Thing 1: “We have to convince them how to play.”
Bill Self had no plans to become a basketball coach, you know. It’s a pretty famous story how it happened. Self was a decent player at Oklahoma State, a grinder, an overachiever, and he expected to go into some kind of business and make some money. But then he was helping out at Larry Brown’s basketball camp – back when Brown was coach at Kansas – and he fell, seemingly wrecking his knee.
“If there’s anything I can ever do for you …” Brown told him in a somewhat panicked voice.
“Well,” Self instantly said, “you could make me a graduate assistant coach.”
Brown may or may not have acknowledged the request then, but in that moment of clarity Self saw his future. His knee was fine, and he played his senior year, and every few weeks he would write a letter to Larry Brown that made clear how excited he was to coach at Kansas. He never got one letter or response. He would regularly check in with his friend R.C. Buford – now the longtime GM of the San Antonio Spurs – who was coaching at Kansas. “Does Larry ever mention me?” he would ask. “No,” Buford would say. “Never.”
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When Self graduated, he had not received an offer from Brown … or even a hint of an offer. So he did what anyone would do: He got a job at a financial company and … no, wait, he didn’t do that. He actually loaded up the car with everything he owned and drove up to Lawrence with an invitation. He showed up at the basketball office, saw Larry Brown, and said: “OK, I’m here. What do you want me to do?” When Self tells this story, he does a great impression of Brown’s shocked look. But finally, Brown said: “Well, just sit at that desk and start working.”
This is pretty typical of the Bill Self style of coaching. He is unyielding and irrepressible. He wears down players with his energy, his force of will, his constant and high expectations. I remember a late-season practice three years ago, where Self just unloaded on two freshmen he believed were not giving full effort. Neither was a particularly important player at that point in the season. One was an athletic looking forward who lacked confidence and averaged barely two points a game. The other was a tall and gangly 7-footer who averaged three minutes a game and nobody seemed too sure how much he even liked basketball. Self just pounded on them and pounded on them, pushed them and prodded them, insulted them and motivated them.
The former turned out to be Thomas Robinson, who became a starter as a junior and then an All-American, led Kansas to that NCAA Tournament runner-up spot last year and was the fifth pick in the NBA draft.
The latter turned out to be Jeff Withey, an All-America candidate this year who already has been named the Big 12 defensive player of the year. Last year, he set an NCAA tournament record with 31 blocked shots. “He’s the greatest shot blocker I’ve ever coached,” Self says.
So this is the first step – and notice Self does not say “TEACH them how to play,” but, instead, “CONVINCE them how to play.” Self is not a controlling coach. He doesn’t preside over every possession. He doesn’t go crazy sketching offensive plays, doesn’t push his players into some rigid system, doesn’t call a lot of timeouts so he can play on the chalkboard. Instead, he and his staff CONVINCE the players to stay in the moment, to play their roles, and more than anything to play tough.
Yes, that’s Self’s big idea: Be tough, Self sometimes refers to this in the negative: “You just can’t be soft.” It’s a theme that, for Self, fits every occasion. When a player gives a great scorer one step, a single step, Self says that’s a form of softness. When a team takes a rushed and bad shot when the crowd gets loud and the other team is on a run, that’s a form of softness. When a team falls in love with its high ranking and stops working, when a team allows the outside criticism to cripple its confidence, when a team passes the ball around the perimeter and settles for a long shot rather than attack, yes, all of those are a form softness too.
Self abhors softness of any kind – in sports or in life. Softness torments him. Once, six or seven years ago, Self’s Kansas was playing Oklahoma, and for a moment the Jayhawks unleashed a full-court press, just to change things up. It was devastating. Oklahoma’s players had no idea what to do. After the game, we asked Self why his teams don’t press more often, and he kind of dodged the question for a couple of moments, which is unlike Self.
Finally, though, he answered it. “When you play that style, you will give up some easy baskets,” he said. “And I just cannot STAND giving up easy baskets.”
So, this is step one – convince the Jayhawks to be all kinds of tough. Mentally tough. Physically tough. Emotionally tough. Most of the players, when they first get to Kansas, have no idea what any of this is about. He yells at them pushes them, drives them, and most don’t like it at all. But they toughen up anyway because Self is so relentless, so dogged, they cannot resist him.
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Thing 2: “We have to convince our players that if we play the way we’re supposed to play, we’re going to be really good.”
Maybe you’ve heard the story of how Bill Self got his first real assistant coaching job. Leonard Hamilton was coaching at Oklahoma State then, and Self interviewed for an assistant’s job. Self was a former Oklahoma State player, so he thought he might have an inside line at the job. But during the interview, he noticed that Hamilton did not seem especially moved by anything he was saying. He actually looked kind of bored. Self has always had a gift for reading people.
“I’ll tell you what, Coach,” Self said. “If you hire me, I’ll get you a point guard for next year and you won’t even have to give up a scholarship.”
“You’ll get me a point guard?” Hamilton asked.
“And I won’t have to give up a scholarship?” Hamilton asked.
Orlin Wagner / AP
Senior Travis Releford isn't a star, but he's a good example of a player Self uses to make others better.
Who was Jay Davis? Yep, he was Bill Self’s best friend. He had been a terrific high school basketball player but he had a lot more interest in living the college life than playing ball. “You’ve got to play on the team,” Self told him. Davis declined.
“You’ve GOT to play on the team,” Self told him. Davis declined again.
“YOU’VE GOT TO PLAY ON THE TEAM,” Self told him. Davis played on the team. He, better than anyone, knew that he wasn’t going to beat Bill Self at this game. Later, Davis was the best man at Self’s wedding, and vice versa.’
So, this is the second Bill Self gift – this ability to convince people of just about anything. Self knows he can convince the Kansas players to play tough through motivation and inspiration and quite a bit of yelling. But that’s only the first step. To make it work, he has to convince them that if they DO play tough, they will be a great team.
“It’s like there’s a dual motivation,” he says. “One motivation is to kick butt. But another motivation is to not be the team that doesn’t kick butt. You know what I’m saying? It’s like, you ask, what drives me? Is it wanting to win? Or is it not wanting to lose? And if I’m honest with myself, I know it’s a little bit of both.
“We’ve been lucky at Kansas. We talk about it all the time – faces change but the results stay the same. I think everybody works hard to get that message across, but I think we are really good at getting it across. They want to keep the tradition going. But they also don’t want to be the team that breaks the tradition.”
Kansas’ consistently dominant defense is a pretty good indicator of this. Self says the Jayhawks probably spend 75 to 80 percent of their time practicing offense. But it’s their defense that stands out – every single year under Self, the Jayhawks have held their opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. This is in part because the Jayhawks usually have great athletes. This is in part because Self spends so much effort toughening them up. This is in part because Self’s smothering man-to-man defense is tightly designed and coached, and the players almost always recognize how to adjust to any offense.
More than anything, though, the Jayhawks play good defense because they believe it will make them a great team.
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