What makes Kansas' coach so successful? Self confidence
Kansas coach Bill Self has always believed in himself and his ability to succeed
Self got his start in coaching as a graduate assistant under Larry Brown at Kansas
He prides himself on always letting his players know where they stand with him
In this week's Sports Illustrated, I wrote a little something about the Kansas Jayhawks and the challenge of being the tournament favorite. Along the way, I spent quite a bit of time with Bill Self. I find him fascinating. And so, I wrote the following insanely long piece about him, in addition to the magazine story.
Sometimes, when you walk into a locker room or a coach's office, you will see signs on the wall. And, as often as not, those signs will have something to do with confidence. For instance, you might wander into a baseball clubhouse or a college football locker room see a sign like this:
"Besides pride, loyalty, discipline and heart, confidence is the key to all locks."
Or, for the more historically inclined, you might see:
"Whether you think you can or you can't -- you are right."
If the person hanging the signs has a literary ear, you might see something from the Bard:
"Our remedies oft in ourselves do lie
Or the sign might reflect the words of an extraordinary woman:
"We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained."
And the coach who wants to reach back into his inner child might go with a sign this:
"Be who you are
What do these signs do? Maybe nothing. But coaches put them up anyway because they know: Confidence is sports' elixir. Confidence is what can make a bland team good, and a good team great, and a great team legendary. Confidence is what can lift us up in the final seconds, on the 18th hole, with two outs in the ninth. No, the shot does not always fall, the putt does not always drop, the hit does not always go through. But that's not the point. There is no "always" in the games people play. No, sports are about something else ...
"Guys," Kansas coach Bill Self tells his players as they enter the most important basketball tournament of their lives. "There's gonna come a moment in time when we're going to have to make a play. So you have to ask yourself a question, and you're the only one who can answer it."
He glares at them: "Are you ready for that moment?"
This is about Bill Self, but it really is not. It's about confidence. More to the point, it's about how a small-town Oklahoma kid, son of coach, became America's leading exporter of confidence. It's about how an OK college basketball player with no burning desire to coach has coached at four different colleges, four entirely different experiences, and won at all of them. It about how a nice guy with a slight stutter and hair that people on the Internet love to question has once again built a Kansas team that can win that national championship.
It is about ... well, first you have to hear the Larry Brown story. Self was going into his senior year at Oklahoma State, where he was a decent player for mediocre teams. That summer, he went to Lawrence to help coach at Brown's basketball camp -- this is when Brown was coaching at Kansas. Self was playing ball up there, and he blew out his knee. Well, anyway, it SEEMED like he blew out his knee -- it turned out he was fine. But in that moment, it looked like a blowout, and there was panic everywhere. An Oklahoma State starter blew out his knee at a Kansas coaching camp? Nobody in the world felt worse than Larry Brown.
"If there's anything I can do for you, you just tell me," Brown told Self, and the look on Brown's face suggested that he meant ANYTHING.
Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do? We might thank Brown for his kindness, maybe, tell him that we might just take him up on that someday.
Self said: "Well, you could hire me as a graduate assistant coach."
Who is that guy? Where does that come from? Well, of course Brown said yes, he had just promised, well, "anything." Only it gets better. Self took Brown at his word. Self had not shown much interest in coaching -- he was going to go into business -- but he was no dummy; the opportunity to coach for Brown made him think that coaching might be a fine life. He went back to Oklahoma State for his senior year, and he wrote Brown a letter every month, telling him again and again how excited he was to be the next Kansas graduate assistant coach. He did not get one letter in return, not one. He called a Kansas assistant coach he knew, R.C. Buford, now the GM of the Spurs, and said: "R.C., does Coach Brown ever mention me?"
And Buford told him: "I've never heard him say your name one time."
So Self's senior season ended, he still had not heard one word from Brown. Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do? We might adjust our plans, call around, see if there's a chance to coach elsewhere or a business opportunity for a recent college graduate...
Self packed up everything he owned, put it in his car, drove up to Lawrence, and walked into Brown's office and said, "OK, I'm here. What do you need me to do?" And Brown, beaten, said: "Go sit over at that desk and start working."
And that's how Bill Self became a basketball coach.
"I'm gonna tell you something about Bill," longtime friend Barry Hinson says. "In his senior year in high school, he made seven buzzer-beaters to win games. Seven! You know how you do that? You have no doubts, that's how."
See, the thing that strikes you about Bill Self as coach is how he's good at all of it. He coaches. He recruits. He sells. He inspires. He tells jokes at Kiwanis' clubs. This is a guy who won at Oral Roberts when the school was coming off its worst basketball season ever. Then he won at Tulsa, following the coaching powers of Nolan Richardson and Tubby Smith and Steve Robinson. Then he won at Illinois, won the Big Ten title his first year by building the most physical team in the most physical league. And then he went to Kansas, replaced legendary coach Roy Williams, and in five years won a national championship -- beating Williams himself along the way.
Every one of those stops demanded something different. He had to coach up his talent at Oral Roberts, and create an us-against-the-world aura at Tulsa, and coach his players to overpower people at Illinois and create a place for himself in the crowded tradition room at Kansas. And he did all of that, did it all because, well, because ...
"Look, everybody here in the upper echelon of college basketball can coach," Self says. "Everybody. And everybody works hard. And everybody has good kids. I really don't like it when I hear people talk about all that stuff, how good a coach someone is or how hard they work or whatever. Everybody's doing that. That's not what it's about."
It is about ... well, wait, you should hear the Leonard Hamilton story. So, you know, Self coached for a year under Brown, and he loved it. He loved everything about Brown, even when Brown ripped him. Especially those times. Like once, Self helped himself to the training table food after the game and before the players arrived. Brown said: "Oh, I didn't know you had worked that hard during the game." Lesson 1: A coach NEVER eats before the players. Lesson 2: Withering irony can be a very effective teaching tool. Self learned both lessons well.
So, sure, he now wanted to coach. And he figured the best place to start would be to apply for an assistant job at his school, Oklahoma State, where Hamilton had just taken over. Self managed to get himself an interview, and he talked about how hard he would work, and how relentlessly he would recruit ... and he noticed Hamilton's eyes' glazing over.
Stop here. What would you do? What do any of us do when a job interview starts going bad, when it is clear that your talk is not getting through and your dream of getting the job is drowning. Maybe we panic. Maybe we try harder. Maybe we stand up and say, "I see I'm wasting your time here."
"I'll tell you why you should hire me," Self told Hamilton. "Because if you hire me, I'll get you your point guard for this season and you won't need to give up a scholarship."
That stopped Hamilton. "You'll get me a point guard?" he asked.
"Yep," Self said. "But he won't play unless you hire me as a coach."
And there it was. Hamilton said that if Self could really deliver a point guard, no strings attached, then he had the job. And when Self left the office he called an Oklahoma State senior named Jay Davis, a close friend who had played at his high school, and said: "Hey man, you've got to play basketball for Oklahoma State this year."
Davis had been a very good high school player, but he was happy with his college life -- happy as the best fraternity basketball player at the school. He had absolutely no interest at all in playing organized ball and getting yelled at and all that. He said: "No way."
And Self said: "Um, no, you don't understand. You have to play. I won't get the job unless you play. So, you're playing."
So, Jay Davis played basketball for the 1986-87 Oklahoma State Cowboys. The team was 8-20 and lousy ("Well, what do you expect, we had a walk-on as our starting point guard," Self says), but you can still look it up: Davis led the team in assists, steals and fouls. Self was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State for five more years and was there for the rebirth of Oklahoma State basketball.
Not long after that, Self and Davis were best men at each other's weddings.
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