BILL SELF SANK 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 rescued a new tournament Cinderella. The unsung, small-school Wildcats were America's underdog darlings, while perennial power Kansas was the big, bad bully, just another No. 1 seed on the cusp of its 13th trip to the 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 .716 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 can make a season truly special.
Thankfully—for Self, if not for Davidson's fairy-tale story line—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 that 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 that the 45-year-old Self had envisioned to reach the Final Four. "When that ball didn't go in, there was a definite sense of relief," he said. "We've been close several times without being able to punch that ticket. 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. "[But] it was great."
It wouldn't be his last celebration of the spring, either, as Self joined fellow Kansas coaching luminaries Phog Allen and Larry Brown with a championship of his own. And it was made-for-TV symmetry that the Jayhawks' path through the Final Four should run through North Carolina and Roy Williams, Self's coaching predecessor at Kansas. Williams, who never won a title in his 15 years in Lawrence, even conceded that his counterpart better prepared his players in KU's 84-66 semifinal win. "I'll say Bill Self won the game," Williams 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,' " joked the ever-positive Self.) It was a tag that followed him everywhere, becoming a kind of hardwood Homeric epithet. The Jayhawks' 2008 journey to San Antonio, however, was not exactly epic: A beneficiary of the first-round Tempest in Tampa, Kansas advanced with wins over teams seeded 16th, 8th, 12th and 10th. Still, the now-or-never nature of Self's mission in '08 was evident in the Jayhawks' seven-man rotation, which featured three seniors and at least two starters likely to jump to the pros.
The pundits wasted no time reminding the coach of his record. On the day after Kansas's first-round win over Portland State, The Kansas City Star asserted, IT'S EVIDENT SELF NEEDS A FINAL FOUR, and after the win over UNLV the Chicago Sun-Times website blared, ROCK CHOKE, JAYHAWK: IS THIS SELF'S YEAR? 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 local legend can. "That's just me," he said.
With Manning absorbing none of the attention, 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 small matter of the Jayhawks' first-round exits in 2005, to 14th-seeded Bucknell, and in '06, to 13th-seeded 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 to his credit, he rarely wavered from the party line that a Final Four appearance "would mean more to everybody who supports Kansas" than it would to him. His 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—just ask the Buffalo Bills or the pre-2004 Boston Red Sox. "I can't imagine there's a tougher game to lose than the Elite Eight game because a successful season in so many ways is [defined] by getting to the Final Four," Self said. Adds 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." Doubly so, no doubt, at Kansas, with its long heritage of winning.
Forgive Self, therefore, for being cautious. Two days before the Jayhawks' tournament opener against Portland State, he called Roberts fretting about the matchup. Never mind that a No. 16 seed had never upset a No. 1 in the 23 years since the tournament expanded to 64 teams. "All he was worried about," says Roberts, "was Portland State: 'We've got to beat Portland State. They're so fast. They can shoot.' All those things."