BOISE, Idaho (AP)—Marquette coach Buzz Williams isn’t so fond of the term “career suicide.”
But how else to describe bailing out of a head coaching job—the job you worked your whole life for—after a single season to move into an assistant’s role with no apparent future?
That’s what Williams did. Yet somehow, he emerged in a better spot than where he started. Only two years after suddenly quitting at University of New Orleans to be an assistant for Marquette, Williams is the head coach of those Golden Eagles.
If he can direct sixth-seeded Marquette (25-9) to an upset over third-seeded Missouri (29-6) on Sunday, Williams will have a spot on the bench in the West Regional semifinals at the age of 36.
“If you research my career path, and you figure out where I started and where I am today, there’s no way you could potentially, possibly in your wildest dreams, project that I’d be sitting here in this position,” Williams said.
He came to Marquette to get out of New Orleans, which was still ravaged in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He came to be Tom Crean’s assistant, not guessing Crean would leave a year later for Indiana and he’d wind up as his replacement.
That was about the 10th change for Williams in a career that began modestly enough—sweeping floors at a junior college in Texas when he was 18 as a tradeoff for the coach letting him watch practices and learn the game.
It wound through places such as Oklahoma City, Kingsville, College Station, Natchitoches, Fort Collins.
“I first met him at the airport. I was tired. I’d been trying to fill that job for 29 days,” said Marquette assistant Dale Layer, who was putting together his own staff nine years ago when he got the head-coaching job at Colorado State. “I almost told him to go back home because he was talking too fast. But I needed to recruit Texas. I offered him the job, and I really grew to love him and appreciate him as a person.”
He is not your normal coach—won’t remind anyone of Dean Smith, John Thompson or even Al McGuire.
He has been described as obsessive, compulsive, a savant of sorts. It’s mainly because of his love of numbers and details and minutiae. He’s fond of starting practices at 6:37 on the dot, not 6:30; he carries dozens of scraps of papers in his pocket with thoughts and musings and tidbits. His shoes? Arranged in his closet by color. He has been head coach of Marquette for exactly 346 days, as he reminded reporters during his interview session Saturday.
“Probably not quite as ‘Rainman’ as you think,” Williams insists. “When you’re teaching 19, 20, 22-year-old young men about the game, I think any statistical evidence that you can give them to support the teaching, I think it gives them another perspective on how to better absorb and comprehend what you’re saying.”
But for a man who measures everything to the millisecond, bailing from that job in New Orleans sure seemed rash. He was going to take that program from nowhere to somewhere. Spend 1,000 or 1,150 days getting it on the map, then move to something bigger. That’s what the book would tell him to do, at least.
He doesn’t go into detail about why he left. Safe to say, though, that Katrina impacted a lot of people in ways they couldn’t expect. Williams has a wife and three kids, and he didn’t feel comfortable there anymore.
“We talked about it pretty much every day for a long time,” Layer said. “It was grueling for him. But in the end, that was a family-based decision. He did it, and he ended up in a pretty good place here. But it was a gut-wrenching decision for him.”
He won’t be the only coach on the court Sunday who has had to make tough choices.
Mike Anderson of Missouri was faced with what some might call a turning point—last January, after a handful of players had been present at a nightclub where a brawl broke out. Simply by being there, they had broken rules that had been clearly spelled out.
Anderson’s Big 12 record at Mizzou was 9-12 at that time. The school, once a perennial contender that was being wracked by NCAA problems, drunk-driving arrests, gun charges and coaching turnover, was heading toward its fifth straight year of missing the tournament.
Anderson suspended five players and turned a winnable game against Nebraska into a loss.
He never thought twice about it.
“I was hired to come in and win ballgames, I know that,” Anderson said. “I also was hired to, I guess, to clean a culture or to have a brand of basketball. To get kids educated, get kids to become productive citizens once they leave.”
He is doing all that. Missouri is back in the tournament this year based on the breakneck style Anderson learned playing and coaching for Nolan Richardson at Tulsa and Arkansas. That loss to Nebraska seems like decades ago, not just a year.
“From an acceptability standpoint, based on some things we’d been through, the general fan base probably accepted that even more than what they normally might have,” athletic director Mike Alden said. “They wanted to see that type of statement from our coaching staff, our program.”
What seemed like a tough choice really wasn’t so tough.
Williams can relate.
He took his chances and hoped for the best. So far, things are working out.
“I don’t know when it will end, but I think life is very fragile, and this business is really hard to get any job, much less a good job,” he said. “So I’m extremely thankful just to be where I’m at.”