BLACKSBURG — Whit Babcock said he'd aim high. He said he'd work secretly. He said he would pay. Check, check and extra-large check.
Virginia Tech's introduction Monday of basketball coach Buzz Williams was pizza-fueled — spectators and media demolished about 750 pies — and overly produced. A showman as advertised, Williams spoke sans script, played to the crowd and offered a sage shout-out to football coach Frank Beamer, the former, current and future mayor of Blacksburg.
But the cheerleaders, band, sound system and former players — Bimbo Coles looks like he could still play — are not the story. The story is that Babcock, the first athletic director in Hokies history to have never coached football, is committing the school to basketball like never before.
Sure, Babcock's predecessor, the retired Jim Weaver, oversaw the construction of a practice complex that ranks among the ACC's best. But consider his three basketball coaching hires.
Ricky Stokes and James Johnson, were career assistants. Seth Greenberg had compiled an admirable record at Long Beach State and South Florida, but had been to only two NCAA tournaments in 13 seasons, never advancing. Moreover, the coaches and their assistants were paid modestly.
Those days are over.
Williams was wildly successful in six seasons at Marquette, reaching two Sweet 16s and an Elite Eight in five NCAA tournament appearances. Tech will pay him accordingly.
Williams' seven-year contract is worth a minimum of $18.2 million, or, on average, $2.6 million per year. That's more than triple what Johnson, fired last week after two losing seasons, was making.
The key word there is minimum. Rest assured there will be incentives, and if Williams succeeds early …
"What I've found is, if things are going right on a seven-year deal, you're renegotiating it after three," Babcock said.
In his final season as a Hokies assistant coach, 2011-12, Johnson made $143,000. Williams' top three assistants are assured a combined $725,000. Plus, Williams will be allowed additional administrative staff.
Babcock acknowledged the salaries will "stretch" athletic department coffers, especially for the next three years, when the school owes Greenberg, Johnson and Weaver more than $2.2 million.
"This is an aggressive move," said Babcock, on the job less than two months. "As I said in the press conference (explaining Johnson's dismissal), some times you have to spend money to acquire talent, and time will tell if it was the right one."
During that session with reporters last Tuesday, Babcock also said that he would pursue a "splash" hire and that he would do so quietly. Indeed, less than 48 hours later, Babcock found himself in a marathon, face-to-face interview with Williams that morphed into a whirlwind courtship.
So clandestine was/is Babcock that he would not reveal where he and Williams met, only that it was not in Blacksburg. Babcock mined connections from his previous job as Cincinnati's athletic director, including Bearcats coach and Williams confidant Mick Cronin. Williams and Cronin employ the same agent, yet another avenue that Babcock used to gauge potential interest and make contact.
Babcock said he spoke in-person with no other candidate, and given the search's speed, that feels plausible. He had seen Williams coach several times against Cincinnati, was rightfully impressed and moved instantly.
Left unanswered Monday was why Williams would leave a program of national-championship pedigree for Virginia Tech. He tap-danced around questions about Marquette's leadership vacuum — the school's president and athletic director are interim — and its membership in the realigned Big East. He said the challenge of rebuilding an ACC program lured him to Blacksburg.
At Marquette, Williams inherited a program that had been to three consecutive NCAA tournaments. His first head-coaching job, in 2006 at the University of New Orleans, was far more daunting, but he bolted there after one season to join Tom Crean's Marquette staff.
"I hope I can (rebuild)," Williams said. "I've yet to prove that."
But Williams was part of a rapid renaissance at Texas A&M, where in 2004-05 as an assistant to Billy Gillispie, he helped the Aggies improve from 7-21, 0-16 in the Big 12 the year previous, to 21-10, 8-8, followed by 22-9, 10-6 and an NCAA bid.
"I want to be thoughtful, but yet I want to be ruthless in how we go about (rebuilding)," Williams said.
Williams' energy is palpable and is welcome not only at Tech but also in the ACC, which other than regional semifinalist Virginia, endured a grim opening week of the NCAA tournament. Much is made of the conference's four Hall of Fame coaches, but Syracuse's Jim Boeheim is 69, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski is 67, North Carolina's Roy Williams is 63, and Louisville's Rick Pitino is 61.
In short, radical change looms, and Buzz Williams' credentials give the Hokies a chance to be at the forefront, to regain the relevancy they enjoyed under Greenberg.
Can Williams' transition from leading Marquette's signature sport to guiding Tech's No. 2? Will he and his yet-to-be-named staff be able to recruit ACC-caliber talent to remote Blacksburg? Will his Type A personality mesh well in the department?
Days such as this are more about hope than answers.
"I think the press conference," Williams said, "is the easiest day of the job."
Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at email@example.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.