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Kansas Begins to Find Its Self

After the bitter departure of Roy Williams, the Jayhawks new coach takes the reins of a legendary program.

November 23, 2003|William Gildea | Washington Post

LAWRENCE, Kan. — First came a sense of loss. Anger followed. When Roy Williams took off from Kansas in April to become basketball coach at North Carolina, he left behind a community still recovering from the Jawhawks' three-point loss to Syracuse in the NCAA title game. Williams had taken Kansas so close to the pinnacle, fans were sure it was only a matter of time before he would reach the top. Instead, he crushed their spirits by turning his back on them. On the historic hilltop campus, "Benedict Williams" T-shirts became a common sight.

Even if Williams had his reasons -- he heeded the call of his mentor, Dean Smith, to return to his home state -- Kansas fans were shaken. After vowing never to leave, Williams left. And the feeling he left behind was inescapable: One week after the title-game loss, Kansas basketball was again second best. A frustrated returning player, Wayne Simien, who suffered a dislocated shoulder last season, said angrily when he heard the news of Williams's departure: "I gave my right arm for him, literally."

But a few well-positioned university officials knew precisely the person with the potential not just to succeed Williams but to replace him. Up at Illinois was a coach with the seeming ability to keep Kansas in contention for a third straight Final Four. His name was Bill Self.

And here was a man who offered even more than the coaching skills to take charge of a program once headed by James Naismith, "the father of basketball," and Forrest C. "Phog" Allen, "the father of basketball coaching." With his earnestness and longtime dream of being Kansas's coach, he could quickly restore the self-esteem of the jilted players and recruits, and all those students, alumni and others who believe that the sun rises and sets on either side of Allen Fieldhouse.

Self was introduced as only the eighth coach in Jayhawk history merely a week after Williams had resigned. They didn't even bring in Self for an interview. But then he never had a formal interview for his previous job either. It's this simple: A stunning success at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and, most recently, Illinois, Self is the most upwardly mobile coach in college basketball -- although Jayhawk fans hope he, unlike his predecessor, believes he has reached the top rung.

"We did 'Midnight Madness,' and people told me it was going to be big, they said the place will fill up," he said, seated at the desk that Williams vacated. "I said, 'Why would it fill up? What's so big about it?' At 7 o'clock they opened the doors and at 8:30 the fire marshal shut it down. They said 4,000 to 6,000 people could not get in. That was overwhelming to me, the interest and enthusiasm and the energy in the building just for practice. It also didn't hurt that the '88 championship team came back, too. The place was juiced. I knew it would be good. But it was even better than I thought it would be....

"Illinois was a big job. This is a really big job."

Self is a charming individual. A big man of 40 with brown hair who grew up in Edmond, Okla., he's known for holding luncheon and dinner audiences in rapt attention, for winning the confidence of potential recruits, for being a friend to his players despite a tough-love approach in practices, for leaving the media melted in his hand. He has an ability to remember the names and some salient fact about almost everyone he meets, so that he can personalize almost any conversation. His perpetual affability appears genuine, not practiced -- in short, he seems too good to be true.

More than that, he knows Kansas basketball, having spent the 1985-86 season on the bench here as a graduate assistant to Larry Brown. Self isn't cowed by the spirits of the hoop gods that are said to reside in the shrine that is Allen Fieldhouse; if he were, he wouldn't have been hired.

Wherever Self finds himself around Lawrence, people ask him if the Jayhawks are headed back to the Final Four -- never mind that in Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison, Kansas lost two NBA lottery picks from last season's team. Self realizes that expectations are immense. But he knows how to approach them: "Don't change what we've been doing. Don't try to be somebody else. We're following a guy who won 80 percent of his games, who did a magnificent job. I can't be Roy Williams. I can't do the same things Roy Williams does. All I can do is what Bill Self does. I hope that will be good enough."

Self knew a lot about the game, having begun learning at an early age from his father, who coached high school basketball. As a senior at Edmond Memorial High in 1981, Self was selected as Oklahoma's big school player of the year. Playing guard for Oklahoma State, he led the team in assists and free throws for two years. Finally, his association with Brown clinched his career path.

"After graduation," he said, "I loaded up the car, drove up here, and that's how I got into coaching."

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