LAWRENCE | The story begins here, on Naismith Drive on a bitterly cold December night.
Start here, on the sidewalk, with a college freshman decked out in a blue T-shirt.
Can you see him? He’s walking fast, among a pack of disgusted fans. He is furious, talking nonstop to no one in particular.
“That was embarrassing,” he says.
The throng of fans, a jagged line of bundled-up fans, leads all the way back to the front of Allen Fieldhouse.
It is dark. And it is winter. And the Kansas basketball team has just lost a heartbreaker — 72-70 to Nevada on the first night of December in 2005.
“Are you kidding me?” the kid in the blue T-shirt says. “Nevada? Are you kidding?”
The pack of fans is quiet. There is no response. There is no reason to.
They had all seen the same thing. A lanky kid named Nick Fazekas had ravaged the Kansas defense for 35 points. And with the loss, Kansas had been humbled again.
They had started the season 2-3. But, of course, there was more.
This was Bill Self’s third season, his first without the leftover mainstays from the Williams era.
Simien, Langford and Miles were gone. J.R. Giddens had the left program, too. And his departure — the muddied result of a stabbing incident at a Lawrence club — had left a stain on the program
Can you see the freshman in the blue T-shirt?
“Nevada, are you serious?”
But, of course, there was more. Just eight months earlier, a 3rd-seeded Kansas team had fallen to Bucknell — yes, Bucknell — in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
And dating back to Feb. 14, 2005, Bill Self’s Jayhawks were 5-9 in the program’s last 14 games.
So can you see him, the kid on Naismith Drive? Can you hear him?
“It’s Bill Self, man,” he says. “This guy can’t coach.”
I thought of that story on Monday, as Kansas dismantled Texas 80-68 in Austin to improve to 23-1 and 9-0 in the Big 12.
How did we get here? How did we get from that angry young freshman on Naismith Drive to here.
Here, Bill Self is coaching the No. 1 team in the country. Here, Self is on track to lead the Jayhawks to their sixth-straight Big 12 title. Here, Self and Kansas are just 22 months removed from a National Championship — 22 months removed from The Shot.
KU has an All-American candidate at point guard, an All-American candidate at center, and a future first-round draft pick on the wing.
And on Saturday, Self and Kansas will welcome Iowa State to Allen Fieldhouse — a building in which they’ve won 55 straight games.
And so Kansas will most likely win, and Bill Self will win his 400th career game.
How did we get here? How did Bill Self, at age 47, become the best college basketball coach in America?
There is no easy answer. Yes, Self can recruit. And yes, Self can coach. And so yes, Self wins.
But there has to be more to it, right?
There is no easy answer — but there are moments.
So let’s take a trip back in time, before Sherron cemented his place in history, before Cole Aldrich’s NCAA tournament triple-double, before Mario’s shot, before Brandon Rush tore his ACL, before Bradley and Bucknell… before it all.
On the day we met Bill Self, the city of Lawrence was still in mourning, still reeling from the national championship game loss to Syracuse, and still in shock that Roy Williams was gone.
Roy? Gone? It was supposed to be forever, wasn’t it?
The press conference happened on a Monday — April 21, 2003 — one week after Williams boarded that private jet for Chapel Hill and said that he was a “Tar heel born” and he’d be a “Tar Heel dead”
One week after Wayne Simien stood outside Allen Fieldhouse and, with his emotions flowing, told reporters that he’d “given his arm” for Williams.
So with the wounds still gaping, with the heartache still fresh, Bill Self showed up in Lawrence and introduced himself.
“It’s a tough act to follow,” Self would say, mentioning Williams’ legacy of success. “But you know something, Larry Brown was a tough act to follow… And Ted Owens went to two Final Fours and was a tough act to follow… and Phog Allen was a very tough act to follow… and the guy who started it all, is the toughest of all acts to follow, Dr. Naismith.”
Self was the guy Kansas had wanted. And now they had their man. But there seemed to be one collective thought among Kansas people after Self’s first press conference.
Man, this guy sure does stutter a lot.
So how did we get here?
Here’s another story about Bill Self.
Perhaps it will help us on our journey. Perhaps it won’t.
But if you squint really hard, you just might just be able to find the exact moment that Bill Self made the KU program his own.
The moment that Bill Self stopped being “that guy who took over for ROY WILLIAMS” — and instead, Roy Williams became “that guy who was at Kansas before BILL SELF”.
The moment came six weeks after the painful loss to Nevada.
KU was 10-4 at the time, and the freshman trio of Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and Julian Wright was still finding its way.*
But after losing to Saint Joseph’s at Madison Square Garden on Dec. 6, the Jayhawks had churned out six wins in a row, including a 73-46 mugging of Kentucky.
There was hope.
*As you probably remember, the fourth freshman that year, Micah Downs, skipped out and headed back home to Washington during Winter break.
But that hope would soon diminish as Bill Self — the man who couldn’t coach, the man who lost at home to Nevada, the man who wasn’t Roy — would have his worst weekend at KU.
It started on Saturday, January 14th, when a Jim Woolridge-coached Kansas State squad would walk into Allen Fieldhouse and beat Kansas 59-55. The loss would snap KU’s 31-game winning streak against K-State.
“It is disappointing,” Self would say, “because we are a better team than what we played today.”
Two days later, Kansas would travel down to Columbia, Mo., to play Mizzou on Big Monday.
This was the Christian Moody game.
Yes, you remember. With the score tied with 0.4 seconds left in regulation, Moody — the player whom Bill Packer called the “greatest walk-on ever” — had two free throws to win the game.
He clanked both.
Of course, this was also the game that Thomas Gardner would score 40 points.
That Missouri loss would drop Kansas to 10-6 and 1-2 in the Big 12.
You could hear the whispers. They circulated in dorm rooms and fraternity basements and on message boards.
Will this team even make the tournament? Does Bill Self know what he’s doing? Can this guy coach?
We can’t know for sure what happened after that Missouri game. We just can’t.
But we do know this number — and it’s staggering.
Since KU lost in overtime to Missouri, Bill Self is 135-19
Yes, 135-19 — He’s won 87.6 percent of his games.
Of course, the numbers don’t stop there. And if you look closely, the numbers point to Bill Self being the best coach in college basketball.
During the six-plus seasons Self has been at the helm, Kansas is 192-41 (an 82.4 winning percentage)
During the same period, Roy Williams is 189-48 at North Carolina. Coach K is 190-44 at Duke. Jim Calhoun is 172-55* at Connecticut.
*We should note that John Calipari, who won many games at Memphis before taking over at Kentucky before this season, is 203-39 during the same period. Of course, we’ll also point out that Calipari racked up nearly half of those wins playing in a picked-over Conference USA.
There are other numbers to look at. Yes, Ol’ Roy won national titles in 2005 and 2009, and Billy Donovan won two at Florida, and Calhoun won another title at UConn in 2004.
But how about this?
Bill Self is 47 years old, and he will win his 400th game this season. We can’t know the future. We can’t know if he will eventually move to the NBA, or if he’ll eventually lose the passion to recruit and replenish his program.
But let’s assume that Bill Self stays at the college level for the next 10 years. And let’s say he averages 25 wins* per season.
If he does that, he’ll have more than 650 wins by age 57.
*It might be a little conservative to say that he’s going to win 25 wins per seasons. He’s averaged 28 wins over his first six seasons, and he’ll surely win more than that this year.
Let’s end here, outside Allen Fieldhouse — the place it where it all began. Let’s walk on Naismith Drive, let’s walk past Phog Allen’s statue, and let’s go inside and see the 2008 National Championship trophy.
There’s a great story about Bill Self.
It was the morning after the Memphis game, the morning after The Shot, the morning after the confetti had dropped.
Self had a morning press conference in the Alamodome. Russell Robinson and Sasha Kaun were there, too.
They were still holding the NCAA championship trophy.
Self talked about how’d he been woken by a phone call from the president. He talked about how the team had celebrated together at the team hotel. And he tried to explain how the past night had changed his life.
And then he brought up a conversation that he’d had the night before with assistant coach Joe Dooley.
“Coach,” Dooley had said. “We got to find a way to do this again.”
Of course, the NCAA tournament can be the cruelest of sporting events.
Kansas fans know this better than anyone. But right now, it seems likely that in March, KU will be favored to win its second title in three years.
Bill Self is doing it again.
And one day, when it all ends, Bill Self will be one tough act to follow.