Buzz Williams' Texas A&M challenge: 'I still think that I have an edge'

In his first year at Texas A&M, can Buzz Williams pull off another rebuilding act? Courtesy Texas A&M Athletics

COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- Buzz Williams was not Dale Layer's kind of guy.

It was the spring of 2000, and Layer, the newly appointed head coach at Colorado State, was trying to piece together a staff. Williams, then an assistant coach at Northwestern State, was a passenger in Layer's car en route from the airport. The first part of their interview was off to a rocky start.

"Buzz was talking too fast and I was like, 'I don't like this guy,'" Layer says. "Literally, a couple times during that drive, I almost said, 'Let's just go back to the airport.'"

But as their meeting continued, Williams' organizational skills and vision began to outweigh his awkward delivery.

Layer wanted to recruit in Texas. Williams had an entire notebook titled "Why Texas?" He'd dissected the state into five geographic sections, complete with a list of prospects from each region and the coaches connected to those players.

"He was very convincing," says Layer, now a Texas A&M special assistant who, 19 years since that first meeting, has called Williams his boss at three different schools. "Best hire I've ever made."

It's a familiar story. Folks meet Williams. They can't quite figure out what to make of him. Then they develop a relationship -- a progression that has been consistently true with young players of varied backgrounds.

"I'm going to tell you something about him," says Texas A&M assistant Joe Fulce, who played for Williams at Marquette (and introduced him to a junior college teammate named Jimmy Butler). "And this is real. He takes care of brothers, man. He takes care of brothers."

After he spent five seasons transforming Virginia Tech from an ACC doormat into a national contender, Williams signed on at Texas A&M in April and found himself confronting a different, higher-stakes version of the question "Why Texas?"

And while the stories of his organizational obsessiveness are legendary, it's relationships with players -- many of whom have not followed a clear path to the highest level of college basketball -- that will make or break the native Texan's effort to elevate the Aggies from the bottom of the SEC.

"Not only do I understand their path, their story," Williams says of those who've taken a circuitous route, "but there's a little bit of a kindred spirit in that they understand my story. I love those stories. I cheer for those guys. ... I'm best with those guys. Having said that, they're best with me too."

Jerel McNeal, the leading scorer in Marquette history, couldn't figure him out. Williams, then an assistant under Tom Crean, would always pick on someone at practice. And "every other day," according to McNeal, it would be him.

"Jerel, why can't you get a rebound?!" Williams would yell.

McNeal would get angry. "You almost want to tell him, like, 'Shut up,'" he says.

But their relationship grew as Williams opened up about his life. He had hurdles he had to overcome. McNeal and his teammates could relate to that. They also loved his energy, which was fueled by the 32-ounce mug of sweet tea Williams consumed every day.

"He's a grinder," McNeal says. "He's an absolute grinder."

McNeal says he trusts Williams today because of one conversation they had at the Al McGuire Center in Milwaukee following the 2007-08 season, when McNeal was thinking about entering the NBA draft. Williams asked McNeal to list his best qualities. McNeal, then 20 years old and with Big East Defensive Player of the Year and other honors on his résumé, had a long list of talents he believed would lead him to success at the next level. Williams told him he was wrong.

"He looked me in my eyes and he said, 'You're really not that talented, and you ain't that athletic like some of these other NBA guys,'" McNeal says.

McNeal stayed in college for his senior year, establishing a Marquette career scoring record that still stands. He played briefly in the NBA and has forged a long professional career overseas, crediting Williams with giving him the honest assessment he needed to make him a better and more serviceable player.

"That changed our relationship as well, because he was one of the first people who cared wholeheartedly about me to tell me the honest truth," McNeal says. "He'll take you in an empty room, look you in the eye and tell you what he thinks, even if it makes you want to beat him up. I've heard him say it before: 'You can probably kick my ass, but so what?' Those are the ones that truly care."

At Van Alstyne High School, about an hour north of Dallas, there are no statues of Williams or plaques commemorating his greatness. He wasn't a high school superstar.

The legend of Williams really began on the day he left home following his high school graduation, when he accepted a role as an assistant coach/team manager at Navarro Junior College.

He didn't have any coaching ties. He didn't have any relatives who could open the door for him. He just had a dream.

"Nobody necessarily ever told me that I could, but nobody ever told me I couldn't," he says. "And as I've gotten older, I think the value of somebody telling me I couldn't do it maybe was just as important as somebody telling me I could. And here's why: Nobody put a ceiling on me but nobody put a floor on me either. So it was the mantra of, 'You get what you earn.'"

The rest of the story has been chronicled plenty. He toiled as a student assistant at Navarro (where coach Lewis Orr gave the former Brent Williams the nickname "Buzz" in tribute to his energy) and Oklahoma City University, prior to a steady climb through the assistant ranks at UT Arlington, Texas A&M-Kingsville and Northwestern State.

"My trajectory in my career is atypical in every sense of the word. There's no way that you could have ever predicted that I would have had the opportunities that I've had, including this one."
Buzz Williams

The first big break came under Layer at Colorado State, and then he went on to his first stint at Texas A&M as an assistant to Billy Gillispie from 2004-2006. A head-coaching opportunity was next at New Orleans, which Williams left after one season to become an assistant under Crean at Marquette (UNO, still recovering from the impact of Hurricane Katrina, was undergoing major resource challenges at the time). Williams took over head-coaching duties after Crean departed for Indiana, and Williams' time coaching the Golden Eagles included five NCAA appearances in six seasons and three trips to the second weekend. He made three more NCAA trips in five seasons at Virginia Tech. Now, at age 46, he's back in College Station after a flirtation between school and coach that seemed months in the making.

"My trajectory in my career is atypical in every sense of the word," Williams said upon his introduction in April. "There's no way that you could have ever predicted that I would have had the opportunities that I've had, including this one."

In some ways, Texas A&M figures to be his deepest challenge, at a school where football is the clear and undisputed king and in a league with six Final Four coaches (John Calipari, Bruce Pearl, Frank Martin, Ben Howland, Rick Barnes, Tom Crean) and two top-five preseason teams (Kentucky, Florida) with which to contend. Early SEC predictions for 2019-20 have the Aggies uniformly in the league's second division. He's going to need some time.

In spite of that, Williams will not dismiss the notion of this program as an eventual national championship contender, which is saying something at a school that has never advanced beyond the Sweet 16.

"I think all of the foundation is in place," he said upon his introduction. "The facilities -- I haven't been to every place in the country, but I would say that these facilities are as good as anywhere in the country. I think that this league speaks for itself not just from the basketball category that we were speaking of earlier, but all of athletics. I think this state is heavily populated with really, really good players that have been coached at a very high level at a young age. So I think all of the ingredients may be a recipe to advance in the NCAA tournament and have a chance to play the first weekend in April."

College Station may not be totally foreign to Buzz Williams, but it has changed quite a bit since he left in 2006.

A coach known for his meticulous preparation, he finds himself lost while trying to locate the venue for his high school-age son's basketball practice.

"Hey, Coach," Williams says to someone on the phone. "I'm here in the parking lot but I can't seem to find the place."

Another U-turn on the sprawling campus scrambles his GPS, which continues to reroute him.

Soon, Williams will find himself multitasking, trying to literally find his way while simultaneously reassuring a nervous teen.

Calvin "Bubba" Williams is making the transition from Blacksburg along with his dad and three siblings. The 15-year-old is about to play in a pickup game with some new teammates, if his dad ever finds the gym.

"Man, I'm nervous," Bubba tells his father.

Williams looks at his son in his rearview mirror.

"You don't have to be nervous," Williams says. "You're just going to shoot around a little bit. It'll be OK."

Bubba seems to relax just a little when hearing Buzz's words. Those who've connected with Williams cite the value he places on relationships as the key to his success and his future at Texas A&M. When Orr, the former Navarro College coach, advised Williams to build ties to the coaches he met as a young assistant, he listened.

"He told me, 'You know, every coach you meet, you need to establish a relationship with them,' so every coach I met, I would just ask them for their business card and then I wrote them a handwritten note every week the rest of my college career," Williams said. "Because that's what my coach told me to do, not because I was like, 'I have this master plan.'"

But Williams didn't have any cash for postage. So he figured out the mailman's routine, and asked the secretary at Navarro if she'd mail the letters for him every week. In exchange, he promised her son a free spot in a local basketball camp.

"The mailman became my friend," Williams said. "And the secretaries on campus, they became my friends. All of them. Now, only 5% of those coaches wrote me back ..."

Once his son exits the vehicle, Williams drives toward the Texas A&M campus. In his office, he has a color-coordinated calendar that is set months in advance. It features a list of the people he calls every day.

"I probably have an edge to me and for a portion of my career, if I were being transparent, I would say that it was an edge to prove that I belonged."
Buzz Williams

His mission today is to form a relationship with the planner who will help Williams redo his office. Soon, the furniture and layout will be new. And, if his plan is realized, the culture of the program will be, too.

The otherworldly attention to detail will be on display -- "When you go into the office to talk to him, you're interrupting something. You feel a little nervous about getting him off track," says Layer -- but so will the sense of connection.

For his part, Williams recognizes the tension between the personal idiosyncrasies and the human bond. You could argue that the blend has fueled his success, with that awkward meeting with his boss-turned-employee Layer 19 years ago helping to fuel that narrative.

"I probably have an edge to me and for a portion of my career, if I were being transparent, I would say that it was an edge to prove that I belonged," Williams says. "I hope that I've matured some. I still think that I have an edge and to some degree, I think that edge is not selfish in nature, it's more unselfish in that I've been given an opportunity I was undeserving of.

"With this opportunity, it is my responsibility to help as many as I can have an opportunity that they're working to try to have."