This is the first of a two-part series in which I analyze the potential pros and cons for Buzz Williams re: his decision to either stay at Virginia Tech, or leave to coach elsewhere next season. Full disclaimer: There may be some uncomfortable ideas in this post, but none are meant to suggest that I want him to leave, or am rooting for it. If you come away with that idea, you have misread. The second part of the series, The Case for Buzz Williams Staying at Virginia Tech, should drop tomorrow.
It’s been just over five years to the day (March 21, 2014) since Buzz Williams was hired as the head coach of the Virginia Tech Men’s Basketball program, and despite some occasional hiccups and missteps (See Trevor Thompson being released from his scholarship over his cell phone ringing, Buzz’s handling of injury reports this year, blocking fans—including yours truly for some reason within the last 48 hours—and those who cover the program with prominent social media accounts, which seems petty and a telegraphed move aimed at cauterizing the wound of him leaving, and giving some really trash takes about his potential exit, failing to guarantee his return to Virginia Tech, then positing that the media has completely made up the narrative that he won’t), it has by-and-large been an unmitigated success.
Buzz has directed the Hokies to a 100-69 record over his five years with the program (The 100 wins for a coach are behind only Charles Moir (213), Seth Greenberg (170), Chuck Noe (109), Howie Shannon (104), and Bill Foster (101) in Virginia Tech Men’s Basketball history, and the .592 winning percentage is behind only Noe (.681), DeVoe (.662), Moir (.642), and Shannon (.605) among coaches who have coached 100 games in Tech’s Men’s Basketball history as well), and Hokie Nation is still reeling from the infinitesimally close loss to Duke in the Sweet 16, tied for the furthest the Hokies have ever been in the NCAA Tournament in program history. To say that Buzz has been a revelation for basketball in Blacksburg is an understatement. Without him, it’s fair to wonder if the Hokies would still be in the post-Seth Greenberg doldrums.
The hire—way back in 2014 by the newly-minted AD Whit Babcock—signaled the Hokies were serious about getting their basketball program back on track, after former AD Jim Weaver effectively enforced the death penalty on the program in 2011, firing Seth Greenberg, the second-winningest coach in program history, a month after guaranteeing his job, because he didn’t want to be on the hook for the assistant coaches’ salaries with the coach’s lame duck status. Let that sink in: Seven years ago, Virginia Tech’s Athletic Department was quibbling over the status of assistant coaches’ contracts in making head coaching hiring/firing decisions, and Friday, Virginia Tech played in the Sweet 16. That’s how far we’ve come.
So imagine the reaction of the Tech basketball fanbase (Or what was left of it) when Babcock came in and committed serious money to an established coach right off the bat. It was euphoria (Or as much as it could be, considering that the majority of the people who thought they were entitled to an opinion about Tech basketball were going to games disguised as empty seats). Tech was either going to be relevant again in basketball, or pay big bucks and strike out trying—the kind of big, bold move that fans often appreciate unless it goes wrong. And it didn’t. It worked. In many ways, the past four years—when taken collectively—have been the best in the history of the program. But now, with all those accomplishments in the bag, there is a new suitor come calling for Buzz to revitalize their program, also willing to pay the big bucks. What should he do? Well, he should leave—or at least, we’re going to explore why leaving would make sense.
The Case for Buzz Williams Leaving Virginia Tech
Yes, Buzz has done a lot for Virginia Tech basketball—potentially an immeasurable amount. But what is the upward mobility of the program beyond the Sweet 16 (Yes, I know this is going to be read as a bad take, but hear me out on this)? Could Virginia Tech have won it all this year? If they hit the buzzer-beater and beat Duke in overtime, yeah, I really think they could have—or at least would’ve had as good a shot as anybody, given the field. But, does Buzz believe that, especially going forward? With all of the players and experience the Hokies are set to lose—and really, beyond that, the cohesion and ability of this group to work together—does Buzz see the ceiling of this team as one that can take him further than a Sweet 16 run, five years deep, as a final culmination of what this team could be? Because, if he does, would he stay, all things equal? That’s an important question that no one other than Buzz Williams can answer. But, it is worth noting that there are other factors in play. Let’s examine some of them below, shall we?
Why Texas A&M:
Without necessarily assuming with a 100% degree of certitude that the program Buzz would leave the Hokies for would be Texas A&M, because that is what has been continually reported, let’s do assume that is the case. Otherwise, whatever may be coming Williams’ and consequently Hokies’ way will be something shocking and totally out of left field. Here are, I believe, the relevant factors for why Buzz would consider leaving the confines of the Cassell for College Station:
- If they pay more
It’s hard to understate what money means in this present day and age. For you or I, this would seem like a cruel and unfeeling way to look at this decision. If you’re like me, your loyalty to Virginia Tech comes before all else, and you wouldn’t leave for a dime or a million dimes more if you were in this position (In theory, at least. It’s hard to say unless you’ve been there). That’s the entire reason that as a child, upon meeting Michael Vick on the Jacksonville Landing before the Gator Bowl, I asked him to stay (But he had $72 million reasons not to from his playing contract alone). But, the reality of the situation is this: Frank Beamers don’t grow on trees. Look at the current coaching landscape if you needed any indication of how rare “program” or one-job guys are. Beamer was an alumnus of Virginia Tech, stayed for nearly 30 years, but even he admits he had open dalliances with not only professional football teams (For instance, the Green Bay Packers), but also other colleges (The University of North Carolina). So as much as we, as Tech fans, revere the “guys like” Beamer, it’s clear that those guys don’t exist in the game, and that even Beamer may not have been like the Beamer that’s been put on the pedestal the way he has in that regard. I believe John Calipari said it best when he said of college coaches, “We’re obnoxiously paid.” Side note: John Calipari is the highest-paid coach in any collegiate sport. So clearly, even the irony of that statement doesn’t make him want or feel the need to take a pay cut. So to summarize here, Buzz Williams is human, not a Virginia Tech alum, and has no connections otherwise to keep him here at Virginia Tech outside of the ones he’s formed since 2014.
- 7-of-the Aggies-top-8 possibly return (Assuming Buzz will want them back/they don’t transfer)
Unlike the situation Buzz is likely to face with the Hokies should he return to Virginia Tech (Where he loses at least three starters—his three seniors—and a likely lottery pick in Nickeil Alexander-Walker), Williams would be inheriting a program that brings back basically every significant player from their team last year. That, my friends is a stark difference, and from a job security standpoint, comforting. Even for what Buzz has accomplished in his short time at Tech, there was always almost certainly going to be a backslide to some degree if he returned to Virginia Tech, simply based on the roster construction by class (Just look at what happened to Justin Fuente after the boatload of Beamer leave-behinds gradually exited the program). He had planned for it, and the 2019 recruiting class (More on that later), as well as delaying Kerry Blackshear’s return to the floor as a sophomore when he was healthy, (And to a lesser degree Devin Wilson’s redshirt as a senior after he was done with football), says as much. Buzz likes insurance, and he likes to stagger his guys by class when he feels like he doesn’t have enough. That’s both smart, forward-thinking, and yes, a bit unfeeling (There’s that word again. I would get used to it, because there’s a lot of that in sports) and ruthless. But if he’s being judged on wins, and he is, it’s also probably a smart strategy. All things equal, if you were losing potentially your top-5 (Also more on that later) vs. retaining 7-of-your-top-8 (And I know that talent comes into play here), which would you choose? And that’s where recruiting rankings rear their ugly head:
- How Texas A&M’s Recruiting Matches Up to Virginia Tech’s
Despite only having been in the recruiting site era re: basketball for three coaching tenures at Virginia Tech now (It was in its infancy when Ricky Stokes was at the helm, so I’m not going to count that), it is worth saying that Buzz Williams has done a pretty good job relative to the rankings (And an even better job when you consider how those players have often exceeded their recruiting rank upon arriving in Blacksburg a la the football program). The point is, those rankings are often wrong, and it’s arguable to what effect they can be treated as any kind of reliable resource for judging a player’s value (Other than that they have a strong correlation to success, if not cause). For whatever value you would like to put on said rankings, here’s what they say about the two programs:
Going back to the 2015 class (As, for either school, that’s the earliest class for which players currently on their respective teams remain), the Hokies have currently have (Excluding the seniors) four players on their roster who were rated as four stars or higher by at least one of the three major recruiting sites (Scout has now been absorbed by 247), and another two set to join as members of the 2019 recruiting class (These numbers do not count Chris Clarke, who was rated as a consensus four star prospect, but whose status with returning to the team next year is unclear). The numbers do, however, include current Tech freshman Landers Nolley, who had to sit out all season due to a phantom NCAA issue regarding the perceived legitimacy of his ACT scores. It is unclear when or whether he will be cleared to play in the future by the NCAA Clearinghouse.
By comparison, A&M currently has three players on their roster with such status, and, well...an unclear number of four star players in their 2019 class. How is that possible you might ask? Well, apparently Rivals, 247, and ESPN greatly disagree about who is actually a part of this class, with Rivals maintaining their class has only one member, 247 adding an additional member, and ESPN asserting that the class is comprised of three members, not including the member that 247 sports added. This in 2019. Per Rivals, the lone incoming freshman is a four star, as he also appears on ESPN. The only issue: so are the other two members of the class that neither of the other two sites mention as committed to the school. Therefore, AT LEAST one more four star rated player is on his way to College Station next year. Of the three major recruiting sites, only ESPN prefers the Aggies’ 2019 class to the Hokies’ 2019 haul, and again, that is with two players that the other two sites do not have committed to Texas A&M (Rivals had the Hokies 29th and the Aggies 77th, and 247 has the Hokies 25th, and the Aggies 69th). In only one previous season over the last four do the recruiting sites as a whole have A&M’s class ranked superior to Virginia Tech’s (2016), and none of those players are still currently on the Aggies’ roster. So, in summary on this issue, Texas A&M has basically kept pace with the Hokies if we’re listening to ESPN, and has either been somewhere between slightly to a fair degree behind Tech if we’re giving credence to the others.
- Would Buzz Take His 2019 Virginia Tech Recruiting Class With Him?
He did at Marquette after all (Or tried) is the argument I have heard. This is pretty commonplace in college basketball. Seth Greenberg did it when he left USF (And gifted us that 2003 class with Zabian Dowdell, Jamon Gordon, and Coleman Collins). More often now, players transfer when coaches leave. That, for various reasons that are too lengthy to get into, also pertains to recruits. Ultimately, it’s too soon to speculate, as Buzz hasn’t even OFFICIALLY taken the job yet, but to be clear, yes, I think he would try to take some of his own guys with him—possibly even including Kerry Blackshear as a graduate transfer, a rumor that has percolated nonstop over the past 48 hours, though I tend to think that Blackshear is likelier to just declare for the draft if it were put to me.
- Buzz is From Texas
I’ll spare you the clichés and speculation based off of this statement, and rather just make the statement itself: Brent Langdon “Buzz” Williams is from Van Alstyne, Texas (A far-flung suburb of Dallas, closer to the Oklahoma state line than the aforementioned North Texas metropolis). Van Alstyne is, according to Google, over 3 and a half hours away from College Station, which is far nearer to Austin than Dallas. What if anything this means for Buzz and his family, I haven’t the slightest. Some people really revere their home state and culture. Some reject it. Some don’t care one way or the other. I’ll only posit that if it matters to Buzz Williams, it may be a factor in his decision.
- His Connection with Texas A&M
Buzz did coach at Texas A&M, technically twice (Once at Texas A&M–Kingsville in 1998-99, and once at the flagship school, from 2004-06). So there is a history at A&M, however brief. One additional note, former Buzz Williams charge and Hokies’ (And most-recently Aggies’ assistant) Isaac Chew left the team in January for “family reasons.” He left Virginia Tech for A&M in 2016, being hired by Billy Kennedy, who is the head coach that A&M just fired. It is unclear if Buzz would be interested in reuniting with his former assistant, if Chew would want to reunite with him or return to A&M, and or if the Athletic Department would sign off on that (Without knowing any of the particulars here). Chew no longer works for the university, but I do think it’s worth mentioning considering he was a coach on this previous year’s staff as well as on Williams’ previous VT staffs, even if it’s potentially, and likely, meaningless (i.e. As Chew is effectively a “free agent,” he can sign a contract to coach wherever he would like, including Virginia Tech if Williams chose to stay and wanted him back).
So Why Leave Virginia Tech?
To sum it all up, it comes down to three, maybe four things:
- Firstly, if Virginia Tech doesn’t match the money that the Aggies come up with (Based on the reported figures, the Aggies aren’t offering much more than Buzz’s current contract at Tech, but then again, I’m not inclined to believe unsourced reports on such things until they’re proven true), Buzz may leave. This is the most important factor—just ask Marquette fans who seem to think Buzz is only in it for the money (Granted, there’s a huge confirmation bias at play there and potentially some bad blood towards him in that fanbase). If the University DOES match the Aggies’ figure, and Buzz decides to leave anyway, I imagine there will be a real Kevin Garnett-Ray Allen feeling among Hokies fans.
- The Hokies may lose their entire starting five, something that I don’t think is getting as much play as it should. I will be writing an article about this later in the week, but all I can say is, don’t completely discount it.
- If Buzz places value in living in Texas and going home
- If Buzz legitimately thinks there is the same or better opportunity at Texas A&M than there is at Virginia Tech
These are chief, to my mind at least, among the reasons why Buzz Williams would consider leaving Virginia Tech. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section, and watch out for my counter argument to this post, The Case for Buzz Williams Staying at Virginia Tech, which should drop tomorrow. In the mean time, read this impassioned plea for Buzz to stay by Managing Editor, The Mighty Fahvaag.