Gruman: Williams lost his fire at Marquette

Marquette head coach Buzz Williams seemed distant and frustrated late in his final season with Marquette, which ended with a loss to Xavier in the quarterfinals of the Big East Conference tournament on March 13.

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With a couple chants of "Hokie, Hokie, Hokie, Hi," Buzz Williams looked like he was having fun again. Fun is something the now former Marquette coach didn’t have a whole heck of a lot of this past season.

Introduced like a rock star to the Virginia Tech faithful at a press conference that felt more like a pep rally, Williams had the spotlight squarely on him, and he was eating it up. Just the way he likes it.

He displayed the personality Marquette supporters and many others have fallen for over the past six years.  Williams used lines and phrases he’s recycled countless times before, but the biggest thing I took from Monday was the fire that was back inside of him.

It only took him screaming, "LET’S GO!"  twice to see it. 

My last interaction with Williams came after Marquette’s final home game. Killing time before the Bucks game that night, I crossed paths with Williams and his wife, Corey, while they were walking out of the BMO Harris Bradley Center for what turned out to be the final time.

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There wasn’t any kind of greeting. Just a look of exhaustion from both as they tried to get out of the building. Not that I expected to have any kind of conversation after a frustrating loss, but it was so unlike Williams to say nothing.

It was just another example of how Williams just wasn’t himself all year long. He was distant. He wasn’t available to the local media outside of after games from Jan. 2 on. At the time I felt it had to do with the losing and underachieving; maybe he was sick of the people questioning his rotations and wondering what was going wrong.

There was one particular rant that stands out. Williams went off on the critics, saying he’s never received more text messages, calls and e-mails in his career than he did last year, mostly questioning what he was doing. The man who loved to be appreciated wasn’t feeling the love.

Hindsight is always tricky, but it was clear that was bothering him. The possibility of Williams leaving actually felt real. But to Virginia Tech? Nobody saw that coming. Sure, the ACC is appealing, but Williams has a heck of a job in front of him to just make the Hokies competitive in a league filled with traditional powers.

We’ll never know the real reason why Williams was looking to get out of Milwaukee. Rumors will swirl forever, but he’s too smart to ever really answer the question. It could have been the lack of an athletic director and president, but it might not have been. Nobody knows but Williams. 

"I have absolutely zero, zero negative things to say at all about Marquette," Williams said when asked why he left a successful program for one that is at the bottom right now. "I have zero negative things to say about the city of Milwaukee. I have zero negative things to say about anybody that would be, have been or was my superiors. The older I have gotten in this business, I’ve tried to stay away from the media because I believe there’s already a slant on the story and I didn’t say those words.

"That community and institution literally graced us and wrapped our arms around us. I will never forget and always cherish the basketball portion of it because that program was built long before I was there, and they are going to have ultra-level success now that I’m gone because that is engineered to be successful.

"The slant of your story as you wait on my quote to plug it in is, ‘How did you turn this?’ That fires me up. That excites me. That engages me."

Credit to Mark Berman of the Roanoke Times for pushing Williams further when he didn’t answer his question.

Berman followed up with, "Again, why did you leave one job for the other? I didn’t pick up, why did you want to leave Marquette?"

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"For the challenge, for what I said," Williams replied.

Maybe it’s reading between the lines a bit too much, but I take that as he wants to be remembered for building a program. Williams has a chance to do that at Virginia Tech, while he never would be the architect of Marquette basketball.

Like Bret Bielema leaving Wisconsin football for Arkansas, Williams is taking a big risk by leaving a comfortable situation for a job that could backfire a few years down the road. But the reward is also huge if he’s wanting credit for taking a program from the bottom to the top.

Williams is a good coach. He had great success at Marquette, but a statue of Buzz Williams never was going to replace the one of Al McGuire on campus. There’s a much better chance of him becoming the Al McGuire of Virginia Tech basketball.

That’s just one of many ways the surprising departure of Williams can be looked at. Marquette is going to be just fine without Buzz. He’s right in saying the program is set up to succeed, and the school is going to attract a fine coach.

There should be no sour grapes with Williams. He went where he wanted to be, and where he’s going to be appreciated for now. He would love to be thought of as a savior, as the guy who brought Hokies basketball to relevance. I’m not going to question that possibility, because I believe he can do it.

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