On March 30, 1999, Marquette introduced a 33-year-old former Michigan State assistant as its new coach. Tom Crean's meteoric rise in the profession, in large part, could be traced to his ability to recruit.
The Golden Eagles followed their own road map last month when they promoted assistant Brent "Buzz" Williams to replace Crean, who had departed for Indiana. Williams, 35, is known as a top-notch recruiter who works tirelessly in searching for talent and securing player commitments.
BUZZ WILLIAMS FILE
Name: Buzz Williams.
Head coaching record: 14-17 in one season at New Orleans (2006-07).
Other coaching stops as assistant: Navarro College (1990-92), Oklahoma City (1992-94), Texas-Arlington (1994-98), Texas A&M-Kingsville (1998-99), Northwestern State (1999-2000), Colorado State (2000-04), Texas A&M (2004-06), Marquette (2007-08).
Notes: Texas native has major recruiting ties in the state. … Spent two seasons under Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M. … Recently hired Dale Layer as an assistant; Layer was the coach he worked for during his years at Colorado State.
Is Williams, to borrow a baseball analogy, the home run Marquette fans expected? At this point, he appears to be a foul tip. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran an online poll when Williams was hired April 7. The poll asking if Williams was the "right choice" received more than 7,500 votes – and more than 72 percent of respondents answered no.
"I think the general public might see it that way (as a risky hire)," Marquette athletic director Steve Cottingham told Rivals.com. "My view is it's a much greater risk to hire somebody based on the popular opinion. There wasn't a risk in hiring Buzz because we know what he can do and know what he's going to do. It would have been easy to settle for a name on somebody else's list."
"We did our job in terms of looking at people we thought would be interested and would be the right fit," Cottingham said. "That's all part of doing your due diligence. Buzz emerged pretty quickly as a strong candidate."
His recruiting prowess was a major factor.
"Recruiting is a huge part," Cottingham said. "You have to get in talented players who will succeed academically. He's driven, hungry and willing to work relentlessly to move the program forward."
If Golden Eagles fans are underwhelmed with Cottingham's choice, it's because there isn't much to go on. Williams had been on Crean's staff for just one season after a one-year stint as the head coach at New Orleans. Before that, he spent two seasons as an assistant to Billy Gillispie at Texas A&M after four seasons as an assistant at Colorado State.
His one season in charge of the Privateers resulted in a messy divorce. The team went 14-17, and Williams left for Marquette. He filed a lawsuit against UNO, alleging the school "was either unwilling or unable to provide even the basic necessities for a competitive men's collegiate basketball program." Now he has landed the top job at Marquette, where support for basketball is not a problem.
"I'm very humbled, very grateful, really excited," Williams said. "I'm grateful for my wife and children that they have a place they can become more settled than they ever have been in their entire life."
Seven of the past nine Marquette head coaches have lasted at least five years. Williams signed a six-year contract; financial terms were not disclosed by the private school. He is the 16th head man in Marquette history.
MORE BUZZ: More famous figures named Buzz
Buzz Aldrin: Astronaut, second person to set foot on the moon.
Buzz Bissinger: Author of "Friday Night Lights."
Buzz Capra: Went 16-8 for the Atlanta Braves in 1974 with 11 complete games.
Buzz Lightyear: "Star" of the Disney Toy Story movies.
He inherits a team with high expectations. Dominic James chose not to enter his name in the NBA Draft, so he will return for his final season. If leading scorer Jerel McNeal also returns – he has entered his name in the draft but has not retained an agent – the Golden Eagles will receive preseason top-10 consideration in a loaded Big East.
"We want him (McNeal) to do all he can do to get as much intelligence to put himself in the best position," Williams said. "If he puts himself in position to be a first-round pick, he needs to go. If he learns in the next 30 days lessons that will be beneficial and put him in a better position next year, he needs to listen and make sure he can learn from it.
"Dominic … I feel the same way. Both of those guys are good players. I want the program to be about our players. I don't want to be selfish. I don't want to hinder those guys' dreams."
For the time being, their dreams of a deep run in the NCAA Tournament are intertwined. With or without McNeal, James will be a key for the Golden Eagles. His freshman season in Milwaukee has been his best, when he averaged 15.3 points and 5.4 assists, shot 43.1 percent and his explosiveness had the attention of NBA scouts. His numbers have declined steadily since, to 12.9 points, 4.4 assists and 39.8 percent shooting this past season.
At least James said he's content with the decision to replace Crean with Williams. "(The administration) chose what was best for our team and I'm very happy with the decision that they made," he said. "Him being here last year, having him have a feel for this team and university, I feel like this was a big decision and I feel like he is going to complement us in so many different ways."
Williams said he hasn't settled on exactly what he'll run offensively or defensively. He has some general ideas, but he'd prefer to have more time to evaluate.
"I don't think that it's fair with the complexion of our team in May to say this will be the way we play," Williams said. "Winning is my style. Whatever best helps us win. We want to pressure the ball on defense, make teams not take a good shot. Offensively we want to take the first good shot we can take. … We have really good perimeter players. We will be very perimeter-oriented in what we do."
Cottingham believes some coaches shied away from the job because of the relative strength of the Big East. Maybe he's exaggerating, but who could blame a coach if he did? The conference easily should be the toughest in the nation next season. Six Big East teams can be found in the top 15 of Rivals.com's post-NBA early entry preseason top 25, with Marquette at No. 19.
Even though he's a first-year coach in the league Williams doesn't figure he'll be able to sneak up on anybody.
"I think if you were to study all of the coaches in the league, every single head coach has won more games in their career than I have," Williams said. "Nothing I will do will surprise them.
"It's an unbelievable league. So many good teams, so much depth on those teams. It's so populated with great players and Hall of Fame coaches every time you turn around. You have to give your absolute best every day in preparation, in practice, for each and every game."
Williams, and for that matter Cottingham, will be under intense scrutiny over the next couple of years. The real test will be 2009-10, Williams' second season. Not only will it be uncharted territory for him, he'll be without James, McNeal and Wesley Matthews, who will all be seniors this season. He'd better be every bit the recruiter Cottingham believes he is if the Golden Eagles are going to remain among the Big East's elite.
"Even during the season, it became clear to me he'd be a high-major coach," Cottingham said. "I just didn't expect it would be at Marquette."
Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.