Marquette needs a Buzz beater as its next coach

Written By BY DAN MCGRATH For Sun-Times Media Posted: 03/29/2014, 02:10am

I  once ‘‘coached’’ a small and slow but scrappy intramural team to back-to-back championships in a 6-foot-and-under league at Marquette, but the achievement didn’t put me on the short list for the Golden Eagles’ current coaching vacancy.

I was also athletic chairman of my residence hall floor sophomore year, but that experience doesn’t have me in the mix as Marquette pursues a new athletic director.

I could argue that extensive dealing with teenage boys makes high school president a tougher job than university president, but Marquette went and hired Dr. Mike Lovell as its new CEO without giving me a chance to state my case.

I’m here to be of service to my alma mater, but the interest is not reciprocal.

That said, recent developments at MU have us alums a bit perplexed.

The shock of Buzz Williams’ abrupt departure as basketball coach was immediately overshadowed by breathless, wildly nonsensical speculation that Shaka Smart was coming to replace him. In the days before a computer and Internet access made anyone a reporter, some foundation would be required to construct a story of that magnitude. No more.

Smart has turned down more jobs than Larry Brown has ever held since he took Virginia Commonwealth to the Final Four in 2011, including UCLA’s when it was his for the taking. But Marquette made sense because ‘‘he’s from Wisconsin.’’

So is Tony Bennett, but the coach of the ACC champion Virginia Cavaliers wasn’t mentioned, even though he’d be no tougher to land than Smart. And if being from Wisconsin were a major qualification for the job, Marquette could be talking to Ed Hochuli or Latrell Sprewell.

Williams is from west Texas. Successful, sure, and fairly popular, but never quite at home amid the comfortable suburban culture that defines Marquette, its gritty urban setting notwithstanding. I like Williams, and I believe he can coach, but I thought the folksy, aw-shucks demeanor he affected gave cover to a cunning survivor who was equal parts ego and insecurity.

It’s the former that drives him to believe he can win at a coach’s graveyard, a position Virginia Tech solidified with its move to the ACC. There’s Duke, North Carolina, Virginia and Syracuse, for starters, with Louisville coming aboard next year. Have the year of your life and you might finish seventh or eighth in the conference.

At least Buzz won’t be bothered by those pesky entrance requirements he complained about at Marquette, although the number of transfers and junior-college emigres who populated his roster suggests he had pretty decent leeway in the matter of picking his players.

Those players’ academic backgrounds were a frequent source of friction between Buzz and his namesake former boss, athletic director Larry Williams, who hadn’t hired him. When Larry Williams, a high-minded, Notre Dame-bred lawyer, was crudely forced out in December after two years on the job, Buzz was the clear winner of that power struggle.

But insecurity dogged him. Despite a salary north of $2 million and a lavish budget that underscored Marquette’s commitment to high-level basketball, Buzz didn’t feel sufficiently appreciated for those six straight NCAA tournament berths. He also didn’t know whom he would be working for, with the president’s and athletic director’s offices both vacant, so he was receptive to a Virginia Tech offer made sweeter by a seven-year guarantee.

I wish Buzz well, but if Marquette lands the right guy, he won’t be missed.

Smart, I suspect, is waiting for one of the blue-blood openings at, say, Duke, where Mike Krzyzewski is 67 and there’s no obvious successor in sight, with none of Coach K’s coaching offspring coming close to his level of achievement.

Or North Carolina, where Roy Williams is 63.

Or even Indiana, where Tom Crean is only 48 but hears the wolves howling just a year after he was thought to have the best team in the country.

Formerly retired Bill Cords has reprised his role as athletic director to direct Marquette’s search. Twice before, he did well by hiring top assistants from high-level programs: Crean from Michigan State and Kevin O’Neill from Arizona. Saul Phillips is a former Bo Ryan aide who has done wondrous things at North Dakota State, but some Marquette people have an irrational aversion to anyone with Wisconsin Badger ties.

If I were in Cords’ spot, I’d place a call to Bruce Weber, a Milwaukee guy who would get Marquette and understand how it wants to do things. I’d even share with him this killer press-breaker play that helped us win those two intramural championships.

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