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April 14, 2014

Williams hire has Tech buzzing with excitment

By: Jimmy Robertson

Tech AD Whit Babcock hired former Marquette coach Buzz Williams to be the Hokies’ head basketball coach and hopefully turn around the program’s fortunes

Buzz Williams told the crowd at Cassell Coliseum that he was excited about the challenge of the Tech job. “It’s been done here before,” he said. “And it’s time to do it again.”

New Virginia Tech AD Whit Babcock doesn’t strike many as a gambling man.

But when it came to hiring a men’s basketball coach, he certainly went all in.

Babcock appears to have cashed out in a big way, landing respected Marquette University coach Buzz Williams to be the head of the Hokies’ basketball program. Williams comes to Blacksburg after having spent seven seasons at Marquette, including the last six as the head coach. He accumulated a 139-69 record while at Marquette and led the Golden Eagles to five NCAA tournament appearances. His 2012-13 squad advanced all the way to the Elite Eight, and on two other occasions under him, Marquette went to the Sweet Sixteen.

Babcock introduced Williams at a press conference/pep rally on March 24 at Cassell Coliseum. A throng of people, mostly students, enjoyed free pizza – 900 pies were ordered and consumed – performances by the band, cheerleaders and HighTechs and finally, a show by Williams himself, who promptly after his introduction led those in attendance in the “Let’s go … Hokies” chant and recited the school’s old Hokie cheer, with a little help from the crowd.

“I’m very honored and very thankful to be here,” Williams told the crowd. “I’m humbled by the chance and excited about the opportunity. I think it’s a sleeping giant. There’s a lot of work to be done. I’m thankful that Whit and President [Tim] Sands believe I’m worthy of this chance.

“What I can tell you without promising anything is that you’ll have my heart and my soul, and I’ll work at it every single day. I’ll do right by this institution. I’ll do right by this department. I’ll do right by this program. And I’ll do right by the alumni and the people in this community that support Virginia Tech. I thank you for that.”

The move by Babcock came just four days after relieving James Johnson of his duties as the head coach on March 17. Johnson was popular among the Hokie fan base, but Tech went 9-22 this past season and 22-41 during his two years as the head man, and the Hokies have finished in last place in the ACC standings for three consecutive years.

In fairness to Johnson, he dealt with a lot beyond his control – injuries, transfers, departures and an unfavorable NCAA ruling on Malik Mueller – during that two-year span. But in the end, Babcock’s decision came down to wins and losses and the program’s future.

“Do I think we could have been incrementally better next year? I do,” Babcock said. “But when I came to it in my own mind, I didn’t feel that this group [of coaches] was the one that could get us to the middle of the conference or higher. I felt we had to go ahead and make the change.

“It was a tough call. It was. Time will tell if it was the right one, but I feel that it is.”

Babcock wasted little time in finding his next guy. He discussed the job with many people in the basketball business, including Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, whom Babcock worked with during his stint at Cincinnati. Also, it helped that Cronin and Williams share the same agent.

Babcock met with Williams on March 20, and the next day, consummated a deal that led to Williams being named the Tech head coach.

“Typically, the way I like to do it – and I don’t know if it’s right – but I like to go after a big hire in a short period of time,” Babcock said. “If it doesn’t work out, I walk away quietly and you guys [media members] don’t know that I ever talked to them. Then, I had some other very good coaches on my list that I would have gotten to when their season was over.”

Babcock certainly made a hefty financial commitment to get Williams, inking him to a seven-year deal that pays $2.3 million the first year (base salary is $500,000). Williams’ salary then increases by $100,000 per year through the remainder of the contract. He also received a $725,000 salary pool for his top three assistants.

No basketball coach at Tech has ever made this type of money, nor been signed to such a lengthy contract. But Babcock wasn’t afraid to be aggressive when it came to finding whom he viewed as the right person to rebuild Tech’s program.

“I do believe you have to spend to get some talent occasionally,” he said.

That Babcock lured Williams to Blacksburg surprised many in the world of college basketball. Williams made a great salary at Marquette and had an established program at a university and in a city that loves basketball.

Marquette is going through transition at the moment, with an interim president and an interim AD. Also, most BIG EAST coaches remain skittish about the conference’s future because of the impact of realignment. Williams refused to get into any of that at his introductory news conference, citing instead the positives associated with the Tech job and how he relished the challenge of rebuilding the Hokies into an ACC contender.

“I really like Whit, and I met Dr. Sands,” he said. “I’m attracted to the ACC. I’m attracted to, ‘Man, we’ve got a mountain of work to do. Can we climb that?’ I think that’s just a demented coaches view, like ‘Wow, man, that’s so dumb to do that [take the Tech job].’ Maybe it is. You’re entitled to your opinion. But what if it’s not? The risk-reward … I like that.”

Williams inherits a program that has suffered through some lean times of late. Since the Hokies beat then-No. 1 Duke on Feb. 26, 2011, Tech is 41-62 overall.

The Hokies have made just two NCAA tournament appearances since Dell Curry played in Blacksburg (1982-86) – a span of 28 years. Tech made appearances in the Big Dance in 1996 and in 2007. In contrast, every team in the ACC has made at least six appearances in the NCAA tournament in the past 25 years.

“The guys that are there have no idea the work that is going to be involved to move from last place and incrementally go up the ladder,” Williams said. “It won’t just be those guys. It’ll be the players we add to those guys. It’ll be the coaches on the bench. How long will it take? It’s hard to say.

“Is there a certain number of days or years? It’s hard to say. The only thing you can be accountable for is today and do as much as you can today. Then wake up and do as much as you can the next day. Then hopefully the cumulative interest of all that will allow us to progress to where we want to be.”

Williams possesses a little bit of experience in helping rebuild basketball programs. At Marquette, he inherited an established program left by former coach Tom Crean, now the head coach at Indiana. But during a two-year stint as an assistant at Texas A&M (2004-06), he was part of a major turnaround orchestrated by then-coach Billy Gillispie.

The 2004-05 Aggie team improved its win total by 14 games compared to the previous season. In 2005-06, the Aggies made their first NCAA tournament appearance in 25 years.

“We were 0-16 [in the Big 12 in 2003-04] and went 8-8 our first year in the Big 12 and made it to the quarterfinals of the NIT,” Williams said. “We signed a bunch of guys, and in our second year, we went to the NCAA tournament. We signed some more guys, and there was a renaissance there in that program.

“I see some similarities between here and there as to what you have to do. I’m thankful that I was there. To be able to have been a part of that, I think I can lean back on some of those experiences.”

Though sad to see Johnson go, Tech’s players were excited about playing for the new coach. The team attended the news conference and saw the way in which Williams worked the audience.

More importantly, though, was the message they received from Babcock with the hire. He wants basketball to become a priority in Blacksburg.

“Any time you bring in a coach like him from an experienced program, that’s a blatant message that we’re ready to get this thing back on track,” point guard Devin Wilson said. “We’re ready to get back to some winning ways and back up in the ACC [standings], which is where we want to go.

“We’re extremely excited. We can’t wait to get back to work and get in the gym and have him teach us his ways. We want to learn something new and get back on that court and win games this year.”

Tech returns three starters from this past season’s squad, and the Hokies also get the services of Mueller, who sat out this past season after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA, and Maurice Kirby, who took a redshirt year. Plus, two of the incoming recruits are expected to remain firm to their commitments.

At the least, that gives Williams a base to work with as he rebuilds. It will take some time to get the job done, and Babcock repeatedly said he would give Williams time to get it right.

But on this day, students and fans weren’t ready to be worried about timetables. Gorged on free pizza and soft drinks, and giddy with excitement of seeing old standouts like Bimbo Coles and Ace Custis back in Cassell, they wanted to revel in the excitement.

This was a day about hope, and Hokie Nation now has a proven winner running its men’s basketball program – and also a man certainly not afraid of a challenge.

“It’s been done here before,” Williams told the crowd. “And it’s time to do it again.”