Finally, for Self
Kansas coach gains relief in reaching first Final Four
Posted: Friday April 4, 2008 5:52PM; Updated: Tuesday April 8, 2008 12:04PM
Bill Self descended to his knees even before Davidson's Jason Richards hoisted an off-balance, 25-foot, buzzer-beating jump shot that could have completed a historic upset and crowned a new tournament Cinderella. The unsung, small-school Wildcats were America's underdog darlings, while perennial power Kansas was just another No. 1 seed on the cusp of its 13th Final Four.
Had the desperation shot gone in, it also would have written yet another chapter in the tough-luck story of Self, the fifth-year Kansas coach, who despite his eight conference championships and .717 career winning percentage, had fallen in the Elite Eight on each of his four previous trips: in 2000 with Tulsa, '01 with Illinois and '04 and '07 with Kansas. As Self himself says, those were very good seasons, but only a trip to the Final Four could make a season truly special.
Thankfully -- for Self -- Richards's shot was badly off line and hit the backboard with a thud. Self slapped the floor, almost as hard. He pursed his lips and sighed so forcefully you could almost see the 800-pound gorilla jump off his back. "I thought it was 1,200 pounds," he would say later, with a laugh. It wasn't quite the resounding victory the 45-year-old Self had envisioned to reach the Final Four. "We've been close several times without being able to punch that ticket," Self says. "There was a humbling, not joyous, type feeling." Minutes later in the locker room, he got a far more jarring sensation, as his players surprised him with an ice-cold shower straight from the Gatorade bucket. "I can understand why football coaches in sub-freezing temperatures don't look forward to that very much," Self said.
Self's 0-for-4 record on the doorstep of the tournament's final weekend had earned him the dubious distinction of being the Best Coach Never to Reach a Final Four. ("At least it's got 'best,'" said the everpositive Self.) It was a tag that followed him everywhere, becoming a kind of hardwood Homeric epithet. The 2008 Jayhawks' journey to San Antonio, however, was not exactly epic: A prime beneficiary of the first-round Tempest in Tampa, Kansas advanced with wins over teams seeded 16th, 8th, 12th and 10th.
The pundits wasted no time reminding Self of his Elite Eight 0-fer. The day after Kansas's first-round win over Portland State, the Chicago Sun-Times blared, "Rock Choke, Jayhawk: Is this Self's year?" and the Kansas City Star asserted, "It's evident Self needs a Final Four." Self, of course, had an assistant on his staff who had won a national championship -- at Kansas, no less -- but Danny Manning preferred to stay in the background during his first year on the bench rather than celebrate the 20th anniversary of KU's previous title. Manning declined most interview requests and commemorations, saying it was a personal decision to remain as inconspicuous as any former NBA All-Star and Lawrence legend can. "That's just me," he said.
With none of the attention deflected by Manning, the spotlight fell fully on Self, who understands better than anyone how fickle fate can be come tournament time. In addition to the Elite Eight losses, there's the matter of the Jayhawks' first-round exits in 2005 (to No. 14 seed Bucknell) and in '06 (to No. 13 seed Bradley). "Coaches know that there's an element of intangibles out there, that some people catch breaks and some people don't," says Self.
Before this year's Elite Eight game against Davidson, Self admitted he thought about his reputation every day, but always maintaining that a Final Four appearance "would mean more to everybody who supports Kansas" than it would to him. Friends say he never addressed it privately. His family echoes that sentiment. "I think he's like any other coach," says Self's father, Bill Sr. "The pressure that he has, he puts on himself."
Still, there's something particularly grueling about advancing so far without winning it all. Says St. John's coach Norm Roberts, who was an assistant for Self on three Elite Eight--losing teams, "If you lose in the Sweet 16, everybody says, 'Well, you made it to the Sweet 16.' Then when you lose in that Elite Eight game, the feeling that you have is, 'We lost. We didn't make it to the Big Show.' It's a real empty feeling."