|Kansas coach Bill Self moves from the bench into the driver's seat|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 07 April 2008 23:11|
Self sat near the top of Kemper Arena on that night in 1988. He was already an assistant coach at Oklahoma State, but a big chunk of his heart still lingered in Kansas. The string on his college playing career at Oklahoma State had just run out three years earlier when Self first showed up at then-Kansas coach Larry Brown's summer camp to work as an assistant and figure out how to break into the business.
During a pickup game with the staff and a few of the campers, he blew out an anterior cruciate ligament. Brown felt so bad, he asked whether there was anything at all he could do. Self replied with his next breath that what he needed more than anything was a job, and Brown gave him one as a graduate assistant.
Barely 24 hours before his Jayhawks played Memphis for the national championship, he recalled those days wistfully and how little he knew about Kansas' unparalleled tradition - stretching all the way back to Dr. James Naismith, who invented the game and was the school's first coach.
``I felt it when I was a GA there, but I didn't feel like I do now, because obviously I was young and naive and didn't know how great it was.''
Then Self recalled his own role in helping extend that tradition.
``I was in charge of making sure we rented out the correct bowling alley on game days and numerous things like that, because if you know coach Brown, you know he's very, very superstitious,'' he said, chuckling at the memory. ``Making $4,500 a year, being a grad student, all that stuff, I don't know if I could have had more fun.''
Fast forward to Monday night, when Self was sitting on the Kansas bench and his team was down three points with 10 seconds left.
``I just thought, you know, we can do this. We can do this. And we just need to catch a break. I never thought it was dead. I never did. But I knew,'' Self said, ``it didn't look very good.''
During the last time-out, he told his kids if this was the last time they laced up their sneakers together to make it count for something. He said something really hokey next.
``Yeah,'' Darnell Jackson bashfully confirmed afterward, ``he actually said, 'You got to believe.''
Then Mario Chalmers somehow got his hands around a desperation pass from teammate Sherron Collins and chucked an even more desperate 3-pointer at the goal with 2.1 seconds left. It fell through the net, forcing overtime, and the Jayhawks, improbable survivors, turned the tables and dominated the extra period, pulling away to win 75-68.
``I thought tonight, although I know they missed a couple of free throws and we caught a couple of breaks late - I don't know if a coach really deserves what happened to me tonight,'' Self said. ``Because I can't imagine it being any better any time.''
The man is so relentlessly upbeat that it embarrasses him when people compare the worst parts of his career to real suffering. One of his players lost a baby son, several others lost family members and friends to murders.
``He was a father figure to everybody on this team,'' Jackson said.
``When your spirits are low, he can just lift them back with one little speech,'' Darrell Arthur said. ``That's probably the greatest thing about him. He just has that in him.
``He lifted us the whole tournament,'' Arthur added. He started to get up out of his seat and leave the podium at the news conference after the championship game and then turned to Self. ``So I love you for that.''
Several questions later, someone reminded Self about the first-round tournament upsets in 2005-06 and all the other close calls that ended his run in the NCAAs at the Elite Eight on four separate occasions with three different schools.
``There's a lot of guys out there fighting and clawing every day that wish they had it that good,'' he said.
``I don't know exactly how my emotions are,'' he added a moment later. ``I know that I'm not a better coach today than I was yesterday, maybe just a little luckier today.''
Self was the guy an athletic director dialed when he had a program that needed resuscitating. He started at Oral Roberts, then moved to Tulsa and Illinois before landing back at Kansas. In the way things come full circle, Oklahoma State just forced out Sean Sutton and is rumored to be cobbling together a package to lure Self.
He plays the game, one side off against the other, because he'd be a fool if he didn't. Any coach whose resume is good enough to fill up a page in the media guide works like a maniac, and Self's already runs on for several pages. But he has no idea how many of the players who swear they would go to hell and back for him will be back next year, because the lure of NBA money is just as strong.
The guy he beat Monday night, Memphis coach John Calipari, is a good friend and a master at recruiting. Calipari already has done a turn in the NBA. He not only knows how to recruit kids who believe college is just a waystation to the pros, he runs a program based on that very idea and plays a wide-open style that attracts them.
But Self beat him at that game, too, drawing the same talent and somehow hanging onto his kids for more than just one season. He gives them plenty of freedom on the offensive end of the floor, but teaches them to play rock-ribbed defense so there's something to fall back on when shots are not falling. He does it all so well, he looks like he could go on doing that forever. But the simple fact is Self probably could do it just as well at Oklahoma State as he could at Kansas, tradition or no tradition. He is that good.
``To be real honest with you, I love Kansas. I love my job here and hopefully it will be a situation where I can spend a long time here,'' Self said as Monday night stretched into Tuesday morning. ``I'm certainly not looking to leave, but Lew and I got to visit. I'm sure that'll happen in the next couple days.''
Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins looks stunned when a reporter asked about the meeting. Not because of a potential offer or that he'll have to sweeten the pot to keep Self, but that the question is being asked before he's even had the chance to work out the details of getting the championship trophy back to the suddenly crowded glass case back in Lawrence.
``At least wait until we get back,'' Perkins said through a forced smile. ``Call me in my office Wednesday.''
If someone goes ahead and makes that call, Self may or may not be in a meeting in Perkins' office, but there's no question where he'll be sitting:
In the driver's seat.
Jim Litke is a national columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitkeap.org