What makes Kansas' coach so successful? Self confidence (cont.)
When Self was introduced as the new basketball coach at Kansas -- replacing Roy Williams, who had taken the Jayhawks to four Final Fours -- there was a special seat with the Kansas logo on it for him to sit on. But before he did sit on it, he felt it with his hand. "Feels hot," he said.
Everybody laughed. Self laughed. He will laugh at his own jokes, just to let you know he is joking. But it wasn't a joke. It was the perfect thing to say. Self knew that's exactly what everyone was thinking -- he was on the hot seat. He had come to Kansas to replace Williams, who had led the Jayhawks to No. 2 or No. 1 in the polls 11 of his 15 years. Williams had gone home to North Carolina, and he had left behind angry and bitter Kansas fans who felt like Williams had betrayed them. He left behind sky-high expectations.
It's never easy at Kansas, anyway. There really isn't a school in America that has quite the same basketball tradition of Kansas -- no other school that can say that its first basketball coach was James Naismith, who, you know, invented the game. And the funny thing is, that his replacement and disciple, Phog Allen, was almost as influential in his own way. Allen was instrumental in creating the NCAA tournament. He was the driving force behind putting basketball in the Olympics. And he also taught the game to a couple of Kansas kids named Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith. This year, three schools won their 2,000th game -- Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina. Phog Allen was instrumental in all three. Allen also recruited to Kansas a big man from Philadelphia named Wilt Chamberlain.
Anyway, basketball tradition at Kansas is like air -- it's everywhere, it gets into everything. Only the truth is that when Self took over, Kansas had not won a national championship since 1988. And before that, you had to go back to 1952. There was an impression, not entirely without merit, that the Jayhawks played soft in the biggest games. There seemed this national impression that Kansas was a good program but not great like North Carolina or Kentucky or Duke. Self knew all of this when he took the job. That's why he reached over and touched the seat and said, "Feels hot." He wanted everyone to understand: He knew exactly what he was getting himself into.
That's Bill Self too. He has an almost pathological need for there to be no misunderstandings. He cherishes confrontation. He demands clarity. He does not mind if his players dislike him -- that's part of the deal -- but he will be sure, damn sure, that they know exactly where they stand at him at all times. They WILL know. Self will gather them together in the locker room, and he will go around the room, and he will say to his players, plainly, directly: "You are too selfish with the ball ... And you don't trust your teammates enough ... And you try to take too much of the credit ... And you will slack off when you start feeling too good about yourself."
"That, to me, is a bit part of what coaching is about," he says. "I mean everybody does it differently. But for me, there shouldn't be any secrets. They have to know exactly what where they stand, what I think about them, what they have to do to become better players, what their strengths and weaknesses are. We have to be clear. If I hear a player say that they don't know where they stand with me, with our coaching staff, that would really bother me. Because I know how hard we work to make sure they know exactly what we think."
It's telling to watch Self coach practice. Most college basketball practices look the same -- with players' energy levels drifting up and down and coaches trying to modulate things by screaming at the top of their lungs an so on. Self is no different. Take a typical practice in February, and Kansas' seven-foot freshman Jeff Withey apparently does not run hard enough to get back on defense.
"That," Self yells, "was the most pathetic thing I have ever seen in my entire life."
And while Self may have waited 47 years to see something that pathetic, he only has to wait two more minutes before he catches another freshman, this time Thomas Robinson, loafing on his way back to defend. This strikes Self as even MORE pathetic, especially when Robinson insists he was not loafing ("Do you want me to show you the tape?" Self screams).
Self sends those two off to the treadmill to run off his anger. And while they run, Then he watches another freshman, Xavier Henry, go to the wrong place in the trap offense, and, sure, that becomes the most pathetic thing he has ever seen. And when junior All-America Cole Aldrich throws the ball away, and senior All-America Sherron Collins follows that up with a turnover of his own, well, Self's face goes from burgundy to maroon, and he just stands there speechless, his fingers digging into the sides of his forehead like he's trying to keep his head from detonating.
"NO!" he shouts, an all-encompassing "No," that stops everyone cold.
Yes, pretty typical stuff. But the odd part is that when the practice ends, Self seems pretty happy. "That was a good practice, wasn't it?" he asks, and when I tell him that it seemed pretty good except for the yelling and the various levels of pathetic, he smiles and shrugs.
"I've got to stay on these guys," he says. "That's what they need."
Here is Bill Self's one-word philosophy of life: Unstoppable. He loves that word. He will tell his players, again and again, that they are unstoppable, that unstoppable is what they need to be, that unstoppable is their path to success, that unstoppable is the only way to live.
This Kansas team is ridiculously good. Self knows it. There are different opinions about what makes a tournament-tough team, but most coaches will take their chances with a gritty senior point guard (Collins), an All-America big man who can score inside and change the game defensively (Aldrich), a 6-foot-6 wingman with a pure shot (Henry), the fastest player on the floor (Tyshawn Taylor) and 6-foot-8 twins -- yeah, twins -- who can demoralize teams with their offensive rebounding and ability to create shots in the lane (Marcus and Markieff Morris). This is a different kind of tournament, with big-name schools like Connecticut, Arizona, North Carolina and UCLA out. Sure, there are good teams there. Kentucky's freshmen are incredible -- John Wall is an NBA star playing college basketball. Syracuse has come together beautifully, and the Orange play that killer zone. Duke seems to have gotten its mojo back. There are others. But it does seem like Kansas is the team with the best shot at greatness.
Self doesn't back off of this -- quite the opposite. He knows that this team can do only one of two things: Win or disappoint. "Yeah, that's the deal," he says cheerily.
So, how do you win with the best team? Self thinks there is only one way: You make them believe in unstoppable. You make the players believe that going cold and missing shots is a GOOD THING because, as he tells them. "That gives us a chance to show how tough we are." You make the players believe that no pick is strong enough to stop them and no defense crafty enough to contain them. You make the players believe that the game is already won, and the only thing that's left to do is show everybody.
Yes, it's about confidence again. You know, it hasn't always been easy for Self at Kansas. That first year -- with remnants of those excellent Williams teams -- Kansas went to the Elite Eight and lost to Georgia Tech in overtime. The next two years, Kansas lost in the first round of the tournament, to the Bucknell Bison and Bradley Braves, the killer Bs, and Self beat himself up. He found it difficult to change the culture at Kansas and would later wonder if he should have been more adaptable. "I didn't coach very well that first year," he says. "And the Bucknell loss especially ... I carried that with me for a long time."
The next year, Kansas lost to UCLA in the Elite Eight -- Self's third time losing one step away from the Final Four. And then came the magical run -- early-round domination, a hard-fought victory over America's Choice Davidson in the Elite Eight, an absolute obliteration of Williams' Carolina and all the ghosts, and finally that wild comeback victory over Memphis for Kansas' second national championship in more than 50 years.
Self will tell you, will insist, that that championship didn't change him. It may have changed people's perceptions about him -- you remember that whole bit about how players have to listen to him even more now -- but Self will tell you, inside, that he always felt like he could recruit well enough and coach well enough to win a national championship. He had that confidence. He doesn't know where it came from. He didn't learn it from books or gain it from great quotations from great people. He just ... had it.
And in the end, it is about ... well, here's one final Bill Self story.
In the final two minutes of that national championship game against Memphis, Self found himself furiously trying to pump confidence in his team. Memphis led by nine. You don't come back from nine points down, not with two minutes left, not against a great team, not in the national championship game. Self shouted, "You got to believe!" again and again, as trite as anything, but he could not think of anything else to say. Those were the words banging in his head. This, basically, was what he knew. You got to believe.
Darrell Arthur made a long jumper, just inside the three-point line. The deficit was seven. Self quickly called timeout. He sketched out a full-court press defense. You got to believe. Collins stole the inbounds pass, appeared to step out of bounds, there was no call, he got the ball back and nailed a three-pointer. The deficit was four. You got to believe. Memphis' Chris Douglas-Roberts made two free throws. Mario Chalmers made two free throws. The clock was ticking down. You got to believe.
Then, Douglas-Roberts missed two free throws. Arthur made a shot in the lane. The deficit was two. Self was going crazy on the sideline. Douglas-Roberts missed two more free throws. Kansas called its last timeout. You gotta believe. Derrick Rose made one of two free throws. And that led to Chalmers' three-point shot, Mario's Miracle, and Kansas won the game in overtime.
Self was dizzy from joy. People kept asking him if he really thought that his Jayhawks could come back from nine points down, and he admitted that he didn't know, but he wanted to believe, he needed to believe, you gotta believe.
Later, I saw a tape of the pregame speech that Self gave his team before the Memphis game. He told them: "The reason I feel so confident about us winning is because we don't have to change one bit who we are. ... All we got to do is be ourselves."
And then he told his players this: "Most every day -- if not every day -- for the rest of your life, you will be reminded, or think of, this night. And I want to thank you in advance, right now, for the great memories it's gonna be. Let's go have some fun."
Maybe it's isn't pithy. Maybe it isn't deep. Maybe it isn't Lombardi. Shoot, maybe it isn't even grammatically sound. But there is Bill Self in 15 words -- all of his Oklahoma charm, all of his certainty that things will work out, all of his ability to inspire confidence in people:
"I want to thank you in advance, right now, for the great memories it's gonna be."
There's Bill Self. Make it a sign. Put it up on the wall. Believe. And then, enjoy the memories it's gonna be.
More College Basketball
College Basketball Truth & Rumors