MILWAUKEE — When student-athletes sign letters of intent, they may be officially aligning themselves with particular institutions, but that’s not what’s running through their minds when pens are put to paper.
They’re committing to a coach.
Marquette University has scored arguably the best class in school history for 2013, and the five recruits — a class ranked seventh in the nation by Scout.com — all have committed to Buzz Williams.
Four-star players Jajuan Johnson, Duane Wilson, Deonte Burton and Jameel McKay, as well as unranked guard John Dawson all saw something special in the man who has had to earn his way to the top the hard way.
“Anything he does, he has a passion for it, even if it is not coaching,” said Wilson, a 6-foot-2 point guard from Whitefish Bay Dominican in the Milwaukee area. “He never really talked to me about basketball. All of our talks were never really about basketball because he told me he already knew what I could do on the court. It was more about life with him. That really stood out to me.”
Top college recruits hear from countless coaches during the course of their courtship, and Wilson saying Williams is unlike any other coach he encountered is more than just talk.
“Most coaches talk about how would you fit in their program,” Wilson said. “With Coach Buzz, it was all like, what would I be doing 20 years from now? Just life lessons and stuff like that.
“Buzz is probably the most different coach I’ve ever seen. His passion for his players is incredible. I’ve never seen a coach be that passionate about his players, basketball and family.”
Johnson, who is the highest-ranked (41st, according to Scout.com) and last member of the class to commit, said his relationship with Williams and assistant coach Isaac Chew was the reason behind his decision to sign with the Golden Eagles.
“Just how real he was,” said Johnson, a 6-foot-5 guard from Southwind High School in Memphis. “He wasn’t sugarcoating anything. He would tell you everything honestly. I love that about him.
“He just wasn’t about basketball, he was about life. He wasn’t talking to me about basketball, he was talking to me about the experiences he had with the players off the court, not just on the court.”
The focal point of Williams’ recruiting style, as well as his coaching style, is family. He’s in constant contact with the families of current players and involves family members heavily in the recruitment of prospective players.
And it’s not just an act. In fact, one of his biggest recruiting tools is his former players. They’ve sold incoming recruits on the idea that Williams after the sale is the same as the guy who meets their parents during the recruiting process.
“I actually have a good relationship with Jae (Crowder) and Darius (Johnson-Odom) and they text me all the time and they tell me how Buzz was,” Wilson said of last year’s star players. “He stuck with them during the times they were in junior college and people didn’t think they would be able to qualify. Most people would have left, but Buzz was always there for them.”
Wilson and Burton, a 6-foot-4 forward from Milwaukee Vincent, both go to high school in the Milwaukee area. McKay, a 6-foot-8 forward, attended high school in the city at Pulaski before heading off to junior college. With the talent level in Milwaukee growing, the trio sensed it could help Williams and Marquette begin to put a wall around the city.
That hasn’t been the case in recent years. The last high school player from the Milwaukee area to commit to Marquette was Steve Novak back in 2002. Dwight Buycks came back to the city from junior college in 2009, but that’s it.
“That was a big part of my decision,” Wilson said. “This is something new. I actually talked to Deonte and Jameel, we all talked about how it would be something new if all three of us stayed home in Milwaukee and just represented the city. We all put our efforts into it and decided that we should all do it together.”
While the core of the class has Milwaukee ties, the cherry on top came from out of state. Wilson grew close to Johnson when they were roommates at the Nike Global Challenge last summer.
Ever since, Wilson, Burton and McKay have been pestering Johnson and his family with daily texts and phone calls, trying to convince him to head north from Memphis. The persistence paid off when Johnson committed.
Unlike the trio of locals, Johnson has a different goal in coming to Marquette: He wants to help grow the national brand of the school.
“In my hometown, people have already started looking at Marquette differently now that I’ve committed there,” Johnson said. “All the good players from Memphis always go to Memphis. What they are doing now isn’t turning out too good. I’m hoping that me going out to Marquette will get others to come to Marquette.”
The question now is whether this top recruiting class is a one-time strike or something that will become a tradition in the Williams era.
Wilson and Johnson feel they are just the beginning of something special. Back-to-back appearances in the Sweet 16 as well as watching Williams develop non-prospects into NBA players encouraged them to believe he can do bigger things with more talent, which eventually will lead to classes like this consistently.
As the university prepares to leave the Big East, Williams admitted the uncertainty of Marquette’s conference affiliation has come up in recruiting, but he believes it’s a minor factor when it comes to a player making a decision.
“How you eat, where you live, how you train, who your coaches are, the commitment level of how you travel, your academic support, academic support on the road, those are the things,” Williams said. “Because in the end, in the very end, all the hype and what they are rated, who else is recruiting them, where they’ve visited, all of this stuff sounds right and exposure is important and development is important and style of play is important. But at the very end, those moms and dads have to sign a legal document, and when they sign it, what they are saying is that I trust you with my baby. That’s it.”
He understands, as a parent himself, how important relationships are between the head coach and the family.
“You aren’t going to let your son go play golf unless you believe in who that golf coach is as a human being, period,” Williams said. “And you aren’t going to let him go play golf at whatever institution unless you believe that institution is committed to him as a human and as a student. When you get to that point, that’s where decisions are made.
“Are you going to miss on some kids, three months before, six months before, because the recruiting is dirty, because you are too far away from home or because I holler and scream and we play too hard? Yes. Are you going to miss on some kids because you are only on TV once a week instead of twice a week? Maybe so. But once you sift through all of that and you get down to the core of it, you are talking about people’s lives.
“When you get past all of those hurdles you are making a life decision. You aren’t making a basketball decision, small decisions in their sphere of influence that contribute to making a decision based on parents and as kids that are best for their life.”
The hard work Williams has poured into the job has shown not only on the court but off it. Can Marquette annually rank among the top destinations for recruits in the country? Only time will tell.
Kevon Looney, the sixth-ranked player in the class of 2014, and Diamond Stone, the best player in the nation from the class of 2015, play high school basketball in MU’s backyard.
Though Wilson will keep working on his close friend and high school teammate Stone, Johnson has a way to send a message loud and clear to top prospects.
“When we go down there and start winning (players will come),” Johnson said. “Players want to go somewhere where there’s winning. When we go there and start winning, Marquette is going to get a lot of players.”