KANSAS CITY, Mo. — A scene from Bill Self’s 10th year as Kansas basketball coach: It’s Wednesday at Big 12 media day, just before noon in the Sprint Center, and Self is staring at an iPhone screen.
Moments earlier, KU is ranked No. 7 in the preseason coaches’ poll, and now a reporter is handing over his phone, the full top 25 cued up. Self wants to see the entire list — to make a mental note of each team in the top 10.
“I’m am probably a little surprised,” Self says. “But I like it.”
Sometimes people ask Bill Self about the NBA. Would he be interested? Would he want the challenge? Could he leave the whole college thing behind?
These are complicated questions — life questions — with a mix of factors to consider. But when the questions do come, Self does a pretty solid job of boiling it all down into a few sentences.
“There’s only 30 (NBA) jobs,” Self says, “And to be honest, I hate to say this, but I got a better job than three-quarter of them. So I got one of the best jobs basketball has to offer, in my opinion.”
There are plenty of reasons that Self believes this to be the case. And most of them, he says, extend beyond the recent contract extension that could keep him at KU for another 10 years and pay him in excess of $50 million. In a few weeks, he will begin his 10th season at Kansas. He has full control of his roster — as long he recruits right. His family has found a home in Lawrence. And his son, Tyler, barely in grade school when the Selfs arrived in Lawrence, is now a walk-on at Kansas and spends afternoons with his dad.
But there’s another reason Self can see himself at Kansas for another 10 years — another reason KU seems more enticing than possible NBA riches.
“You win,” says Self, who will turn 50 later this year. “Because it doesn’t matter what they pay you, if you don’t win, you’re gonna be miserable.”
Now, as Self prepares to close out his first decade in Lawrence and begin a second act, it’s only natural to wonder what comes next. In nine seasons, the Jayhawks have won one NCAA title, advanced to two Final Fours, and won the last eight straight Big 12 titles. If you want reminders of KU’s dominance in the Self era, there are few better places to go than Big 12 media day.
The Jayhawks lost two players to the NBA draft and feature a roster with seven scholarship freshmen. And yet, they are the unanimous pick to win the league again.
“A lot of people don’t even have that many (titles),” senior guard Elijah Johnson says. “And we got that in a row.”
When Self is asked about the streak, he mostly talks about bridging the gap. When Wayne Simien and Co. left campus in 2005, Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers showed up as freshmen to bridge the gap. When Rush and Chalmers helped KU win a title in 2008, the Morris twins and Tyshawn Taylor arrived the next year to provide a lift. This latest group, Self says, will have to do the same.
“This next team has to bridge the gap,” Self says. “You have to have the team that will basically not let it dip. And we’ve had three teams that didn’t allow it to dip.”
The Self way has also included a steady string of recruits who were nationally ranked — but not quite good enough to leave early. In some ways, the cupboard has never been bare. Self says it’s not always by design.
If he could recruit an entire class of one-and-done recruits, he definitely would.
“In a heartbeat,” he says.
But sometimes, Self says, experience can trump talent.
Kansas, of course, has a couple of other things working in its favor. Johnson says he can hardly walk 10 feet on campus without seeing somebody or something that reminds him of KU’s streak. Sometimes it’s a T-shirt. Sometimes it’s a classmate offering a word of advice: Don’t let us down.
“At class, on campus… you’re gonna be reminded of it,” Johnson says.
But there’s also a reason the Jayhawks have traditionally shouted “Big 12 champs” — not “Jayhawks” or “Kansas” — when they join together for a post-practice huddle.
“It’s crazy that it’s been so long,” senior forward Kevin Young says. “But at the same time, the players, they come and go, but Coach Self, he just enforces the same kind of teachings.”
Johnson puts it this way: “It’s the head honcho.”
Self’s latest squad comes with question marks, too. Self says Johnson and senior center Jeff Withey will have to learn how to carry a team. And the freshmen will soon need to play like sophomores or juniors. But this is part of why Self likes it at KU. He now has a new roster to mold and coach. And he has close to five months to turn them into Big 12 champs again.
“To me, the pressure’s still on,” Self says, “and that’s the way it should be.”