Bill Self's success began with losing
03/18/2011 12:00 AM
08/05/2014 2:20 PM
TULSA — You couldn't exactly call it a drill.
One player on the 1993-94 Oral Roberts basketball team would stand near the basket, bracing himself, while another would stand around half-court, gathering himself. When first-year coach Bill Self gave the word, the player at halfcourt would sprint toward his teammate, whose order was to put his hands over his private parts and take a charge.
Other times, Self would have his three assistant coaches surround a player and body-check him over and over again with padded bags. By the time the season finally arrived, the Golden Eagles weren't entirely sure what game they were supposed to be playing.
"I thought he was nuts," said James Kruse, then a walk-on freshman guard. "I thought this guy was just going to kill us."
Self was 30, a former assistant at Oklahoma State who thought he knew everything. But his first of four seasons at Oral Roberts showed Self how much he needed to learn before he could build a team and shape it into a consistent winner.
He exuded confidence, but it became harder to believe in his methods later that season, when Oral Roberts lost its last 15 games. The team was downright miserable, finishing 6-21, and eight players had quit.
Less than a year after taking the job, Self's coaching career was at a crossroads.
"Right then, Coach had to make a decision," said Barry Hinson, then an assistant at Oral Roberts. "Either go back to being an assistant — and maybe get another shot at being a head coach. Or... if we turn this around, we can do anything."
At that moment, though, it was hard for Self to imagine success. He was as discouraged as he'd ever been, the doubt starting to creep in.
Today, 17 years later, Self is back in Tulsa as coach of the Kansas Jayhawks, the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's Southwest Regional. The confused, unproven coach who began his journey here by losing in memorable fashion is now one of the game's biggest winners.
He's a national champion, a Big 12 regular-season champion seven times in a row and a Big 12 Tournament champion five times over. During the last five years, when the Jayhawks have been a No. 1 seed four times, no coach has won more than Self, and it's not even close. KU is 162-21 — a winning percentage of .885 — while Roy Williams' North Carolina program is second with a record of 147-38 (.795).
Clearly, something changed for Self at Oral Roberts, a private Christian school of 3,000 students and one of the only places in the world where miracles are expected.
That Self even wanted the job to begin with showed that he was a believer. Oral Roberts had undergone a two-year transition period from the NAIA level of competition to NCAA Division I, and Self's first season would be Oral Roberts' first as a full-fledged Division I member. The Golden Eagles didn't have a conference, which meant they couldn't automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Friends and trusted colleagues told Self to run away. But he had always wanted to be a head coach by the time he was 30, and this was the position that was open.
Oral Roberts had gone 5-22 the previous year, and, problem was, the Golden Eagles were still playing with NAIA talent. Self had to keep an open mind in recruiting. One day that fall, he was eating lunch at a Subway when a young man named Earl McClellan approached him. McClellan was a freshman from Providence, R.I., who had come to pursue his faith. He also was interested in walking on to the basketball team.
Self told McClellan he'd give him a look. He had no idea at the time, but when Self left Subway that day, he'd found his starting point guard.
Then there was Kruse, a 6-foot-4 freshman who transferred from a Division III school in Massachusetts. Kruse also wanted to pursue his faith while walking on to the basketball team. He contacted Self, who had no idea he was talking to a future captain.
Of course, McClellan and Kruse didn't know what they were signing up for, either. They understood once they experienced "Hell Week" with Self.
"He ran us into the ground," McClellan said.
No exaggeration. At one practice, Self pushed the Golden Eagles so hard that Kruse' blisters were bleeding.
"The back of my socks were filled with blood," Kruse said.
Some guys couldn't handle it. Self was left with the ones who were willing to take the punishment. He offered Kruse a scholarship on the spot.
"My handling of people was bad," Self said. "I did some things to them that nobody does to anybody in today's time. I was mean to those guys. They look back and look at it as battle scars. I look back now, and I can't believe I did that to them."
For a while, it seemed like Self knew what he was doing his first season.
The Golden Eagles won at Texas Christian and started the year 6-6. But the bottom fell out after a road loss at Creighton. They lost five straight games by double digits, and Self told Hinson he wouldn't be needed at games anymore because he'd rather Hinson recruit new players than coach the ones they had.
The players and Self shared one thing in common: They'd never been through anything like this. Self was the clutch kid from Edmond, Okla., who made six game-winning shots his senior year at Edmond High. His players, while not Division I caliber, had won plenty in high school. But, if nothing else, they were living this nightmare together.
Kruse noticed that Self didn't panic. The young coach believed in his long-term plan for the program: to build toughness at all costs.
"I thought I had all the answers," Self said. "We were gonna out-coach folks."
Self was going to win; he just didn't know how. In Year 2, it was more of the same, although Oral Roberts did end that 18-game losing streak. Self had restocked his roster, but only eight players remained by season's end. Fifteen had quit in two seasons. The Golden Eagles went 10-17 mostly because of an easier schedule.
Eventually, Self realized that he was going to have to tweak his style on and off the court.
Self dropped the motion offense he learned under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State and switched to the high-low set that he still uses today. Oral Roberts immediately began to improve, but there was more to the turnaround than Xs and Os.
"He became a lot more comfortable," Kruse said, "just in relating to the players. The first couple years he was very pulled back. He didn't allow a lot of personal time, just hanging out, talking about life. My junior year, we went over to his house to eat. He became someone we could build a relationship with."
When the 1996-97 season arrived, Self had surrounded captains Kruse and McClellan with three classes of recruits, and the program began to feel like a family. In the second game of the season, the Golden Eagles played Self's offense to perfection and beat Arkansas 86-81. That was no fluke, because Oral Roberts later knocked off Oklahoma State 71-60. Self's boys went 21-6 and returned to the postseason, losing to Notre Dame in the NIT.
That loss felt totally different than the 21 they'd survived in '93-94. When it was over, Self walked around the locker room and doled out hugs to everyone.
Self took the University of Tulsa job that offseason, and his career took off from there to Illinois and then Kansas. But he'll never forget the players at Oral Roberts who stuck with him.
"Those are ones that will go down as some of my all-time favorite players to coach," Self said. "I probably learned more from them than they ever learned from me."
Today, McClellan is a pastor in Austin, and Kruse is a pastor in Tulsa. A few times a year, they will talk with Self and reminisce. Last year, when the Jayhawks played at Texas, Self asked McClellan to speak to the team before the game.
If only KU's players could have seen Self then.
"Right now, he just wins. Period," Kruse said. "Everybody can say they won with him. But we lost with him.
"There's not a lot of guys that can say they lost 18 games in a row with Bill Self. That's a special bond."