‘Weird’ Buzz Williams begins slow and steady rebuild of Virginia Tech

Buzz Williams stunned the college basketball world when he left Marquette to take over as head coach at Virginia Tech last March, but he's got his new team buying what he's selling so far.

When Buzz Williams saw the results of the ACC media’s preseason predictions for the 2014-15 season, he took a picture of it on his phone and texted it to his players. Virginia Tech was picked last, and with a bullet, too.

"It’s not necessarily to fire them up, it’s just this is what (the media) said. ‘Sorry I’m not there to tell you in person, but here I just took a picture,’ and that’s where we’re at," Williams said.

Nowhere to go but up, right?

"We got 155 votes and (projected first-place finisher) Duke got 935, so the potential to outperform what the expectations are, obviously we have multiple opportunities to do that because we were picked dead last," Williams said.

Williams was well aware of what he was getting into when he signed on to be the head coach at Virginia Tech, leaving behind a Marquette program that he had built into one of the nation’s more consistent programs. Marquette missed the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in his tenure, but it wasn’t by much.

Virginia Tech, meanwhile, has not finished with a winning record since 2011 and is now on its third head coach since 2012. Seth Greenberg was let go unexpectedly after his first season under .500 (16-17), and his former assistant James Johnson took over, only to go 22-41 and get let go after last season.

To call Virginia Tech an ACC bottom-dweller, particularly with the tumult surrounding that program, would be kind. Particularly with the most recent new additions to the league making life that much more difficult for the Hokies.

For the sake of perspective — Williams, just 42, has won more NCAA Tournament games (8) than Virginia Tech has won ACC games in the last two seasons combined (6).

Williams went into this with eyes wide open, though. He knows that people think it’s weird that he took the job — this job, of all the jobs the young and talented coach could have taken.

"I think in some ways, I am weird," Williams said. "But I believe in the weirdness."

Junior guard Adam Smith admitted he didn’t know all that much about Williams at first. All of a sudden after his hiring, his phone started blowing up with texts from family members and friends, raving about their new head coach.

He did his research and quickly learned of Williams’ bonafides.

"He definitely had the credentials. It’s like, he’s been there and he knows what it takes. He knows what it takes to get to where our team and players are trying to get to," Smith said. "So we were very excited at that aspect."

Williams was aware of what the team had been through — losing seasons, coaching changes and the like. But that was all he really wanted to know.

He met with his new team for the first time on a Saturday morning in Blacksburg, and he told them that he wouldn’t look at tape of last season or any other season. He wanted them to have a fresh start.

"I don’t know honestly if I’ve handled it the right way because I’ve never had to do it," Williams said. "I just tried to build a relationship with each kid, with their families, at a level that their families are comfortable with. Same as what you do when you’re recruiting them."

He’s simultaneously both a good cop and a bad cop to his players, a disciplinarian who demands excellence on the one hand, but a goofy, dancing machine who often brings his children to practice to provide encouragement on the other. 

Over the summer, the players went through individual workouts with Williams’ assistants, and those set the tone for what was to come. The staff demanded high energy and intensity. When asked if it was significantly different from what they were used to, Smith and his teammate at ACC Media Days Will Johnston looked at each other, and smiled.

"Uh, yeah," Johnston said.

Williams’ favorite part of the preseason was certainly something new — boot camp. It started in September, before practice officially began, and it was basically a nearly two-week program of training. But there was no basketball involved. Like, literally. It was in the gym, but there were no shooting drills, no scrimmages, no basketballs at all.

Even Williams is somewhat secretive about what it entailed. Essentially, it was a series of physical exercises that they had to complete as a team. Every player had to complete each task before they could move on to the next task. And there was a bell off to the side that a player can ring at any time to quit a session.

The bell did not ring. 

And the part about every drill being completed was not a joke, as the players learned.

"We started at 6 a.m. one morning and didn’t get out until about 12:20 (p.m.)," Smith said.

"We were expecting like oh, we’ll probably get out like 8, 8:30 like the other boot camp sessions. But we weren’t getting what we needed to get done, and that’s one of the things he’s big on," Johnston said. "If you’re not completing one thing, you can’t move on to the next. He was like ‘we’ll literally be in here all day until 10 p.m.’ We were just like ‘oh my gosh, this is crazy.’"

"At that point you’re like, ‘He’s not bluffing,’ because we’ve already been in here for six hours. So 10 at night, that’s nothing, that’s legit," Smith said.

"Honestly, when he said 10 p.m., I was like, ‘Good, there’s a set time we have to be done,’" Johnson said. "That was a crazy day. Six hours."

It might sound draconian or even cruel.

But to Williams, it’s just the opposite. He’s a big believer in his way of doing things, however "weird" the might seem to some, because he believes that they work. And he believes that he’s doing ultimately what’s best for his players individually and collectively.

His players at Marquette were known for being gritty and tough, and that’s what he’s trying to build at Virginia Tech. And it’s one reason he’s not setting any goals in terms of number of wins or benchmarks he wants the program to reach just yet.

"I don’t pick captains. Everybody needs to be a leader — a leader of something — regardless of your title, regardless of your age," Williams said. "I think when you start trying to put numbers to things, it could potentially limit you. I don’t want to be limited. So I think there’s a place for goals, but within the team structure, the goal needs to be we need to get better. That’s coachspeak, but that’s also the truth. If you don’t get better, whatever it is you think you’re supposed to do, you won’t do."

There’s a video of the boot camp, Smith said, that depicts the experience under Williams perfectly — the first three minutes show the hard work, the sweat and the pain that they put into it. The last three minutes, with Pharrell’s "Happy" playing, show the team laughing and joking around, having a little fun between sessions and generally being goofy.

The shared experiences that Williams has created for this relatively new group have helped create what Williams built at Marquette — a family atmosphere.

A lot of coaches talk about that. Talk is cheap, if you ask Williams. And it starts with his own family as the example.

"I think that a lot of coaches, a lot of leaders in all walks of business say ‘this is a family.’ I think a lot of people believe that," Williams said. "It’s just really important to me that I’m famous in my home, regardless of my success or whatever success is on or off the floor. I want to make sure that I’m the husband and father that I’m supposed to be.

"So my kids are around our players a lot, and I did want them to meet my wife, and I did want them to meet our four children. … I think that’s what you’re supposed to do. Instead of just saying it, you want to be about it. I think that’s what all successful people do in any walk of life."

Johnston said that this is the closest team that he’s ever been on, what with pulling each other through boot camp and just the general bond that Williams has helped foster in his own unique way.

He may not be sure if he’s treating this team — a squad that’s been through so much on the court and needs to be rebuilt — the right way. But his players seem to think he’s got the perfect approach. And his energy is already rebuilding them.

"I would say like it’s just kind of like a mentality of his. Just the way he coaches, it was kind of instilled in us from there. It kind of just rubbed off on us," Smith said.

"We just put everything in the past and like I said, he’s been there. He knows what it takes. For us to be successful, everyone had to buy in, including everyone who was left, the new players, his coaching staff of course. I think it kind of just rubbed off on us."