Some may be surprised to see Marquette University in the Sweet 16 of this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament, but the Golden Eagles aren't.
That's because their 38-year-old coach, Buzz Williams, has a style that sets him and his team apart — a style that actually makes the team fun to watch.
A clip of Williams breaking into dance is fun to pass around the Internet. Even his name is fun to say — Buzz Williams.
The Williams 'Edge'
Williams is bald and — it must be said — a bit stocky. At postgame press conferences, other coaches wear suits and ties, while this guy strips down to his T-shirt, usually Marquette gold.
And if you listen to him, you learn the fun was born of an almost unfathomable striving — it's just who he is.
"I do have an edge about me because of my roots," Williams says. "I recruit that way. I talk that way. I coach that way. I live that way. I'm a parent in that same manner."
Every college coach will say some variation of "I'm a teacher first, but a coach second," and then admit to frequently calling players by their uniform numbers instead of their names. But there's a certain authenticity to Williams' talk of developing people.
Take this example: After a tournament win, when his players had finished addressing the media, a raspy-voiced Williams talked about an aspect of the overall game I'd never seen a coach discuss.
"I don't mean this in an arrogant way and I don't mean this in a condescending way," he said. (Let me pause here to say Williams does this a lot — pre-apologize if his thoughts come off as arrogant. They don't.)
"Meaning has to be deeper than winning and losing. Literally every Friday we have a vocabulary word test, like you did when you were in second grade," he went on. "They just used about 25 of them. I just believe as a human being that my message to those guys has to be deeper than winning and losing."
Five days ago, Williams was asked about his first job, and what followed was a nearly 10-minute story that began at a small college in Oklahoma and involved pilfering stationery, getting a loan, selling a U-Haul, sleeping in his car outside the house of the one coach who'd shown interest in hiring him, and finally getting what may have been the worst job at the lowest rung of Division 1 basketball.
'Toughness Beats Talent'
Williams' team has internalized its coach's journey.
"Buzz knows toughness beats talent any time," says Vander Blue, a Marquette guard. "He took the hard route here. Some coaches, a lot of coaches, can't say they've been through half what he's been through. And that really rubs off on us on the court."
Aki Collins, an assistant coach, says Williams has built his team and his staff in his own image.
"I think he wants guys that are gonna grind and are gonna work hard every day," Collins says. "If you are a guy that's really comfortable in what you do, I don't think he wants you around him because you can't survive in his world."
Roy Williams, the coach of North Carolina — Marquette's opponent Friday night — says that Williams' players have taken on the enthusiasm and energy of their coach. And he's impressed.
"To me, toughness is not just being willing to stand up there and fight," Williams says. "The toughness is in the — I just watched it this morning — the West Virginia game in the Big East Tournament. They were down 10, and you know, it was no panic — they just kept playing. To me that is toughness, too. Regardless of what's going on they kept playing, kept coming at you."
The respect is mutual. Williams, who likes to pick a topic to study each month, once selected Roy Williams as his subject. And with another victory or two, the Buzz Williams way may be what other coaches are studying for an edge of their own. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.
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