Buzz Williams arrived at Virginia Tech at a pep rally, introduced to a fan base starved for success at a press conference/party at Cassell Coliseum that had all the trappings of an announcement that the circus was coming to town.
And, in many ways, it was.
The crowd that day cheered as Williams told them about his journey from being an NAIA player at Texas-Arlington to landing his first coaching gig at Texas A&M Kingsville after spending hours at the 1994 Final Four handing out résumés to any coach who would take them.
Fans in Blacksburg aren’t celebrating today, as Williams announced he will leave the Hokies to become the head coach at Texas A&M.
But they should be, at least, celebrating what Williams did in his short tenure in southwest Virginia.
Williams raised eyebrows around college basketball when he left Marquette, which he had helped make an NCAA tournament regular, to take over the last-place Hokies. Then, he raised more eyebrows when — in his second season at Tech — he authored the greatest one-year improvement in ACC history.
That season ended in the NIT, the next three in the NCAA tournament. It’s the only time in Virginia Tech’s program’s history it reached the big dance three years in a row.
Williams was no favorite of local media. He was habitually late for postgame press conferences, often ambling into the media room 40-45 minutes after games. He was one of the ACC’s least accessible coaches for local beat writers, and his propensity for insulting the people who covered his program around the commonwealth — often on his weekly and postgame radio shows — should have been beneath a coach of his stature.
But to argue with the job he did in Blacksburg would be a fool’s errand.
Williams took the program from depressingly irrelevant to one capable of hanging with the ACC’s big boys.
He beat Duke three times in his tenure with the Hokies and nearly a fourth victory over the Blue Devils last weekend, falling 75-73 in the Sweet 16.
Williams ends his tenure with 100 wins in five years and four straight seasons of at least 20 wins and 10 conference wins. He leaves a complicated legacy.
Williams was fond of crediting his humble upbringings and bootstrap ascension through the coaching profession for the grittiness of his teams, though he was unwilling to share many details of the former and tales of the latter sometimes bordered on cliché.
He was at his most genuine working with his charity, Buzz’s Bunch, connecting with disabled children through basketball.
As Williams leaves, he leaves Tech in far more positive place than when he arrived. The school should be able to attract high-level candidates and has a chance to continue its growth. But it’s not a turn-key situation.
Williams’ work in Blacksburg wasn’t complete, in that regard. The senior class — Ahmed Hill, Ty Outlaw and Justin Robinson — who fueled this year’s run to the Sweet 16, won’t be easy to replace. Sophomore wing Nickeil Alexander-Walker is likely to leave as well, a probable first-round NBA draft pick if he declares.
And when he left Marquette — similarly, after six seasons — he took a number of his recruits with him, most notably Hill.
Will any of Williams’ current players request to follow him to College Station?
Will any of the four recruits he signed for next year — a group that includes Paul VI four-star point guard Anthony Harris — ask to be released from their letters of intent?
And how quickly will Tech athletics director Whit Babcock move to hire Williams’ successor?
It’s not like the move caught Babcock off guard. Since Day 1, Williams has crafted a brand — with his Team Coach Buzz and Get Better hashtags — that had little to do with Virginia Tech and were easily portable to his next destination.
Now, Team Coach Buzz will try to help Texas A&M get better. And Virginia Tech will have to plan its next introductory pep rally.