Whit Babcock swings for the fences, and connects

Will Stewart, TechSideline.com, on March 22, 2014
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On Monday night, Whit Babcock and Buzz Williams will win the press conference. Then the hard work begins.

Before I get on to the huzzahs, and there are plenty to go around, let’s get the word of caution out there: there’s no guarantee that Buzz Williams will succeed at Virginia Tech. There’s no telling what will happen when a new coach comes in, and we find out over time the concoction that is brewed up when you take a particular coach, with his unique personality, strengths and weaknesses, and combine him with a particular school, which has its own unique personality, strengths, and weaknesses.

But the one thing we ask above all else of our athletic department is for it to take its best shot. To try. And Whit Babcock, in hiring Buzz Williams, is trying like hell.

There are the obvious things you can find out about Buzz Williams, the bare facts that you can research on Wikipedia or anywhere else: 41 years old, 153-82 overall (.651 winning percentage), including 139-69 (.668) at Marquette the last six years. He’s got a track record that you can’t argue with, and the best thing, in my opinion, is that in 2013, he made it to the NCAA Elite Eight with a team full of guys that he recruited, coached and developed. That team was all his.

Then there are the nuances, the things fans argue about and debate endlessly. What is it that makes Buzz Williams good … and what are the things that hold him back from being even better? If you’ve got the time, take a look at this thread I found on MUScoop.com, a web site dedicated to Marquette athletics:

Coach Williams is a great coach because … ? – MUScoop.com

That thread was started on March 17, well before Marquette fans knew that Buzz was leaving for Virginia Tech. A departure makes emotions run high, and you can’t trust a lot of what is said in its wake, so it’s good to read a thread prior to the news.

But how Buzz Williams’ quirks and foibles will play out at Virginia Tech over time remains to be seen. Let’s get back to the topic at hand: the hiring itself.

My knowledge of Virginia Tech basketball coaching hires only goes back to the Charlie Moir hire in 1976, and as we have told you repeatedly here, at no point in Virginia Tech’s history (since the mid-70s at least) has a Virginia Tech athletic director gone “all in” on a coaching hire. Moir won a national championship at Roanoke College and then coached at Tulane, so he was a head coach with a track record. But since then, the Hokies have hired assistants (Frankie Allen, Ricky Stokes, James Johnson, or Bobby Hussey, who had head-coached at Davidson) or previously-retired short timers (Bill Foster). The only hire resembling a bona fide head man with an established record was Seth Greenberg.

Till now. If you’ve wanted Virginia Tech to get serious about basketball, to make a splash and go for it, you just got your wish.

ESPN reported that Buzz will receive $18 million over 7 years, almost $2.6 million a year. That’s not messing around, and I trust that Whit Babcock has his financial bases covered. I’ve got a friend in University Development (academic fundraising; not the athletic side of the house), and he told me last night, in a discussion before the hiring news broke, that he was impressed with Babcock, adding “He has already spoken with, or met in person with, the 50 top athletic donors.”

Whit Babcock isn’t stopping at just making a big hire. Babcock, who has been relatively lowkey since he started on February 17th, is going to hold Buzz Williams’ introductory press conference Monday night, in Cassell Coliseum, at 6 PM. Aaron McFarling of The Roanoke Times nailed it in a column today, when he said “That is not a press conference. That is a pep rally.”

Later on, VT took it up a notch.

As an aside, that makes yours truly a little nervous. Press conferences are usually in a small room, with a small group of people who all know each other. This one’s going to be in front of at least several hundred people, maybe a few thousand, depending upon the reaction. Ask the wrong question in front of a group that big, and you’ll get laughed at, or maybe even booed.

It’s a new era in Virginia Tech basketball, and not just in the we’ve-got-a-new-coach way, but in every way imaginable. Big money, high stakes, big commitment, high level of showmanship.

So what can we expect from Buzz Williams? I haven’t watched Marquette basketball, but from what little I’ve seen of Buzz, he’s not a reserved Tony Bennett type. He’s an emotional, fiery type who wears his heart on his sleeve. Exhibit 1? A “Walk It Out” celebration dance.

He already has the love and affection of the WVU fan base, who can be seen showering their approval down on Buzz after his post-game dance to “Take me home, country roads” after winning at West Virginia. I fear for the man’s life at the 0:15 mark of this video.

I put that link on Twitter last night and said, “Can’t wait till VT plays at WVU …” and got a response from a Mountaineer fan:

I don’t know right off the top of my head if VT and WVU are scheduled to play again in the future, but if they do, a little spice has already been added to the rivalry.

Buzz’s emotion is the kind of theatre that can play well when you’re winning, or when you’re still in the honeymoon phase. But if things start to slip, or you go over the line, it can turn on you. And whereas Virginia Tech basketball fans speak highly of Tony Bennett, I can see Cavalier fans, and others, not speaking highly of Buzz Williams, especially if he starts to beat them on the court. Not that I care what opposing fans think.

But that kind of showmanship and notoriety is what a program like Virginia Tech needs. The program has been falling fast, not just in the eyes of the national media (for whom Virginia Tech had disappeared), but in the eyes of their own fan base.

Whit Babcock came in swinging for the fences, and he has made a home run hire. Now it’s up to Buzz Williams to circle the bases in the coming years, and make it count.

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