with Williams as a recruiter and as a tactician. But he cites another area where Williams really excels: “He might be the best at developing trust in his players of anybody I’ve ever seen. Parents believe they can trust what he’s saying.”
But Orr adds, with a twinkle in his eye, that Williams’ best recruiting involved landing a date with a young female athlete. “She’s the best recruit he’s ever had or ever will have,” Orr laughs. “He fooled her.”
Corey Norman grew up in Amarillo, Texas, where she ran track and cross country at Randall High School. But her best sport was basketball. A sharp-shooting guard and playmaker, she led Randall to the 1992 Texas 4-A state championship. The 5-foot-3 spark plug was named MVP of the finals and went on to play at three schools – Barton County Community College in Kansas, then Missouri-Kansas City before finishing up at Texas A&M-Kingsville, where she met a young assistant coach named Buzz Williams.
Buzz asked Corey for a date, suggesting the local TCBY, a frozen yogurt shop. “And I said, ‘Well, I’ll meet you there,’ ” Corey recalls. “Because I thought he was kind of a nut job.”
They took their yogurt to a park and chattered away the warm Texas night. Or at least one of them did.
“I thought he was never gonna be quiet,” Corey says. “He ended up talking my ear off till nearly 4 in the morning. He’s a talker.”
But he’d done enough to win a second date. The plan was to drive Buzz’s 1989 white Oldsmobile Eighty-Eight to Corpus Christi for a nicer dinner than could be found in Kingsville. Along the way, Corey saw a sign for Sea World in San Antonio and remarked how she’d never been there, so the plan changed. “And he is not spontaneous,” she says. Nonetheless, they were off to San Antonio.
Right up until the gas ran out.
“I was broke,” Buzz says.
“I thought it was comical,” Corey says.
“I was somewhat embarrassed,” he concedes. “But at the same time, I was like, ‘Look, I’m sorry, but this is kind of how I am. I’ve got a lot of things going on.’ Hell, I’ve run out of gas twice here [in Milwaukee]. Just got so many things on my mind.”
It’s an easy enough fix in Milwaukee. Williams just calls a Marquette staffer and asks to be picked up on I-43. Down in Texas, not so much. “It’s a looonnngggg, lonely stretch from Kingsville, America, to San Antonio,” Buzz says.
So they accepted rescue from a guy driving a white van – “Things you’re not supposed to get into,” Corey says – with only two seats in front and a pail in back. Buzz sat up front,
Corey grabbed the bucket, and they drove to get gas. An hour and a half after being stranded, they were back on track for San Antonio.
And so Buzz managed to land date No. 3, this time a trip to the beach.
“When he wants to recruit,” Corey says, “he definitely goes full force.”
It took a year before he asked for the letter of intent, proposing in September 1999. They were married a year later.
Being a basketball coach’s wife hasn’t dimmed Corey’s love of the sport. “I get up and watch ESPN,” she says. “I go to bed watching ESPN.
“He’s always said that if I ever felt second to basketball at any point, then we have issues,” Corey says. “And there hasn’t been one day I’ve ever felt that.
“I knew he loved me, but I didn’t know he’d love me to the extent that he loves me. It’s so much better than what I thought.”
She says he’s very protective of her and his family. “He doesn’t like my feelings to be hurt,” Corey says. “You can imagine how many fights we have in a year. Not very many. He does not like anything in my world to not be OK.”
She tells him if he ever writes a book, it shouldn’t be about basketball, but balancing life’s demands. “Because you’re the best husband in America, bar none,” she will say. “And the best dad any kid could ever have.” She sees him pulled in hundreds of directions, but he still makes time for her and the kids – 10-year-old Zera, 9-year-old Calvin, 6-year-old Mason and 2-year-old Addyson. “Just yesterday, we had tea with our 2-year-old up in the playroom,” she says.
“Just sitting in a little tea chair.”
Jae Crowder, Marquette’s standout senior forward, was recruited out of Texas, too. But Buzz took a slightly different approach than he did with Corey. Yogurt was not involved.
Crowder was playing for Howard Community College when Buzz pitched the offer. “Buzz is like, ‘If you really want to grow as a player and a great person off the court,’ ” Crowder recalls, “ ‘and get your balls crushed every day, you’ll come play for me.’ ”
“Yep,” Williams says. “I tell most of them that.”
That’s the other side of Williams, the coach who pushes players through brutal preseason boot camps and frenetic practices.
“I think that there’s too much sugar in the world and not enough salt,” Williams says. “Kids want to be challenged. Humans want to aspire to something. You don’t win in life and you don’t win in athletics with softness or selfishness.”
At a December practice preparing for a tough road game at UW-Madison, Buzz begins, as always, with two distinct rituals. He calls everyone to together, and despite all the clapping, manages to squirt everyone’s hands with sanitizer. It’s cold and flu season, you know. Details, details. Then he says a prayer aloud. When he says “Amen,” it’s a cauldron of warrior screams. Time to work.
And if that work isn’t done right, everything stops as he goes drill sergeant on a player. “You stood your ass RIGHT HERE! How can you stand there in the 27th PRACTICE?!”
But when something is done right, he’s quick with compliments. “Yes. Yes. Yes,” he yells, his claps echoing through the gym. “Stop. Stop. Perfect.”
Williams and his assistants are putting in a special defense to counter the deliberate “swing offense” that nationally celebrated Badgers coach Bo Ryan has elevated to an art form. Often when explaining things, Williams says them two or three times, until he’s certain the message has been received. It’s the same way when he’s calling out plays. “Addyson weak handoff. Addyson weak handoff.”
Yes, he names some plays after his children. One more way to keep them on his mind. “[At games], you’ll hear him go, ‘Mason! Mason!’ ” Corey says. “I spend so much time away from them,” Buzz explains, “that when I call their names, whether they’re present or not, it’s good thoughts.”
At practice, Williams can actually be quite calm, often almost serene, standing back and observing while assistants run drills. But in a flash, he can be bellowing at the top of his lungs, standing straight up, arms outstretched to the heavens, firing off obscenities. “Guard the motherf–ker!”
When emphasizing the importance of the special defense against the Badgers: “We gotta f–king get this sh-t!”
When driving home what it will take to beat the Badgers: “Be more athletic than they are. F–k with them.”
They guard. They get it. They are more athletic. They beat Wisconsin, 61-54.
Joe Fulce was a top basketball prospect out of Texas who, for academic reasons, ended up at Tyler Junior College. On three separate occasions, he committed his basketball future to Buzz Williams. First, he agreed to play for Texas A&M when Buzz was an assistant there. Then, when Buzz went to New Orleans, Fulce said he’d go there, too. Finally, when Williams ended up at Marquette, Fulce decided to follow him again after finishing his “juco” year at Tyler. So when Fulce
finally arrived in Milwaukee, Williams was the new head coach.
“To this day, I say it was by the grace of God, putting us together like that,” Fulce says. “It’s helped mold me into a person I would’ve never dreamed of being.”
But why show such loyalty to a coach who switched schools on him several times?
“He’s my guy. He was upfront about everything and told me nothing that I wanted to hear,” Fulce explains. “That says a lot. I’ve been around enough people to tell when I’m getting bullsh–ted. You can tell he’ll never bulls–t you.”
Fulce was a steady role player at MU, but never a star. Becoming a Marquette graduate in December, however, was plenty reward.
“You’re talking to a student that had to go through juco and, damn, I’m graduating from the Harvard of the Midwest,” Fulce marvels.
The lessons from Williams stay with him.
“You have to really mentally be strong and have the mindset of, whatever’s about to happen, be ready for it,” Fulce says. “Before you even touch the court, before you even touch the ball, Buzz makes sure, letting you know that it’s more mental than it is physical.”
In March 2011, Marquette played its final home game of that season, the team’s traditional Senior Night, complete with postgame ceremonies. Fulce both loved and loathed what it represented.
“We’re celebrating a night of saying goodbye. What coach wants to do that to a player?” Fulce muses. And he pauses. His eyes mist up. He apologizes for getting emotional.
“To this day,” Fulce says, “I don’t know what I’ll do to try and repay the man.”
It’s some two hours before Marquette’s Dec. 22 game against UW-Milwaukee, and the Bradley Center is practically empty. The only activity comes from a few dozen players on the Al McGuire court, but none are on scholarship.
A young girl, perhaps 10 years old, wears pink and gray and white sneakers. They complement the rainbow tights stretched down her right leg – and the rainbow colors of her prosthetic left leg.
One boy is in a wheelchair. Another, perhaps 6, doesn’t want to leave his father’s side, no matter how much dad encourages him to go join the others.
They’re all part of Buzz’s Bunch, a program Williams started when he took Marquette’s head post. Its simple goal is to give children with special needs a break from their everyday medical concerns by way of summer camps and pregame shootarounds like this one.
“That will be the only thing, as long as I’m employed here, that ever has my name on it,” Williams says. “And whenever it is that I’m done here, that’s the legacy I’m gonna leave.”
Soon, some scholarship players do arrive. MU team members start mingling with the kids, and the court becomes nothing short of a neighborhood playground. The tall young men bend over and encourage the kids to take shots with blue and gold basketballs. They shag balls after makes and misses. Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas” plays over the PA system.
Marquette freshman Todd Mayo notices the shy boy who clings to his father. He brings him a ball, and dad tries persuading the boy to go take shots with the other kids, but to no avail. Instead, the young boy smiles wide for pictures.
Buzz Williams is on the court, too. He wears a black and gray shirt, black pinstriped pants and black Nike sneakers. He’s at center court signing an autograph for a young boy amid friendly conversation. He poses for pictures and shakes hands with the parents, then starts a circuit of the playground, replaying the scene with different kids and different parents, each time producing the same smiles and laughter.
Eventually, Buzz comes face to face with 16-year-old Andy
Stasik. Andy’s been in Buzz’s Bunch since its inception. He has Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, often referred to as the “bubble boy” disease.
These days, Andy doesn’t need a bubble to survive. But Linda Stasik, Andy’s mother, tells how he needed a bone marrow transplant at age 1, how he was basically kept in isolation for five years, how they made hundreds upon hundreds of hospital visits. The words are weighed down with weariness.
But as she watches Andy and Buzz converse, she is smiling. They are getting on like old friends, because that’s what they are.
“He always knows who I am,” Andy says later. “He’s there for me. He always laughs about how I’m getting so much older as the years go on.”
This time was no different. They chat, joke, laugh, pose. And before Buzz moves on to his next conversation, Andy hands him an envelope. On the front, in large letters, are the words “Thanks Coach Buzz.”
One more letter for the love box.