Buzz Williams won a battle at Marquette and left. Not necessarily the bloodiest, most savage battle. But it was one brutal enough that scores were settled and his athletic director was effectively kicked to the curb by an interim president while Williams remained in place. And now he has gone to Virginia Tech of the ACC, a league in which the top four spots generally will be spoken for by programs with copious advantages in resources and tradition. And the spots after that won't be easy to come by, either.
Despite those challenges, Williams will be the new coach of the Hokies, settling in to one of the worst jobs in a new league that already features North Carolina, Duke and Syracuse and will add Louisville next season to a conference that also features proud programs at Virginia, N.C. State, Clemson and Georgia Tech, among others. He gets a seven-year contract that ESPN reported is worth $18 million, and he leaves behind a rolling contract at Marquette that, according to a source with direct knowledge of the deal, would have been paying him in excess of $4 million within the next two seasons. That is football coach money at a school with a major commitment to being good at basketball. If all of that sounds weird, that's because it is.
There are some reasons that hint at Williams' departure. Marquette still needs a new president, announcing last week that it is continuing to vet semifinal candidates. After that, it needs a new athletic director, because the man with whom Williams had no shortage of friction, Larry Williams, resigned in December and has yet to be replaced. (In August 2012, Larry Williams suspended Buzz Williams for one Big East game and fired assistant coach and close friend Scott Monarch for recruiting violations, a move that caused irreparable damage to the head coach-AD relationship.) And while the new Big East isn't a calamity, it's nowhere near settled, either. There have been no shortage of complaints about the late tipoff times and schedule quirks dictated by the television deal with Fox Sports.
But then there was a disappointing season just concluded in which Marquette went 17-15 overall and finished 9-9 and in sixth place in the new Big East after being picked to win it in the preseason. The Golden Eagles were even passed over by the NIT. All that elicited some grumbling by Marquette fans, even after their team had made five straight trips to the NCAA tournament. It may well have been that Williams decided not to deal with mounting expectations, such as they were. (One source said Williams tried to get involved with the Auburn job that recently went to Bruce Pearl.)
If there is an explanation floating somewhere in this news, any or all of those issues approximate it.
This it isn't a basketball decision by Williams, it's the antithesis of one. Marquette not only has the more successful program, it has more resources, too. According to the U.S. Department of Education's equity in athletics data, in the latest reporting year of 2012-13, Marquette's men's basketball expenses totaled more than $10.7 million. In the same year, Virginia Tech reported men's basketball expenses of $5,458,505.
That will change in Blacksburg, because this move doesn't happen otherwise. For all the folksiness, Williams is a keenly calculating guy. His mind is Shun knife-sharp about basketball and about what circumstances will provide him the best chance for advancement in every sense. He undoubtedly got promises from new Virginia Tech athletic director Whit Babcock – the former Cincinnati athletic director and therefore more or less a basketball guy – and he will certainly get a fresh start.
He'll be greeted like a conquering hero, too, because this is an unbelievable hire for Virginia Tech. The Hokies won 10 games combined in the ACC in the past three seasons. They just hired a coach with a career winning percentage of .651, who won 11 or more games five times in the old Big East. It's living well beyond their means, but somehow it's happening.
In a statement confirming Williams' departure, Marquette interim athletic director Bill Cords said the school wished its former coach well. “We have already begun a search for our next head coach,” Cords said in the release. “The dedicated commitment in support of, and investment in, its men’s basketball program gives us a great foundation to be consistently successful and we look forward to finding the right person who will make us stronger in the future.” For any number of reasons Williams decided he didn't want to be that guy anymore. The only shocking part about him leaving was where he ended up.