ST. LOUIS — David Higley from Overland Park was like many Kansas fans when Roy Williams arrived in Lawrence.
“I didn’t know much about him,” Higley said. “I wasn’t sure how it was going to go.”
After a few years …
“A fabulous time,” Higley said.
Two Final Fours, a slew of Big Eight championships and a parade of stars through Allen Fieldhouse in those early years. How could it be better?
“Well, Bill came,” Higley said.
The Bill Self regime followed Williams, and in terms of copying success the coaches — as measured by total victories, conference championships and NCAA Tournament achievements — are almost in lockstep.
Here’s how close they are: If Self’s Jayhawks defeat Williams’ North Carolina Tar Heels on Sunday in the Midwest Regional championship, Self will have his 22nd NCAA Tournament victory in nine seasons at KU. That will be one more than Williams had in his first nine NCAA appearances as KU’s coach.
Self is 21-7 in NCAA games as KU’s coach. Williams was 21-9 in years two through 10 in Lawrence. His first team in 1989-90 was on probation and ineligible for the tournament.
Records for both coaches in those nine-year periods at Kansas: 267-52 for Self, 263-50 for Williams.
Joy mostly defines those stretches. The 1991 Final Four run in which the Jayhawks hammered the region’s top two seeds, Indiana and Arkansas, is remembered as a magical weekend. Two years later, the Jayhawks knocked off the top-seeded Hoosiers to reach another Final Four.
A fresher memory is the ultimate achievement, the 2008 NCAA championship, where Kansas came from nine down in the final 2:12, capped by the Mario Chalmers’ three-pointer dagger, to force overtime.
Because Kansas often finds itself in rarified air among the nation’s elite, the unexpected losses hit harder and the gloom festers longer.
Or as Self put it Saturday when describing the pressures of winning at Kansas and North Carolina: “Winning is a relief, losing is a disaster.”
For both coaches, the disasters hit early. Williams’ first NCAA loss came as a No. 2 seed to seventh-seeded UCLA, and Bruins coach Jim Harrick would crush KU’s spirits again a few years later when his eighth-seeded Rhode Island team ended the careers of Raef LaFrentz and Paul Pierce on a top-seeded Kansas team in the round of 32.
The roll call of inglorious Kansas losses in the NCAA under Self starts with Bucknell and marches ahead with Bradley, Northern Iowa and VCU.
But mostly, both periods produced good times, winning games at better than an 80-percent clip, cutting nets and hanging banners.
So, which coach gets the edge?
Larry Brown might be the best referee.
Brown is associated with both coaches in multiple ways.
He preceded Williams at Kansas, winning the 1988 NCAA title with Danny Manning. Brown and Williams are both progeny of legendary North Carolina coach Dean Smith. They were recommended to Kansas by Smith, who played for the Jayhawks in the early 1950s.
During Brown’s KU tenure, Self worked as a graduate assistant on the 1985-86 team that played in the Final Four, and the coaches remain close today. In St. Louis, Brown is lodging at the Jayhawks’ team hotel.
But both coaches are special to Brown.
“Roy and I were forged by the same man in Coach Smith,” Brown said, “and even though I played for and coached with other people, the (Smith) influence was profound.”
Brown relates to Williams through their early coaching responsibilities. Both started as low-level assistants under Smith before embarking on careers that put both in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.
“Unbelievably hard worker,” Brown said of Williams. “When Roy got to Kansas, he was a phenomenal recruiter, and he took the name recognition of Kansas and the success we had had and took it to another level.”
Brown’s bond with Self comes from directly working with him. Brown has attended several Kansas games over the past month or so, traveling with the Jayhawks on occasion.
His message to Self after the Jayhawks’ 60-57 victory over North Carolina State in Friday’s regional semifinal was to not focus in on the team’s second straight NCAA game of shooting 37 percent or worse, or having a couple of double-digit seeds — Purdue was a No. 10 and the Wolfpack a No. 11 — take his second-seeded team to the wire.
“I try to keep things real,” Brown said. “I told him, ‘We’re moving on.’ And if I had told him before the season, knowing who he had lost from last year’s team, knowing his top freshmen weren’t going to be eligible to play, would he have taken sitting here right now with one more win needed to get to a Final Four?”
But what Brown may admire most about Self is how he’s immersed himself in all things Kansas.
“He embraced the tradition in a way that coaches don’t do,” Brown said. “Bill went to Oklahoma State. He coached at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois. But you’d think he was a KU graduate or a KU player. Every time I’m around him he’s talking about what’s been done before him, whether he’s talking about Roy, or our staff, or Ted Owens and Phog Allen.
“It’s a remarkable quality.”
Williams’ first nine NCAA Tournament-eligible years at Kansas closed a chapter and some frustration began to set in. After reaching two, the program didn’t get to a Final Four with some of its best players and the drought would last nearly a decade before a core group — Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich — sent Williams out with some of his best teams. KU reached the Final Four in 2002 and the national championship game in 2003, a heartbreaking loss to Syracuse, before Williams left for North Carolina.
Not only wasn’t the cupboard bare when Self took over, with Wayne Simien, Aaron Miles and Keith Langford, the program was on firm ground.
“I took over a healthy program,” Self said. “Coaches may say the best scenario is to take over a program where the coach is hated, where they’ve got really good players and nobody thinks they’re any good and they have no expectations.
“I did the polar opposite of all of those.”
Among historically prestigious basketball programs, nearly all have endured a coaching misfire in the expanded NCAA Tournament era of the past quarter-century.
At Kentucky, Rick Pitino was followed by Tubby Smith, and although Smith’s national championship and 23-9 NCAA record at Lexington would be considered good times at most programs, Smith left for Minnesota under pressure.
Billy Gillispie’s two-year term in Lexington that included an NIT appearance qualifies as a disaster.
In the dozen years since Bob Knight left Indiana, Mike Davis, Kelvin Sampson and Tom Crean have combined to miss the NCAA Tournament five times.
UCLA has enjoyed bursts of success in the post-John Wooden era but none were sustained for more than few years and the Bruins have missed the NCAA for the second time in the past three years.
Duke’s lone leader during this time, Mike Krzyzewski, takes 927 career victories into next season, and the program has been a model of consistency, not missing the NCAA since 1995.
Even North Carolina after Smith and before Williams included the three-year Matt Doherty era that cost the program its run of 27 straight NCAA appearances.
After the probation year Williams inherited in 1988-89, the Jayhawks haven’t missed the NCAA Tournament, their 23 straight appearances the game’s longest active streak. One of Williams’ teams was a No. 6 seed, another a No. 8. No other KU team in the current streak has been seeded worse than fourth.
Williams spent the majority of his interviews on Saturday reminiscing about Kansas. He spoke about the Allen Fieldhouse atmosphere and how two years ago, for North Carolina’s centennial reunion, he copied the process from a KU production while he coached in Lawrence. There was also his golf game with Self in frigid temperatures a year ago in Mayetta, Kan., in one of Williams’ first public appearances in the state since leaving.
Williams says he has a shared-experience relationship with Self.
“There’s no question that there’s a tremendous sense of kinship,” Williams said.
One that can be measured in victories and titles.