Here in the land of jazz clubs and voodoo, a basketball coach walks through the Superdome, composed and cool.
Bill Self moves away from the horde of cameras and microphones. In a moment, he’ll disappear down the hallway to prepare his Kansas Jayhawks for tonight’s Final Four matchup against Ohio State.
But first, a golf cart appears, seats full with KU players and officials. Freshman guard Merv Lindsay, a player who never sees the floor, takes up a spot in the back.
“Can I get in?” Self asks in his familiar Oklahoma twang and with a sly smile.
Why wouldn’t Self be happy? Four years ago, he won the NCAA title and signed a 10-year, $30 million contract. But this is a coach taking in the incredible satisfaction of a job well done in way that he hasn’t experienced before at KU. This season, Self redefined himself and conducted a magnum opus in his most challenging year.
Before the season, former KU coach Larry Brown, the man who first brought Self to Lawrence as a graduate assistant more than 25 years ago, checked on his protégé. Brown saw a roster that had three freshmen ruled ineligible for academic reasons, a seemingly crippling blow to the team’s depth.
“When I saw us practice early,” Brown says, “I didn’t know if we’d win 15 games.”
Self and KU also faced problems more pressing than basketball. In recent years, a multi-million dollar ticket scandal infected the athletic department and sent five people to federal prison; two rounds of conference realignment threatened the Jayhawks’ athletic status; and an inconceivable tragedy struck one of the program’s most promising players.
“You had a cloud that just kind of hovered above us for a while,” Self says.
But somehow these conditions were perfect for Self to carve out his most comfortable groove on the sideline.
“He has shown a patience and a calmness this year that seems pretty new to him,” says Jay Davis, a childhood friend who has known Self since junior high.
Five years ago, Self was hexed, unable to even get to the Final Four. Now he’s back, the unflappable coach in his proudest moment, two victories from another championship.
“Oh man,” Brown says. “I’ve never seen anybody do a better job than this.”
The stories are legend by now, apocryphal tales that are dug up each basketball season in Lawrence.
Brown remembers Self calling him in the summer of 1985, a fresh-faced graduate from Oklahoma State looking to kickstart a coaching career. Self had worked at Brown’s camp the previous summer. One day, Self was on the court, and he appeared to seriously injure his knee. Brown felt the weight of guilt, and he told Self if there was ever anything he could do, well…
Self asked for a job. Could he be his next graduate assistant?
“That very next year,” Brown says. “… I kind of chuckled about it, because it took a little courage.”
After KU, Self was trying to get hired as a full-time assistant coach at Oklahoma State. He promised Cowboys coach Leonard Hamilton that he would bring a top recruit — but told him he’d need to be hired to make it happen.
Then Self phoned Davis looking for a favor. He was a former standout high school point guard who had settled into a normal college life in Stillwater. Davis would be the top recruit. Self would have a job.
“He’s got an intensity about him,” Davis says. “He’s got a confidence about him. He’s affable, he’s gregarious, he is incredible with people, all that, but in terms of wanting to get things done, I think he has an impatience for that.”
This season, those same traits have surfaced: the courage, the intensity. The kid who made seven buzzer-beaters during his senior year at Edmond High School has relished the opportunity to be doubted.
Self, 49, faced plenty of adversity before his ninth season as coach of the Jayhawks. On Oct. 14, he learned that freshmen Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor were declared partial qualifiers by the NCAA, making them ineligible to play this season. Brown was with Self when the news came down. The Jayhawks had already lost four starters — two to graduation and two to the NBA — and were expected to take a dip after earning No. 1 seeds in the NCAA Tournament the previous two seasons. Now it appeared that Kansas had its least talented team in years.
Six days later, at Big 12 media day in Kansas City, Self was already charting a path. He said that senior Tyshawn Taylor, an embattled point guard from Hoboken, N.J., would have to be the team’s unquestioned leader. He said junior forward Thomas Robinson would have to be an All-American.
“I just feel like he always kind of has that belief that there’s always a way,” says Self’s younger sister, Shelly Anderson. “There’s always something that’s possible.”
On Feb. 25, the Missouri Tigers walked into Allen Fieldhouse for what was being dubbed as “The Last Border War.” Several months earlier, the Tigers had announced their move to the Southeastern Conference, and it was Self who unleashed the strongest of sentiments. The Jayhawks would not be playing Missouri while he was the coach at Kansas.
“It’s a shame that it’s gonna end,” Self would say. “But it’s definitely gonna end.”
It was not the first time that Self had stepped up to the plate and taken on more responsibility. During the previous three years, including in the aftermath of the ticket scandal and two tenuous periods of conference realignment, Self had been the one man in Lawrence who could soothe the anxiety.
This was the guy Davis knew in high school, the player that wasn’t afraid to take the last shot.
“And he was a guy who had success taking the shot,” Davis says.
It didn’t look like that would be the case on that day in Lawrence as the Jayhawks fell behind by 19 points to Missouri in the second half. They had already been through so much as a team. They had suffered early-season losses to Kentucky, Duke and Davidson. They had laid an egg at Iowa State, and melted down in the final minutes at Missouri, losing an eight-point lead.
But in other ways, the season was falling into place. Self says he gave Taylor more freedom than any guard since he’s been at Kansas, and Taylor has responded with his defining season, erasing his reputation as a player who made immature mistakes off the court and careless errors on it.
“I’ve been here for four years,” Taylor says, “and I haven’t always been the easiest guy to coach, for sure. But he’s found a way to coach me and keep me in the loop always.”
Self also nurtured Robinson, giving his All-American power forward tough love. After the sudden death of his mother and two grandparents last year, Robinson’s story touched Kansas fans like few others. Self wanted Robinson to know that he’d be there for him. But on the court, Self would remain relentless.
“He’s going to be a tough coach no matter what because he wants the best out of his players,” Robinson says, “Babying your players is not going to get the best out of them.”
Self would take the same philosophy with the rest of his team, convincing a crew of little-used backups that they could be key cogs in a tremendous machine. And just when things were at their worst against Missouri, it all started to come together. Senior guard Conner Teahan hit four three-pointers. Junior guard Elijah Johnson had eight points and eight assists. Robinson and Taylor made all the important plays.
As KU whittled into Mizzou’s lead, Brown and Davis watched from the stands. The Jayhawks were on their way to prevailing 87-86 in overtime, and Brown was in awe of how Self handled that half.
“Things just slow down for him now,” Brown says.
Self had been through early-round tournament losses, and heard doubters wonder if he was a one-championship wonder — or even if he was a talented in-game coach. Now, he’s leading a historic comeback against Missouri, or out-coaching Hall of Famer Roy Williams in the NCAA Tournament.
This season has been the lead exhibit in Self’s evolution from a coach who arrived at Kansas as a talented recruiter and now impacts the game by making the right adjustments.
“If you look over at the bench, there, they’ve got it handled,” Brown says. “The kids know they can look at him, and he’s going to figure it out.”
In the moment after the buzzer sounded against Missouri, Self moved down the sideline and threw his hands up in the air, his joy and pride boiling over into a rare on-court display of emotion.
“He showed more emotion after that game than I’ve ever seen, ever,” Davis says, “Not in junior high games, not in high school games, not in college games. I mean, it meant something.”
They say this is Self’s finest hour, the proof that he is among the elite coaches in college basketball. Self, though, isn’t so sure. Maybe it’s the players and not the coach.
“When a team cares a lot,” Self says. “It’s pretty easy.”
But Self does say he’s never enjoyed coaching a team more. This was a team that had to come together over one season, former reserves becoming stars and a locker room full of players taking on the identity of their coach.
On Friday afternoon, Self and Brown stood on the court at the Superdome as the Jayhawks held their open practice. Earlier in the day, Kentucky coach John Calipari, another former Brown protégé, had stood on the same floor. Down on the baseline, members of the KU pep band were clustered together, taking a break from their instruments. But up on the floor, the Jayhawks were playing in the perfect key.
“You know, I love John Calipari and I brag about him a lot,” says Brown, who along with Self is one of the two living coaches to win an NCAA title at KU, “… and I’m excited about what he’s doing at Kentucky; I just marvel at it.
“But I see what Bill is doing at Kansas, it’s amazing to me. To win eight straight (Big 12) championships, to respect the tradition at the university, to make sure everybody is part of it, from the old guys to the new guys, and then to see what he’s done this year, after losing six really, really quality players; I don’t think anybody could’ve foreseen this.”