It’s no secret that Illinois head coach John Groce is on the hot seat. The Illini pulled out a rare road victory against Iowa, but their 5-9 conference record has the fan base calling for Groce’s head. As rumors fly about AD Josh Whitman trying to find a replacement for the fifth-year head coach, we’re examining a long list of potential candidates for the job. Despite their recent struggles, it’s important to remember that Illinois has a rich basketball history and could potentially be the most attractive job available this offseason.
So who are some candidates to replace the head coach in Champaign? As a part of our coaching profile series, today we examine current Virginia Tech coach Buzz Williams.
Williams, who gained the nickname ‘Buzz’ from his college coach due to his “boundless energy,” graduated from Oklahoma State in 1994 before being immediately hired as an assistant coach at Texas-Arlington that same year. He stayed in Texas for six seasons before moving to Colorado State as an assistant for four more years. He then returned to the south as the associate to the head coach at Texas A&M from 2004 to 2006. He received his first head coaching gig for the New Orleans Privateers, a Division II team, in 2007. After one year there, Williams made the jump up to Marquette.
He led the Golden Eagles to three-straight 25 win seasons to start off his career there. In 2011 he took them to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. They repeated their Sweet 16 run the following year, after claiming a share of the Big East regular season title. In 2013 they moved even a step further, making it to the Elite Eight before losing to Syracuse. The Golden Eagles lost a lot of talent following that season, and Williams had his worst year as head coach at Marquette in 2014, finishing at 17-15 and no postseason appearance.
Buzz made the move to the ACC and accepted the opening at Virginia Tech in late March of 2014. Many criticized the lateral or even downward move from the Golden Eagles to the Hokies, but he quickly changed peoples’ minds. In his second season in Blacksburg, Williams led the team to their first postseason appearance in nine years. Compiling a 20-15 record, Virginia Tech was a surprising top half of the ACC team. This season Buzz has the Hokies on a similar role, currently sitting at 18-7 overall.
Very few. While at Marquette, Buzz was able to recruit with some success in the Chicagoland area. However he has no ties to the Big Ten (except for rekindling Marquette’s “rivalry” with Wisconsin) and no direct connections to the Illini whatsoever. It would be a risk to hire Williams if Illinois is looking for a guy who has a proven reputation to Chicago and the state.
1. Has shown interest in the past
Williams was rumored to be considering the Illinois job back when Bruce Weber was let go. Mike Thomas reportedly had Buzz near the top of his list. But Williams ultimately stayed at Marquette, which proved to be a good move at the time. But his previous interest in the job means he might still have a certain amount of interest if Whitman came calling. That’s no guarantee he’ll say yes, but unlike some of the candidates on this list he would probably pick up the phone if Illinois called him.
2. Can turn programs around
He’s only had two Division One head coaching jobs, and he’s managed to turn both programs around fairly quickly. He only missed one NCAA tournament in his six years at Marquette and he’s taken a very mediocre Hokies team and got them trending in the right direction. They’re poised to make their first NCAA tournament in nearly ten seasons, and it’s only taken him three seasons to do it. There’s no question that Williams is a proven winner who might be poised to have similar success if he takes another step up to a place like Illinois.
3. Good energy/personality
This isn’t a necessity for a head coach, but Williams brings a similar level of energy and passion that John Groce brings to every practice and game, which is arguably his most appreciated quality. Williams truly loves whatever job he takes; he’s already created an entire scholarship endowment fund at Virginia Tech in his family’s name after three years in Blacksburg. Not only is Buzz a good X’s and O’s coach, but he also lives up to his nickname with an extraordinary amount of passion and energy. So much so that he seems to have a sweating problem.
Buzz Williams out here bleeding sweat. pic.twitter.com/jmtIxyrYFV— Ryan S. Clark (@ryan_s_clark) January 7, 2017
Buzz Williams sweated thru his dress shirt, now wearing VT T-shirt. Never seen that before pic.twitter.com/43MpDujCBn— Steve Jones (@SteveJones_CJ) February 18, 2017
1. No ties to the program
Buzz really has no reason to bolt from Virginia Tech and come to Illinois. He doesn’t have any ties to Champaign and has no relationship with Josh Whitman or anyone directly within the Illini program. This isn’t a question of motivation; Williams is a high-energy guy who I’m sure would be thrilled to get a phone call from Illinois. But I wonder whether or not a strong financial offer would grab his attention enough to make him leave Blacksburg after only two years. He seems to be building something exciting at Virginia Tech, and to leave all that behind for an unknown future at a big-time program might seem like an illogical move right now. This is as much about timing as anything else, since he was considered for the job after Weber was fired back in 2011.
2. The pressure of Illinois
Following along with the first con, Williams would be entering the Illini head coaching gig with immediate pressure on his shoulders. Whitman is looking for a long-term option that can finally bring the team back to its historical glory. It’s fair to question whether Williams is the guy to do that, considering his first and only head coaching jobs were at lower-profile basketball programs. Marquette has a good history, but both the Golden Eagles and Virginia Tech don’t come with the national pressure to succeed like the Illinois job does. There’d be very little room for error if Williams were hired.
3. He’s very expensive
Besides the fact that Williams might not want to leave the Hokies, it would also take a large financial offer to sway him away. He just received a big contract extension from Virginia Tech that has him locked in through the 2022-23 season at $2.6 million a year. That number will be bumped up to $3.3 million per season once the extension kicks in. That means the Illini would need to pay a pretty hefty buyout if they hired Williams, somewhere around $2 million. The question then becomes whether or not Buzz is worth that cost.
To get more information on Williams’ chances of being lured away from Va Tech, we asked Gobbler Country associate editor Jawhar Ali for his take on the situation.
There was a lot of talk last offseason if Buzz was going to leave the program to go coach at Oklahoma State, since he grew up near there and it would be closer to home. That obviously didn’t happen. With a growing program that has flown under the radar the last two seasons, but is now starting to gain some national recognition, I don’t think Coach Williams will bolt for another program. He genuinely loves Blacksburg, the fans, and his players - as well as the opportunity to compete in the hyper-competitve ACC. His seat is about as cold as Antarctica so no chance he gets fired either.
Buzz is one of the more interesting wild card names on our list. He’s not someone that you immediately think of when a coaching vacancy pops up, but he’s a respected head coach with a great personality that has won everywhere he’s gone. I’m not sure Williams would accept an offer if Illinois came calling, but I think he’d listen. The biggest hurdle with Buzz is how solidified he appears to be in Blacksburg. He’s paid handsomely and is just now starting a rebuild for the Hokies. Would he really want to leave such an established and upwards-trending gig for an uncertain future in Champaign? I don’t think so, but I think he’d certainly be worth a phone call.
Have thoughts on the chances of Buzz Williams becoming the next head coach at Illinois? Drop by in the comments section below and let us know what you think!