What makes Kansas' coach so successful? Self confidence (cont.)
Here's something funny about Bill Self, something you can miss if you are not paying attention: Self will always try to answer the question. At first blush, that may not seem funny or interesting at all -- doesn't everyone try to answer questions?
But if you think about it for a moment you will realize that, no, most people in sports, in politics, in entertainment, in just about any field with a lot of questions will only SORT OF give you answers. It's natural for people to only answer half the question, or use the question (whatever it is) as an opportunity to say exactly what they want to say, or misunderstand the question because they weren't really listening. If you listen to an interview, really listen, you will be stunned to hear how often the answer doesn't really have all that much to do with the question.
But Self answers questions. If you ask Self how he thinks his team played in a game, he will tell you exactly how he thinks his team played. Played well at times. Had trouble attacking the zone. Needed more energy at the start of the second half. And so on. If you ask him something goofy -- such as when one reporter asked him whether he would prefer to go on a 22-2 run in the first half or in the second half -- he will laugh and say that he'd prefer both but then he will think about it for a moment and decide that, yes, a second half run probably would lead to more victories. If you ask him how his life changed after he led Kansas to the national championship in 2008, he will refuse to fall back on the safe answer, the "it really didn't change my life at all" numbness that coaches will generally say without thinking.
"I think it gives you a little more credibility on the practice court," he says. "I really think that's the big thing. When you win one, it's not like the players can look at you and say: 'Well, this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.' And let's face it, that's what players always want to believe about their coaches, isn't it?"
Self's answer-every-question-directly style is not something you notice right away. It's something you pick up over time, over years. It's something you notice when Self gives blunt and interesting answers during what are typically pointless television halftime interviews. It's something you notice when a kid from a college newspaper asks a question -- Self will answer it with what seems to be the same earnestness with which he answers questions from the NCAA Division I all-time winning coach Bob Knight. It's something you notice day-after-day: Bill Self always seems to be trying.*
*You know who else is like this -- always answering the question directly and specifically? Jack Nicklaus. You will not see Nicklaus on many reporters "all-time great interview" lists, because he's not exactly funny, and he's not a particularly great story teller, and he's not going to say many controversial things because he does not appear to think controversially. But Nicklaus will answer your question, exactly as you ask it. In a sport with comedians, agitators and philosophers, Nicklaus is the most quoted golfer ever, not only because of his greatness but because, time and again, he just answers the question.
That's confidence. People who write about Self will almost always point out -- and rightfully so -- how nice a guy he is off the court, and how tough he is coaching on the court. People will point out how easily he moves in a crowd of big-money boosters, and how natural he looks surrounded by students, and how comfortable he will be speaking in front of big crowds, and how dogged he is on the recruiting trail. He's the natural chameleon. He is whatever he needs to be at the moment.
"I guess I've always been that way," Self says, though he looks uncomfortable answering the question. Then again: He can't help it. The question was asked.
"To me," he says, "to be successful you need to respond to whatever the situation calls for. I tell our players that all the time. You win games by making plays. I know that's a cliche, but it's true. You don't win games with the best offense, because sometimes your shots don't fall. You don't win games with the best defense, because sometimes the other team just keeps making shots. You win games by making plays in that moment, responding to that exact challenge."
It is about ... well, OK, you have to hear the Oral Roberts story. Self was hired to be coach at Oral Roberts when the basketball program was at a low point. Self took the job and believed he would turn it around because, well, that's just how he ticks.
So, the day came when he was going to be introduced ... only this being Oral Roberts, it is done a bit differently. Self was brought to the giant chapel, where every student in the school was present. And, understand, Oral Roberts is an evangelical school; it was built, Oral Roberts himself always said, because God told him to build it. Self grew up in a quiet Methodist home.
Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do, thrown into that chapel, 4,000 kids in the pews, all of them wanting to know a little something about the new coach?
Bill Self preached. He preached that he was going to bring a winner back to Oral Roberts. He preached that he and his staff was going to work night and day to make it happen. "It was unbelievable," says Hinson, Self's friend who was there as an assistant coach. "He transformed himself." In time, after a rough first two years, Self and Hinson and the team did become winners, did go to their first postseason tournament in a decade. But perhaps the most lasting memory happened that day in the chapel, when quiet Self preached and preached, and the students swayed with him, and he made everyone believe, and that when he finished everyone in the place, everyone, including Oral Roberts himself, said "Amen."
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