University of Kansas coach Bill Self was inducted inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame Friday night in Springfield, Massachusetts. As an Oklahoma kid, Self at one time didn’t think he’d end up coaching at KU, but that’s the way it turned out.
A game at Oklahoma State during the Big 12 basketball season is just another road game these days for Bill Self. But when he played for the Cowboys, coaching the Jayhawks was the furthest thing from Self’s mind. “I never dreamed it could be a dream job for me,” says Self. “I always thought Oklahoma State would be my dream job.”
But before Self played at OSU for the Cowboys, he thought he might be a starting guard for the Jayhawks. “You know I was always hoping Ted Owens would recruit me, but he recruited another slow white guy named Tad Boyle,” Self jokes.
At Oklahoma State, Self discovered he had no future playing professionally beyond college. “I may have had two or three-minute stretches where maybe I felt pretty good about myself, but never like that,” says Self.
So Self thought about coaching, even while he still played.
“I always loved the game, respected the game and dad had been a coach, so I’d been around it,” he says. “Part of being a coach is, I think, also being a leader. Even if it’s just on your respective teams, being the voice that rallies everyone and that kind of stuff. So I think it was always in my blood.”
Self’s first taste of coaching was at KU. Ted Owens was gone and his successor, Larry Brown, hired Self as a graduate assistant in the mid-1980s. At that level of coaching, a Hall of Fame coaching career was the furthest thing from Self’s mind. “Thirty years ago, I was dreaming where I could eat free in town. That’s the truth,” he emphasized. “You’re making $4400 a year and if you had $20 in your pocket you were loaded.”
Self says he can’t put a price on what Larry Brown meant to him.
“I learned more from him in nine months than I learned from everybody else combined,” says Self. “Not because other people didn’t teach me. It’s because I was so young and a baby I didn’t know anything. So any knowledge that was thrown at me, I just wanted to be a sponge and soak it up. I owe an awful lot to him.”
In his early days as a head coach, Self returned to his roots in Oklahoma—first at Oral Roberts, then at Tulsa.
In the year 2000, Roy Williams was well-established as the coach at KU, complaining about the subdued home crowd at Allen Fieldhouse. “If you don’t want to cheer for us, keep your big butts at home,” saidWilliams after a home game against Colorado in 2000. “I’ll find enough friends to come in there.”
That same year, Bill Self was unheralded at Tulsa. Yet Tulsa was one victory from reaching the Final Four. In retrospect, Self says the Tulsa job was the biggest launching pad in his coaching career.
From there, Self moved on to Illinois, then succeeded Roy Williams at KU in 2003. At Illinois, Self’s teams made the NCAA tournament all three years.
In San Antonio at the Alamodome, Self achieved in 2008 what eluded Williams thanks to a three-point shot by Mario Chalmers that shot sent the game into overtime. KU went on to beat Memphis, 75-68, for national championship.
It was a Hall of Fame moment in a Hall of Fame coaching career.
Greg Echlin is a freelance sports reporter.