KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Nearly 10 years ago, Richard Konzem stepped out into the muggy New Orleans air, hoping for a Friday night of peace and relaxation with his wife and daughter.
Konzem, a senior associate athletic director at Kansas, had come to the Big Easy on business. The Jayhawks were back in the Final Four for the second straight year, and KU coach Roy Williams was preparing his team to face Marquette in the Louisiana Superdome.
All around the famed French Quarter, the atmosphere was infused with the proper dosage of revelry, basketball and bourbon. Kansas fans in crimson and blue packed the streets. And with the Jayhawks just two victories from an elusive NCAA title, the mood should have been joyous.
But as Konzem strolled out on the sidewalk outside the Sheraton Hotel on Canal Street, the KU athletic department was in turmoil. Konzem’s boss, athletic director Al Bohl, would be fired after the basketball season. And the whispers had already begun: North Carolina coach Matt Doherty had resigned two days earlier and Dean Smith was gearing up to take another run at hiring Williams.
But before Konzem could even walk a block with his wife, Deb, and daughter, Sally, a familiar face appeared.
Illinois coach Bill Self.
Years earlier, Konzem says, the two men had met at KU when Self was a graduate assistant under coach Larry Brown. The two men exchanged pleasantries and stopped for a brief chat. Self was curious about the Roy rumors, and the conversation turned to basketball. After 45 minutes, they were still there, standing on this patch of sidewalk in New Orleans.
Memories have a way of turning fuzzy over time, of course. Details are lost. Words are forgotten. But for nearly 10 years, Konzem has thought back to that serendipitous encounter in New Orleans.
“I remember it like it was last night,” he says.
As the two men parted ways, and Konzem headed for dinner, he could not see what was coming.
But he did know one thing: In his heart, he believed Williams would stay at Kansas. But if the unthinkable came to be, Konzem knew this wouldn’t be the last time he talked to Self.
“I left that conversation believing,” Konzem says now, nearly a decade later. “If Coach Williams left, and the Kansas job was open, he was interested.”
Here we are, 10 years later, and the ripple effects from April 2003 are still being felt. On Sunday afternoon, Self’s Jayhawks will face Williams’ Tar Heels in the Sprint Center for a spot the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16.
In 10 seasons in Lawrence, Self has guided his program to heights that didn’t seem possible in those uncertain days of 2003. The Jayhawks have won 84 percent of their games, nine consecutive Big 12 regular-season titles and exorcised two decades of tourney demons with a national title in 2008.
“It doesn’t feel 10 years to me at all,” Self says. “Of course, all jobs will wear on you. But we’ve experienced some success and had about as good a run as we could have ever hoped.”
• • •
Ten years later, the men that hired Self are no longer at KU. But the story of what could be the most crucial 14 days in Kansas history lives on. It’s a tale with roots on the sidewalks of the French Quarter. But it would continue in Lawrence, where an interim athletic director was still trying to figure out which key to use for his office.
“If I would have known that I was going to have to hire a basketball coach,” says Drue Jennings, sitting in his home in Kansas City area, “I would have never taken that job.”
When the phone rang in late December 2002, Jennings was not looking for a job. A Kansas graduate and former CEO of Kansas City Power & Light, he had spent the last few years caring for his wife, Sue, who had been in the final stages of a long and fatal battle with cancer.
But problems were festering in the Kansas athletic department. Bohl had a tenuous relationship with Williams, and the friction between the two was clouding the basketball program’s future.
Chancellor Robert Hemenway called Jennings with a question: Would he consider being the school’s next athletic director?
Jennings, a businessman who had grown up in a working-class family in Kansas City, Kan., told Hemenway that he didn’t feel qualified. But he would do the job on an interim basis — if Hemenway decided to fire Bohl. During the following months, a succession plan would crystallize. The risk of losing Williams was too strong, and Bohl needed to go. But Hemenway would wait until the end of the basketball season.
There was some concern, Konzem says, that Hemenway was waiting too long. The UCLA job would also come into the picture, and some at Kansas feared that Williams could be lured out west.
But Hemenway would stay the course. And the Jayhawks kept winning. And in the moments after KU’s NCAA title-game loss to Syracuse, with the North Carolina job still vacant, Williams famously told CBS reporter Bonnie Bernstein that he didn’t “give a … about North Carolina.”
Two days later, Bohl was fired. He gave a bizarre news conference in his driveway, saying Williams had crushed him “like a dove.”
And two days after that, with the North Carolina still rumors flying, Konzem boarded a plane with Williams and senior forward Nick Collison and headed for an award ceremony in Los Angeles.
When they arrived at their first destination, the Downtown Athletic Club, former North Carolina star James Worthy was the emcee for the evening — and he was ready to talk to Williams about coming home.
It wasn’t a total coincidence.
The next day, during a golf outing with Kansas booster Dana Anderson at Bel-Air Country Club, former Carolina All-American Mitch Kupchak showed up to talk shop.
“(Dean) Smith had basically assigned a different Carolina legendary player each day to call or be around Coach Williams,” Konzem says.
By late Sunday night, the traveling party hopped a flight back to Lawrence. For days, Williams had appeared torn by the decision, the same one he’d agonized over three years earlier, when he decided to stay at Kansas.
Nearly 15 years earlier, when Williams had interviewed for the Kansas job, Konzem, then a younger staffer in the athletic department, had ripped Williams’ page out of the North Carolina media guide and headed for the airport. Now, as the flight touched down in Lawrence, Konzem looked over at his friend.
“I will remember this as vividly as yesterday,” he says. “I looked over at Coach Williams, and our eyes met, and he dropped his head. And I thought, ‘Oh my god, he’s leaving.’ ”
• • •
Jennings, 66, is retired for good now. He spends his days on corporate and private boards — “I think I’m on about eight of them,” he says — and is busying watching his grandchildren grow up.
He spent more than three decades in the Kansas City civic community, a key figure in one of the area’s most prominent industries. But after 10 years, his grandchildren mostly know that their grandpa hired Bill Self.
“To this day,” he says, “nobody remembers me for being the CEO for KCPL; they remember me for being the guy that hired Bill Self. A 90-day job.”
On the day Williams left Kansas — April 14, 2003 — Jennings and Konzem sequestered themselves in a KU campus office and went to work. According to Jennings, the early discussions were spent compiling names and deciding on qualifications.
Williams had been such a dominant presence at Kansas. Maybe it would be wise to hire a veteran coach who could handle the burden of following a legend — maybe that coach could bridge the gap to a long-term solution.
“We decided,” Jennings says, “that the best thing to do was to get somebody who was relatively young who could continue KU’s traditions.
“And it’s not easy to do. The expectation that people have with the basketball coach at KU are pretty lofty. You’ve gotta try and build a team that people are proud to be associated with.”
The initial list, Jennings says, had 10 to 12 names on it. But Jennings and Konzem kept coming back to Self. He had been at Kansas before, a graduate assistant under Brown in 1985-86. And his roots were in the Big Eight Conference as a player and assistant at Oklahoma State.
According to Konzem, the four-person search committee used former players, including Nick Collison and Jacque Vaughn, to gain intel from former players that had played for Self. Ten years later, Konzem still has the notes on Self in his file.
“They play defense.”
“He does the right things on and off the court.”
“He’s a Big 12 guy.”
In a matter of days, the four-person search committee, which also included Hemenway and associate athletic director Doug Vance, had a short list. Jennings and Konzem wouldn’t identify the names, but according to a source with knowledge of the situation, the committee held preliminary phone interviews with Marquette’s Tom Crean, Oregon’s Ernie Kent and Wichita State’s Mark Turgeon. But the conversation with Self stood out.
“Bill wasn’t nearly as worried about what he was going to get paid, as he was feeling out the territory about what it was going to be like to follow Roy,” Jennings says. “And more importantly, he was more focused on what was available for him to recruit with. What were the facilities like?”
Six days after the search began, Jennings was boarding a flight for Champaign, Ill. By Monday — April 21 — Self was announced as the man who would replace Williams.
Ten years later, Jennings and Hemenway are retired, and Konzem is the CEO of the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America in Lawrence. But on one week in April 2003, they set out to replace a budding KU basketball legend. And they found another in Self.
“Has he exceeded expectations that we could have ever imagined?” Konzem says. “Yes. It’s just crazy how good the guy has been.”
Sunday, Self will go for his 300th victory at Kansas. And Williams will be on the other sideline.
Ten years earlier, just a few weeks after that fateful meeting in New Orleans, Self arrived in Lawrence. During his opening news conference, he accepted a symbolic “coach’s chair” from Hemenway. He held it for a moment, paused for a moment, and then spoke.
“It feels hot,” he said.