ST. LOUIS — Roy Williams and Bill Self trade text messages. They’re not buddies.
They’re different guys.
Williams, who spent 15 years as Kansas’ basketball coach before leaving to return to his North Carolina roots years ago, is admittedly a little hokey. But if he’s phony, he’s the most genuine phony going in college basketball.
Self, who followed Williams as Kansas’ coach in 2003, is more direct. He doesn’t spit into rivers or adopt a stuffed monkey as his team’s mascot (Williams did both while at KU).
So while they don’t call one another out of the blue to shoot the breeze, they are forever connected by their association with Kansas basketball. And part of the octagon of coaches that started with the inventor of the game, James Naismith, and winded through W.O. Hamilton, Phog Allen, Dick Harp, Ted Owens and Larry Brown before getting to Williams and Self, who have overseen the kingdom in grand fashion for the past 24 years.
There is not a fan base in all of college basketball that has been taken better care of. So as North Carolina and Kansas get ready to trade blows Sunday in the Edward Jones Dome with a trip to the Final Four at stake, those fans should embrace two coaches who have helped KU win 685 games (and lose 153) over nearly a quarter century.
Hostilities toward Williams have dissipated since he broke the hearts of many Kansas fans by announcing was leaving days after KU lost to Syracuse in the 2003 national championship game. There was a feeling, perpetuated by Williams, that he would forever be a Jayhawk.
But when his mentor, Dean Smith, called him home, Williams couldn’t resist. The passage of time has made his move more understandable. And he has won two national championships at North Carolina after being unable to take the Jayhawks inside the winner’s circle. He is happy, yet always sure to reach out to Kansas fans, who are becoming more receptive to his overtures.
Self has been the perfect replacement. Challenged to follow a legend, he has become one himself.
And for KU, the beat goes on.
With Williams and Self at the helm, Kansas has played in 23 of 24 NCAA Tournaments, encompassing 76 games. The Jayhawks have been to five Final Fours, 15 Sweet 16s and captured 17 conference championships. Kansas has been ranked in the Top 10 in all but the 2005-06 season, when they made it as high as No. 13. KU has produced 18 first-round draft picks under the two coaches, 30 first-team all-conference players and seven All-Americans.
Williams, 61, can’t go a minute in one of his NCAA news conferences without tossing a bouquet Kansas’ way.
“I have nothing but great, great memories of the University of Kansas,’’ he said. “It was 15 years of my life that I felt like I gave my heart and my body and my soul. And the people were wonderful to me.’’
Not so much when he left. People were vicious, claiming he was breaking a promise by going to North Carolina.
They were difficult times and when Kansas and North Carolina played in the national semifinals in 2008, tensions were still running high. KU won that game and Williams showed up two nights later at the national championship game wearing a Jayhawk sticker on his shirt.
That didn’t sit so well with his Tar Heel fan base, but as Williams might say: “Dad-gum, I was just doing what I thought was right.”
It’s impossible not to like both coaches, who held court with the media during the Midwest Regional’s off day and had us eating out of their hands. Williams and Self are funny, self-deprecating, sincere and knowledgeable. When they speak, anyone who loves basketball listens.
“Bill’s a tremendous coach and I’m not saying that lightly,’’ Williams said. “We knew each other a long time before we were golf partners in a golf match on a Nike trip one time and so it’s a friend thing, but it’s more respect for what he’s done.’’
Self, even though he had great success at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois before taking the Kansas job, admitted to some fear about replacing Williams.
“But this is what my father told me,’’ Self said. “I called dad and I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do this, I don’t know if I can take that job. Roy’s won so much, he’s loved there and all that stuff.’ He said, ‘You know what, you’re exactly right.’ And I said, ‘So you don’t think I should take it.’ And he told me, ‘No, I think if you’re scared to follow him, you’re right, I don’t think you should take it.’
“He basically told me I was soft, which is a good call because I was being soft.’’
Self decided not to be intimidated by Williams’ success and focused on giving KU’s storied program his personal touch.
“Coaches may say the best scenario is to take over a program where the coach was hated, where they have really good players but nobody thinks they’re good and there are no expectations,’’ Self said. “And I did the polar opposite of all of those. So that’s not the smartest thing, but I would still rather win.’’
Williams says he has watched Self win from afar with pride for Self, but mostly for KU.
“When I was the coach at Kansas, I had the picture of the previous coaches, big pictures of them in my office,’’ Williams said. “Now I don’t know if Bill does that, but there is a kinship. I know the stress and the pressures and the expectations and the feelings and the love and the passion.’’
Williams didn’t have Self’s head coaching experience when he followed Larry Brown as Kansas’ coach in 1988-89, the year after KU’s national championship. He was dropped into the job to sink or swim.
“I wasn’t as confident as Bill because he talks about having apprehension taking the KU job,’’ Williams said. “I was scared to death. But Larry had left a great group of youngsters and the secret to my success was that first team with Kevin Pritchard, Milt Newton, Mark Randall, Scooter Barry, and those guys gave me a chance. The kids we had at Kansas really made Roy Williams and I’m not exaggerating.’’
Williams and Self are two of the finest coaches in basketball history and what they have in common is KU. They have given the Jayhawks an unprecedented stretch of success. And for that, both coaches should be revered.