The Bill Self I Know

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I’ve had the great pleasure of having known Bill Self for over 30 years. Anyone who has known Bill that long — his friends, his family, all the great coaches he knew before I got him on my staff — will probably tell you the same thing.

And that’s that Bill Self hasn’t changed a whole hell of a lot.

When I first met Bill, he was working at my basketball camp in Lawrence in 1985. It didn’t take long for me to learn that he was a hungry and driven kid — and he still has those qualities today. I believe that he got the job through his friend R.C. Buford, the graduate assistant I inherited when Kansas’s previous coach, Ted Owens, left the program. Bill had gotten hurt and was going to miss his senior season at Oklahoma State, and R.C. brought him to the camp. He seemed like a good kid, so I extended the same offer to him that all of my coaching mentors — Dean Smith, Frank McGuire, Pete Newell and John McLendon — had extended to me.

“If there’s any way I can help you,” I said, “please don’t hesitate to ask.”

It didn’t take long for Bill to call, maybe six months, max. What happened next is in dispute — honestly, I don’t remember what happened. But the following year, he showed up in Lawrence and replaced R.C. as the graduate assistant.

Loyalty is something that a lot of people forget is a critical part of this business.

Now, let me set this straight before I get into all this. Could anybody have predicted that Bill Self would turn out be as good a coach as anybody that we have in our sport? No, I don’t know if anybody would have predicted that. I know I couldn’t have. That group of coaches and players we had in Lawrence that year was special, and almost all of them went on to do big things. On the bench we had R.C., Bill, Alvin Gentry, Gregg Popovich, and on the team we had Danny Manning, Mark Turgeon and Milt Newton. There were a lot of pretty incredible people around that program.

And Bill wasn’t any different from those guys. Which turned out to be a pretty good thing.

Back then, I had one focus: I wanted to surround myself with coaches who cared about kids, who loved the game and who wanted to get involved with this profession. Bill was a perfect example of that. I could tell he cared about kids and that he was loyal. Loyalty is something that a lot of people forget is a critical part of this business. Bill’s been loyal to me for 30 years, and people who coach with him now — Norm Roberts, Kurtis Townsend, Danny Manning — stay around him a long time. I think that shows that Bill creates a great environment that’s really hard to leave. Coaches want to be around Bill.

The first thing I want to talk about is Bill’s ability as a basketball coach. I coined the phrase “play the right way” — at least I think I did — and I’m always amazed by how Bill’s teams follow that blueprint. When I played for Dean Smith, and later when I coached under him, he would always write three things on the chalkboard in the locker room before a game:

1. Play Hard

2. Play Smart

3. Have Fun

Years later, I asked Coach Smith if I could add a fourth item. I told him that number 4 should be: “It’d be nice if we rebounded and defended, too.” (He gave me permission to make that addition.)

When I look at how Kansas plays basketball for Bill, it does all those things. I believe that you win games with defense and rebounding, and that’s been Bill’s trademark at Kansas. I’ve seen Bill put his fingerprint on KU basketball up close because I get to spend a lot of time in Lawrence — if you add up all my visits from last year, I was probably there 30 days. I get to go to a lot of games and practices, and there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t gain more admiration for Bill and what he has accomplished there. If my son wanted to coach basketball at a high level, there’s no other place I’d rather have him be than within earshot of Bill Self. It’s an incredible environment. Every time I leave Kansas, not only do my personal values feel reinforced, but I feel like my mind has been opened to new possibilities as well.

But to me the most amazing thing to watch is how Bill works with the kids. That’s the heart of the profession, after all. For some of the new generation of kids we get in college now, they have a hard time telling the difference between criticism and coaching. And the fact is that you can’t fool kids — they’re too smart and there’s too much at stake for some of them. Bill not only gets on his kids, but he does it in a way that the kids understand instinctively that he cares. He’s not afraid to coach them, and the kids crave that. They might not seem like it sometimes, but eventually they get it.

Bill is sincere. Bill is honest. The kids can tell right away that he has their back. 

Bill is sincere. Bill is honest. I can’t stress how rare that is. The kids can tell right away that he has their back. While I don’t like where the game is going — a lot of times, kids just aren’t prepared to compete at the next level — I never worry about that with Bill’s players. His teams are always well-prepared. For kids who want to make it to the next level, Bill helps them make the transition. To say it plainly — he’s one of the best coaches in the game.

I’ll be presenting Bill at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this week, which is an unbelievable honor for me. When I was inducted in 2002, when it was time for me to give a speech, I was at a loss for words.

So, Bill, here’s my advice to you as you get set to be inducted into the Hall of Fame:

First, I want you to sit back and have a glass of red wine. I want you to reflect on all the success you’ve had at a young age as a coach. Understand the impact that you’ve had on all those fortunate enough to coach with you during that time. But also recognize all the people that helped you along the way. People like me and Leonard Hamilton and Coach Calipari are going to be sitting behind him on that stage, thinking about how fortunate we were to be in the position to help you on your path. Coaching is a family.

I want people to understand how incredible Bill’s success is at one of the most special places in the game. Bill understands the great responsibility it is to be the coach at Kansas. James Naismith coached there. John McLendon coached there. Phog Allen coached there. Dean Smith went to school there. Wilt played there. He recognizes how much respect the head coach position at Kansas deserves. And yet, he’s inclusive and open, which means everything to the people that work around him. He doesn’t make himself any bigger than he is.

Here’s my favorite part about Bill, though:

I’ve had the great fortune to work with many great coaches in my life. Unbelievable basketball people. But I can’t say that I’d want to, in my own free time, hang out with every coach that I’ve come to know.

But I’d want to hang out with Bill.

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