The morning following an NCAA-mandated day off throughout the Texas A&M men’s basketball season has been the bane of most players’ existence as the team has grown accustomed to head coach Buzz Williams’ intricacies.
Sleepy-eyed players pull into the parking lot at the Cox-McFerrin Basketball Complex in the darkness of early morning in time for 6:30 a.m. “early bird” practice.
“I’m not going to lie, yeah, I didn’t look forward to it because it was kind of early,” freshman forward Yavuz Gultekin said. “I’m just out of high school, and I was used to waking up kind of late because high school didn’t start until 9 [a.m.].”
Williams’ reason for rousing his squad at the crack of dawn serves a purpose far greater than simple discipline. The idea spawned from one of the most notable tragedies in college basketball and the scar it left on Williams.
In the summer of 2003, Williams, then an assistant with Colorado State, received a midweek call from Baylor’s Dave Bliss. The veteran head coach offered Williams an assistant position on his staff even before Williams performed a traditional interview.
Williams told Bliss he would talk to his boss, then Rams head coach Dale Layer, and his wife and for Bliss to call him back in the upcoming days. Williams never received the call.
Over that time period, the Baylor program was rocked with the disappearance of player Patrick Dennehy, whose body was later found and teammate Carlton Dotson charged with his murder. Dotson pled guilty.
With his focus already on the Baylor program, Williams learned as much as he could about what happened. Through that study, he figured Baylor’s players were away from the coaches for approximately 48 hours.
“That scarred my heart,” Williams said, who made a vow with himself to avoid such a gap in time. “If I ever had a chance to be a coach, I’m never going to coach a kid on a Wednesday at practice in the afternoon, not see them on Thursday because they’re off, and then not see them again until Friday afternoon.”
The impact of the incident was reinforced by the fact that Williams and his wife welcomed their first child, Zera, just months prior, he said.
Williams began using “early bird” practices when he first became a head coach at New Orleans. There, current A&M associate head coach Jamie McNeilly was introduced to starting his day with practice.
“You’re tired. Your sore. You’re hurting when you play for [Williams],” McNeilly said. “And then February comes around, and you start to look at the guys that you’re playing against and they look a little more tired than you or their hands are on their knees when you’re standing up.”
Having worked under Williams for the past 11 seasons, McNeilly fully understands why they use the early practices.
“Understanding where our guys are and having a pulse on our kids is over-the-top, through-the-roof the most important part of our program,” McNeilly said. “We’re going to take care of the young men who come into the program, because of how Buzz was scarred from [the Baylor incident] and how close he was to that situation.”
So far this season, the Aggies (11-11, 5-5) have had 21 early bird practices. The latest on Monday helped prepare the team for their next Southeastern Conference challenge, a 7:30 p.m. Wednesday tip against Florida (14-9, 6-4) at Reed Arena.
Once practice begins, it can hold anything from film study to weight lifting to a game-preparation walk through, similar to what a football team might utilize, Williams said.
Half of a season into Williams’ first in Aggieland, the players have come to understand the merits of greeting the sunrise while on the practice court.
“We’re off a whole day, and then you’re kind of ready to get back into the flow of things,” junior forward Savion Flagg said. “The 6 o’clock and 6:30 a.m., it was like, ‘Why that early?’ But you get used to it and then you see why he does it.”
NOTES — Williams will coach against one of his former Virginia Tech players Wednesday in Florida senior forward Kerry Blackshear. After Williams left the Hokies for A&M, Blackshear, who had graduated, transferred to Florida. This season the 6-foot-10 post is averaging 13.8 points and 8.1 rebounds per game.