GLENDALE, Ariz. — This sounds too good to be true. When the call came to Kansas coach Bill Self that he had been named to the Naismith Hall of Fame, he was on campus. On Naismith Drive.
“It actually happened,” he said over the weekend. “That’s not a story.”
In a 2017 induction class of great players, from Tracy McGrady to George McGinnis to Rebecca Lobo, Self is the active college coach who keeps on winning. He is on the list because of his 623 victories and his 13 consecutive Big 12 titles at Kansas, and his 2008 national championship. He is there for his nine trips to the Elite Eight, even if he has lost seven of them, the latest a pounding by Oregon last month.
That one came in Kansas City, and some of the post-loss chatter has not been kind to Self. A tough world it is, when a coach is ripped for losing too many times in the Elite Eight.
Bill Self... HALL OF FAMER! pic.twitter.com/C0fUCwgWgb— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 1, 2017
To visit the Final Four after each of those defeats has been hard, this one especially, even if he is here as an incoming Hall of Famer. “We had a team that when we played well, we were as good as anybody. We also had a team when things didn’t go well, we had some limitations, too. This one’s harder because, it’s not we didn’t get here, it’s because we didn’t give ourselves the best chance to get here.”
But this was not a moment to do a postmortem on a painful defeat, but rather to reflect on a career.
On his family, including his father, who he said is the toughest person he’s ever met ...
“He was raised on a farm. Back then, picking cotton, working 12 or 14 hours a day as a seventh or eighth grader. He was superintendent of schools at age 23. That doesn’t happen very often.
“My sister and I, I wouldn’t say that during our younger years, we got along the best. We loved each other but anything that I could do, she wanted to one-up me, and anything she could do, I wanted to one-up her. So we were very competitive. But it all changed as I got older. Some guy was talking trash on me in a bar at Oklahoma State one time. He didn’t think I was any good, and all I know it was a right jab [from his sister] right to the jaw. So I guess my family has some anger management issues.”
His playing days at Oklahoma State ...
“Tracy (McGrady) was talking about how he went through a period of time in his life when he thought he was un-guardable. I never experienced that as a player. R.C. Buford [now San Antonio Spurs general manager] showed me around on my official visit to Oklahoma State. He was a walk-on. That’s how much they wanted me. They didn’t even put a scholarship guy with me on my official visit.”
Self majored in business at Oklahoma State, thinking he didn’t want to be a coach. That changed when he worked a summer camp for Larry Brown at Kansas after his junior year.
“While we’re there, we’re playing pickup and I kind of blew out my knee. Larry felt bad and asked me when camp was over how I was doing. He said, 'If there is anything I can ever do for you, let me know.' I said, 'Well coach, there is one thing. You can hire me next year to be your graduate assistant.’ He said, 'You’re hired.'
“My career path changed in that 30 seconds.”
Coaching at Kansas ...
“When I came to Kansas, I realized I’m not going to be the best coach that coached there. Phog Allen [was]. And anybody I recruit will not be the best player to play there. Wilt [Chamberlain] played there. And so to be part of something that’s so much bigger than an individual ever will be — your role while you’re there is to be a caretaker – is something I’ve always taken unbelievable pride in.”
What keeps his fire lit ...
“I love being in tough moments, knowing that we’re not always going to finish on top. I love coaching young men that basically put both feet in and trust you to the point where they’d do just about anything you ask them to do.
“I also think about the game. The more you think you know, the more you realize you don’t know. Because the game changes daily, it changes yearly, and the challenge of always trying to become better is much more significant than what I think a lot of people out there think it is.”
About those Elite Eight losses, and the high expectations at Kansas ...
“When I was at Tulsa and we went to the Elite Eight, when I was at Illinois and we went to the Elite Eight those were the happiest moments ever. They throw a parade when you come home. And now, we come back at Kansas, there’s four people waiting for the players. Before, there were 5,000 people waiting in the arena. But there’s a lot of positives that come with expectations, too, and that’s you can get good players.”
His reactions to criticism, which changed when he took the Illinois job and ran into some tough media voices in Chicago ...
“I realized you can’t hang on everything, or you’re going to get your feelings hurt. Nobody likes bad things said about them, I don’t care how tough you are. But I haven’t let it bother me and I don’t put myself in position to read that stuff.
“Charles Barkley texted me this week and said, `Hey man, don’t listen to all this nonsense.’ I said, `Charles, no offense but I really don’t know what they’re saying.’ He didn’t text back because he felt bad [he’d told him]. That goes with the territory.”
His feelings now about the 2008 national championship ...
“I think I probably cherished it the most immediately after, and the first couple of years. I think about it, but I don’t think about it like I used to. I keep thinking No. 2 is going to be sweeter than No. 1. We just haven’t got there yet."