By Andrew Kahn
NEW YORK — Buzz Williams never stepped foot on a college basketball court as a player. As a coach, he can’t stay off it. The Marquette coach likes to crouch in his suit like a baseball catcher, often times a few feet onto the court. When there is a dead ball, he’s always aware of the impending media timeout and is on the court with his dry erase board well before the opposing team’s players retreat to their bench.
It’s a rarity at this level, in any sport, for a head coach to have had no playing experience in college. It hasn’t prevented Williams from guiding Marquette to the Sweet 16 the last two seasons and a 60-30 regular season record in the Big East since he took over in 2008. The Golden Eagles are a No. 3 seed in this year’s NCAA Tournament. They will open against Davidson in Lexington, KY, on Thursday.
Brent Williams earned his nickname from Lewis Orr, a legendary junior college coach at Navarro College in Corsicana, Texas. Williams would “buzz” around the basketball team all the time as a student assistant, soaking up knowledge. That’s been Williams’ priority from a very early age: learning as much as he can about basketball.
He transferred from Navarro to Oklahoma City University, where he was also a student assistant and graduated in 1994. He climbed the ladder as an assistant coach, going from Northwestern State to Colorado State to Texas A&M before landing his first gig as a head coach at the University of New Orleans in 2006. He left after just one season to take an assistant job at Marquette under Tom Crean, who left the next season for Indiana. And so, at the age of 35, Williams was promoted to head coach of the Golden Eagles.
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Williams has never hid from the fact that he didn’t play; in fact, he’s proud of it. “When you care about people and you have trustful relationships with players and coaches and they know that you love them—whether you played or not 20 years ago doesn’t have an impact,” he said in a raspy voice after Marquette was eliminated from the Big East Tournament by Notre Dame in the quarterfinals on Thursday night.
Had the Golden Eagles advanced, they would have faced a Louisville team coached by Rick Pitino, who was a standout player at the University of Massachusetts in the ’70s. Asked if he talks to his team about his playing days, Pitino said, “I do and I overrate them to the players.” He notes that successful coaches like Mike Fratello and Lou Carnesecca never played. Until he was told on Thursday, Pitino had no idea that Williams hadn’t played. “Sometimes you’re even better [as a coach if you didn’t play]. You can’t say, ‘I used to do this and I used to do that.’ It doesn’t matter that [Williams] didn’t play. All I know is he is a hell of a teacher of the game.”
Asked how he came to love the game of basketball, Williams has trouble coming up with a response. “I don’t know, I guess I never thought of doing anything else. I knew I wanted to coach at a very early age. I never knew I’d have the opportunity to be at this level at such a young age.”
Given the opportunity, Williams has made the most of it. Only nine coaches in the entire NCAA Tournament field last year did not play a sport in college. Yet four of them, including Williams and his former boss, Crean, advanced to the Sweet 16. Williams would love to see Crean in the East Regional final this year. It would be further proof that to teach something well you must not have done it.