Why Buzz Williams Isn't Exactly Who You Think He Is

Mitchell Leff

While I'm heartened by the Hokies' renewed commitment to basketball with the hiring of Marquette's Buzz Williams, and have relatively-high expectations for I feel I must make clear the paradox that most fans are missing. For a complete breakdown of Williams' first week on the job and how it reflects his plans to run this program, continue reading below.

"When Seth Greenberg was the head honcho of Virginia Tech basketball, he ran the team in a way that pissed a lot of people off. But, he won a lot of games relative to the school's success historically, so people overlooked his type-A personality and demeanor because he won games." -Me

Wow! Yeah, after two-plus months of not writing for the site, I did lead with that, and welcome to this post. And somewhere down the line, maybe as soon as several thousand words from now, that self-attributed quote will make sense. But for now, I'm going to focus on Buzz Williams and make that leap later. Okay? Ready...break.

Chuck's post from Sunday about the transfer of Trevor Thompson (alliteration winz) highlighted the pettiness of the reported details and asked the difficult questions that should be asked when a team loses its third most-promising (Or second. It's debatable) young player a day after hiring a big-name coach. If you haven't read it, do all of us a solid and do that now. It's okay, we'll wait. But basically if you're lazy and don't like reading Pulitzer-worthy prose, I'll sum it up using one of Chuck's quotes from the article:

"Is this really how things had to go down? Not the best of starts if you ask me."

Yes indeed Chuck, and I couldn't agree more. This is a rather ominous start to the Williams tenure, even with the positives, like the announcement that Williams has already assembled half of his staff as of yesterday. I've found, as transitions go, coaches should look to take the path of least resistance, unless it is absolutely necessary to ruffle feathers or make a statement for the purpose of shaping the program. Coach Williams may disagree here, or may just not like Thompson (And he doesn't. That much has been made clear), but to answer Chuck's question, ABSOLUTELY NOT, this did not have to go down this way. This is an example of a coach's ego taking over or has the air of a guy trying to make splashes to take control of a team on day-1, perhaps (likely) an unwise decision after the coach who just had the door hit him in the ass tried to rule with an iron fist and failed. So this team needs something different.

While the transfer of any player out of a program is not ideal (in most cases), let's not fool ourselves by thinking that each player is equal and of equal value. Obviously, the ability of a player, his position and the number of years of eligibility remaining play an important role in how valuable he is to the program. Unfortunately, Thompson hit all three of those checkmarks as a serious asset, possessing skill, as he showed in his stellar freshman campaign (key word: freshman, with three years of eligibility remaining), averaging 5 points and 4.7 rebounds in only 16.2 minutes. He even started the team's last 11 games. So there you see the need, which should be even greater next year without Cadarian Raines playing James Johnson's doghouse minutes, ranging anywhere from earning a DNP to playing 30+ minutes. The point is, Thompson was a virtual lock to have a larger role and maybe even start next season if Williams has (or maybe had now) ideas about playing a conventional lineup with two bigs. But lastly, Trevor brought something that the Hokies desperately need: size. He's 6'11", and height alone didn't earn his scholarship for him. So with that said, why did Williams sour on him and so soon? Well, these two have history, as Williams briefly recruited Thompson, a midwest kid who prepped in Wisconsin a year ago, and apparently let it slip to his coaches that he thought Trevor was "soft." Does that hold up? Well, maybe. As Chuck pointed out in his post, that was several years ago and Thompson has done a lot of maturing as a person and a basketball player since he was 16 or 17. I personally didn't see it last year in any way more than, Trevor could stand to add some weight and like most freshman bigs, work on not letting bigs post too deep in the lane before they even receive the ball. As Chuck said:

"I for one, having watched every VT basketball game last year can attest to the fact that Trevor Thompson isn't soft mentally; but physically he could afford to add some base (or posterior) in order to elevate his power game."

And he's the authority (well, him and Niemo from Tech Hoops), as I could only stand to watch about the first 15 games of the Hokies' season this year (a first since the Ricky Stokes era). But in case you STILL haven't read Chuck's post outlining the details of Thompson's transfer, despite my insistent pleading for the sake of your Hokie soul, that was not the only thing that turned both parties off to each other. As Thompson's father, Ryan, told Mark Berman of the Roanoke Times Saturday, the final straw occurred when "Williams met with the Tech players Saturday, Trevor's cellphone went off during the meeting." Ryan said of the incident, "he calls Trevor out basically in front of his teammates and says if you want a release, I'll give it to you now. It was 50-50 going into that and that just basically nailed the coffin." If this is really what occurred, and every indication is that it is at least partially true, as no one from Virginia Tech has come out to deny it, nor has any teammate of Thompson's spoken out against his account of the incident, it's a sorry excuse for an attempt to validate a personal grudge. Even if they're close to him, you'd have to imagine that those guys who are still committed to this team wouldn't let something like this get out without rebutting it if it didn't happen, as it reflects poorly on the program to recruits and their families, and would therefore stand to harm them.

The bottom line is if it did happen, it was a pretty harsh reaction of Williams to question Thompson's dedication in front of his teammates day-1 and offer to let him out of his scholarship. As much as he might've known Trevor a few years ago on the recruiting circuit, he hasn't been in the Hokies' locker room for the last year, and making those assertions in front of Thompson's teammates was probably embarrassing for the youngster and showed the true lack of respect Williams has for him. Certainly, you can see that if the family's account of the events is accurate (and I only say that because in my time covering high school and collegiate athletes, I have witnessed many families try to spin a story, regardless of who is hurt by it, for their kid's personal gain), it was probably for the best that he get out now. As his father said, it was 50/50 anyway based on the coach who was coming in and they were willing to give him a chance. Allegedly. Chuck had a good take on this in his post Sunday that runs parallel to my thinking:

"I'd like to shame both parties for what transpired upon their reunion. In what amounts to a highly petty, unnecessary confrontation, Buzz challenged Thompson about his dedication and offered to grant him a release from his scholarship OVER A BUZZING CELLPHONE DURING THE FIRST TEAM MEETING. Did that need to be done in public? A call-out like that? Let's be real here. Unless Trevor took the call and interrupted the meeting, then you can bring yourself to overlook that. Especially if you know you might be on thin ice with the player anyhow. This is not how I foresaw the first team meeting under Buzz going upon hearing about the kind of guy he is, and the positive energy he is supposed to bring."

Unfortunately, this might've been Williams' way of looking for an out, by chastising Thompson in front of his teammates for his first minor indiscretion and effectively forcing him out, knowing their history. If so it was a pretty disgusting tactic. But that's more conjecture than I'm willing to commit to, so I'll leave it at that.

As for the Hokies' prognosis without Thompson, I'm not trying to suggest he was/is irreplaceable, but suffice it to say the Hokies will face an uphill battle to replace him, even for what he gave the team last year. And despite the possibility of Williams and Co. poaching one or several of his Marquette recruits to play for Tech (which Marquette has said they will fight, at least for the players who have signed their letter of intent for 2014, which is all but one), only 6'10", 250 lb. center Satchel Pierce would be able to slot into that position to replace Thompson, and he is one of the recruits who has already signed his letter of intent. There is of course Malek Harris, as Chuck pointed out in his post Sunday evening, who is a top-100 recruit nationally, has been rumored to have some interest in following Williams and is the lone remaining unsigned Marquette commitment for 2014. And while his talent would be a major windfall for the Hokies, he would not offer much of a replacement for Thompson in the way of a post presence:

"If it was Buzz's intention to send a message to the players, and he is confident that he has adequate or better replacements at his disposal (such as top 100 recruit Malek Harris), then that will be the mantra going forward. Basketball is a business in Blacksburg again, and right now it is a bloated business that is in it's streamlining phase. The money was spent to lay the framework, and now we trim the fat (or whatever Buzz deems as fat). Or soft."

Kudos on that ending Chuck. But getting down to brass tacks, I don't think Williams made this move spontaneously. As combustable as he is (something that Hokie fans don't seem to realize), he is not stupid. If he didn't think he could replace a player of Trevor's ilk, he wouldn't have flown off the handle (and again, that's assuming that he did) in his first meeting with the team. He has a plan, whatever it may be, and if he was concerned about Trevor leaving, he would've been much more calculated and handled the issue in a much calmer manner. But that isn't his style. And that's where we get to the Seth Greenberg comparison from the top of the post. That's right, Buzz Williams is a lot like the former Hokie coach, and in celebrating the hire of a big-name coach, most Hokie fans have either been blissfully unaware of this or have chosen to live with the fact that the Hokies didn't hire a "nice guy" to run the program because, well, nice guys finish last.

Do you think Mike Krzyzewski is a nice guy (on the court that is, as he is very nice in person)? Do you think John Calapari is a nice guy? Do you think Bobby Knight is a nice guy? No. They're not, and it's no secret that those who often succeed in college basketball are not nice guys when it comes to how they run their program. In truth, you WANT someone who is not a nice guy, because those are the guys who get the recruits and win the games. It's like egomaniac receivers in the NFL: you hate the way they act, but it's that ego that helps make them what they are and to want the ball on every play. And you want that. No disrespect to James Johnson, but you don't want a coach who is going to bench his players for apparently "not showing effort" or fight when he refused to fight for his team with the referees, even if the call was right, when they were mailing it in and losing by 20 or 30 every night. In a way, that was Johnson showing his inexperience as a coach, but also had to do with his temperament. I think he's a legitimately nice guy, and I don't say in a condescending way. It's just that, coaching big-time collegiate basketball requires that you throw a tantrum every once in a while, just as long as you're not doing it at a time when it could cost your team the game (Boeheim), and Johnson didn't do that. He gave up on the team in that regard. Say what you will about Seth Greenberg, but he would never do that. Luckily, neither will Williams.

I bring this up for one reason: I want Buzz to get his fair chance regardless of how he acts. The Seth Greenberg ship has sailed, and regardless of how the firing was handled, he did not win enough basketball games at Virginia Tech, bottom line. But I find it a little more than ironic (let's call it annoyed) that many of the same people who cheered Seth's firing are now cheering Buzz's hiring, because essentially, Tech hired Seth Greenberg reincarnate (even if he's not dead, he is to many of you). So please, only craft an opinion on Buzz if you're going to/watching games and not based on his impish demeanor or child-like antics and tantrums during games or his abrasive personality. Don't espouse basketball nonsense at parties and don't like or not like a coach because your friend says so. Show up and pay attention or don't, that's your choice. But if you don't, don't ruin it for the few Hokie basketball die-hards out there who knew a good thing when they saw it and want to experience that again. If a Virginia Tech basketball coach is winning games without breaking NCAA rules, that's who I want as the coach, regardless of how big of an asshole he is, and it's who you should want too. For $18 million dollars, we can't afford to have hired just a nice guy so that all the people who pretend to come to Virginia Tech basketball games can be happy. Best of luck Buzz, and I'm looking forward to seeing a different product out there this fall.

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