Buzz Williams’ trip to Washington D.C. last week had nothing to do with recruiting. And, no, the Marquette coach wasn’t on a family vacation.
He was there to meet with a Christian author.
A series of books on prayer and leadership by Pastor Mark Batterson have so moved Williams that the coach wanted to speak with Batterson in person.
“I was with him for four hours [on Thursday],” Williams said. “He’s as unique of a leader under 45 that I’ve ever seen. As the next decade unfolds, I think he’s going to become world renown. I worked really hard to get to him.
“I just wanted to soak in some of his wisdom.”
Anyone who knows him wouldn’t be surprised that Williams went to such lengths to gain an audience with Batterson, as the Marquette coach is constantly trying to better himself on and off the court. It’s the main reason why Williams has won 96 games and reached the Sweet 16 twice in his four seasons with the Golden Eagles.
Williams took time over the weekend to answer a handful of questions from ESPN.com.
What are your thoughts on opening the season against Ohio State on an aircraft carrier -- especially after seeing North Carolina and Michigan State do it for the first time ever last year?
Buzz Williams: When I watched it last year, I watched with such great pride, because in some very small way, our game was able to do something for all of those that currently and in the past have fought for us to be in a position to even play a game like basketball. It had to have been an unbelievable experience not just for (North Carolina and Michigan State) but for all of the people who were there to cover it and watch it.
We were done with our schedule when they called Mike Broeker, our deputy AD who handles our administrative stuff. I’d just finished working out, and Mike called me and said, “Hey, I know our schedule is done, but what do you think about playing in this game?” I said, “Move heaven and earth to get it done.” He told me he didn’t know who the opponent was going to be, and I said, “I don’t care who it is. Let’s do it.” For our program and our players to be a part of something like that ... you just swell up with patriotic feelings. It’s going be awesome.
It definitely enhances an already-tough schedule. Last week they announced we were playing at Florida in the SEC-Big East Challenge. We’ll have the toughest non-conference schedule in the country. (Note: Marquette is also playing in the Maui Invitational and will take on Wisconsin and LSU in key non-conference games).
With West Virginia leaving the Big East this season and Pittsburgh and Syracuse following suit a year from now, what are your predictions for the future of the league?
BW: I’m not from this part of the country, so I don’t have the history that guys like Jim Boeheim and Jim Calhoun and Rick Pitino have. I don’t have that perspective. I wasn’t a part of the league when it changed seven years ago, but I remember on the outside looking in, it seemed like some of those changes were viewed as potentially catastrophic. I think there was a similar vibe then as there is now. I just don’t think people handle change very well. Regardless of your profession, change is hard. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s bad.
Look at what the league has done in the seven years since it’s changed. I think there have been eight No. 1 seeds, two national champions and 15 teams with NCAA tournament bids. Marquette has been a part of some of that. We’re proud to be associated with the Big East. I do have confidence that the presidents and ADs are more together as far as what they want to happen then they’ve maybe been in the past. I also don’t worry a lot about the things I can’t control. I love Dan Gavitt. I have a great respect for who he is. Because he’s a basketball guy through and through, and because of how he grew up at his dinner table ... he has a lens unlike anyone because he’s been associated with the league for so long. I have great faith in him and I think the interim [commissioner] will do a good job. The future will begin to take shape soon. But to spend a lot of time predicting how things are going to turn out is pointless. All I know is that, this year, it’s the same, minus West Virginia.
You lost two full-time assistants when Tony Benford took the head coaching job at North Texas and Aki Collins left to work for Josh Pastner at Memphis. How will that affect the chemistry you’ve created within your program?
BW: I think it’s so remarkable that we’ve been able to keep our core group together over the last four years. I’m extremely humbled that we have an institution that’s been committed to helping our program have the stability that it’s had. Tony Benford is more than deserving of an opportunity to be a head coach. I’m maybe just as proud that Tony has an opportunity to lead his own program as I am that Jae Crowder was player of the year and that Darius Johnson-Odom was the leading scorer in the Big East. He took Bart Lundy with him as a full-time assistant. Bart had been a head coach for 12 years and had been with us (as Director of Basketball Operations) for the last three. I’m happy for him. Aki has been a part of our staff from the very beginning. For him to have an opportunity to go be an assistant at another high-major program ... all of those things are symbols of having a successful program and other people recognizing that. I’m happy.
I don’t ever want to have a coach, an administrator or a trainer that doesn’t feel like he has ownership in our program or doesn’t feel like he’s growing or getting better. I never want anybody to feel like I’m trying to do anything but help foster growth. I’m the same way with our players. If we ever have a player who could be a first-round pick, even if they’re not through academically ... if that’s what his dream is, I feel like it’s my responsibility to help him foster growth within that dream. As assistant coaches you dream of having an opportunity to be a head coach. I’m excited at a very genuine, personal level, that the 96 wins we’ve had over the last four years helped those guys and helped their families.
After losing Crowder and Johnson-Odom, who will step into the leadership role for next season’s team?
BW: It’s so difficult to predict. When you look back at our tenure here, you never could predict who was going to be the next duo or the next threesome or whatever. Jae Crowder, just this last October, had never received one vote for honorable mention all-conference. Not one coach had ever voted for him. Six months later, he was named player of the year. When you go back to when I first got the job, Dominic James, Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews, the Three Amigos ... those guys were going to win even if Andy Katz was coaching the team.
You enter Year 2, and no one thought we were going to be any good. We were picked No. 12 in the Big East in the preseason. We started 5-foot-7 Mo Acker, 5-9 David Cubillan and 6-5 Lazar Hayward at the five. Lazar was a first-round draft pick. Our third year here, our team was comprised of two recruiting classes, and we went to the Sweet 16 and Jimmy Butler ended up being a first-round pick. Jimmy Butler, as a high school senior, was ranked No. 82 in the state of Texas in the postseason. Not the preseason, but the postseason. The guy who was ranked 81 went to the Citadel and No. 83 guy went to Tarleton. Jimmy, four years later, was the 30th pick by the Chicago Bulls. So you just never know who is going to step up.
D.J. and Jae had such an incredible impact on our team, and not just because of points and rebounds. They had an incredible impact because they’d been a part of our culture and they were a great daily example of what we’re about. So who is going to be that guy, or those guys, this year? Is it going to be Junior Cadougan? Is it going to be Vander Blue or Jamil Wilson? Can Chris Otule and Davante Gardner stay healthy? I think Trent Lockett gives us some experience. He gives us some stability that only a guy who has been what he’s been through over the last three years of his life can give us.
Back to Jamil Wilson, I think he may have been one of the reasons we went on the run we went on last season when we were playing with a lineup of guys 6-7 and under. But nobody wanted to say that. All anyone wanted to ask was, “Hey, when are your big guys going to be healthy?” Maybe I read Herm Edwards’ book too many times, but I thought you were supposed to play to win. We were winning. I guess I just look at things differently.
I love the guys we have returning and I love the guys we signed. I think Steve Taylor is really, really good. In his high school career, his record was 95-4 (at Chicago’s Simeon Career Academy). He won three consecutive state championships. He’s gained 42 pounds since he signed a national letter of intent with us. I think he’s a really, really good player. And I think he’s an even better person. We still have one scholarship available. We may sign somebody else before we get to the fall. Who are the guys going to be? I don’t know. But no one knew it was going to be D.J. or Jae last year.