Williamson: Out of the Closet

Attention, fans: the moratorium is over. It's okay to feel good about Kansas Basketball again. Allen Field House was a study in stark contrasts from just a week ago. On this particular Monday, there were as many smiles and firm handshakes to go around as there were downcast faces and "no comments" last week.

The crowd included former athletic directors Monte Johnson and Bob Frederick (I think Al Bohl is still asleep in his driveway), football coach Mark Mangino and numerous gray-haired men in sport coats who just have that wealth stank oozing off of them. With a sign on the speaker's podium that read, "Head Coach Bill Self," Hemenway, along with Interim Athletic Director Drue Jennings and the Jayhawk basketball team, welcomed new head men's basketball coach Bill Self in a very happy Hadl Auditorium.

"It is my pleasure today to announce that the University of Kansas, a great university, and its basketball team, which is a great team, has a great new basketball coach: Bill Self," announced KU Chancellor Dr. Robert Hemenway.

Citing Self's past record, his reputation for integrity and his strong feelings for the University of Kansas and its basketball program, Hemenway said, "We spoke to some outstanding coaches, but we focused on one man: Bill Self."

Hemenway even presented Self with a personalized Kansas Basketball sideline chair with his name on the back, adding, "We'd be pretty glad if you'd just keep it for the next 25 years or so."
Accepting the chair, Self got some laughs when he said, "I just touched that chair and it already feels very hot."

Self immediately spoke to the emotional rollercoaster that so many people had been on. While he said he was "thrilled" to be the new Kansas basketball coach, he also was experiencing mixed emotions.
"There's been a lot of things that have been said, there's been lot of feelings that have been hurt, there's been a lot of things that have happened in the last seven or eight days at two wonderful institutions," Self said. "And nobody picks the timing – certainly I didn't pick this." Good answer, Coach. It's nice to hear a coach acknowledge that from the get-go.

Self spoke warmly of a great Illini fan base, school administration and committed young players and recruits. "With what we left behind, it was certainly tough," but he added, "we're certainly looking forward to what we have."

In tones of a six-year-old on Christmas morning, he talked about waking up Monday to make his first drive to his new office, and he intentionally made the trip down Naismith Drive, because, "I've always thought, ‘How cool would it be to have an office on Naismith Drive?' And now, it gets to happen."

Clearly sensitive to the events of the past week, Self praised former coach Roy Williams and how he ran the Kansas program, but sent a clear message: "This program is bigger than one player, it's bigger than one coach. But you had a coach here the last 15 years who's done a remarkably great job."

He acknowledged that the former coach would be a tough act to follow. "But Larry Brown was a tough act to follow. Ted Owens went to two Final Fours and was a tough act to follow. Phog Allen was a very tough act to follow, and the guy who started it all is the toughest act of all to follow: Dr. Naismith."

Self drew laughs when he spoke of his time as a player at Oklahoma State University. "I was one of those heady guys who took charges and I told the players that last night. I said, ‘What does that really mean?' And (KU guard Keith) Langford said, ‘Can't play.'"

He spoke of his debt to former KU coach Larry Brown, who gave Self his first coaching job. While working Brown's camp, Self injured his knee and would need surgery upon returning to Stillwater. "At the end of the camp, I caught him at a weak moment, and he said, "Bill, if I can ever do anything for you, don't hesitate to ask." Self seized the opportunity and asked Brown for a graduate assistant coaching position. Brown hired the business major on the spot.

Self was a graduate assistant on the 1985-86 Kansas team that included Chris Piper, Calvin Thompson, Ron Kellogg, Cedric Hunter, Archie Marshall, Wichita State Coach Mark Turgeon and, as Self put it, "some guy named Manning." That team went 35-4 and lost to Duke in a hotly-contested national semi-final in Dallas' Reunion Arena. "From right then, I knew this place was different," Self said.

Self introduced assistant coach Norm Roberts, whom he calls "His lucky rabbit's foot," from Illinois to fill the position of associate head coach. He also announced that former Kansas State guard Tim Jankovich would be joining his staff, but intimated strongly that another position might go to someone with Kansas ties. Conventional wisdom after the press conference indicated that was probably Ben Miller or Kevin Pritchard.

Self finally talked about the current KU players, "studs" whom he felt had been "short-changed." "These guys, this year, with the injury to Wayne (Simien) and with the loss of Drew (Gooden), have rallied around each other and played at a level that's been unbelievable. We haven't had a chance to celebrate the work and the efforts of these guys." Tell us about it.

But Self even turned that into something positive. Reminding us, "Life's not about what happens to us; life is about how we react to what happens to us," he went on to say, "I think these guys have reacted to the coaching situation in a stellar way. These guys hurt. I think everybody can thank these guys for staying united because they care about Kansas."

Speaking of wunderkind Ben Miller, Self extended kudos to the KU assistant coach, saying that everyone he talked to, from the players to their parents to the recruits parents all talked about the job that Miller had done in the past week. "Ben has played a big role in really stepping up to the plate and held this thing together even though it wasn't falling apart but the appearance at the time was that it looked frayed," acknowledged Self.

Looking forward to next year, Self was clearly and openly excited, emphasizing, "We've got good players coming back, and I'm excited about that. The previous staff did a great job recruiting. This recruiting class is good – very good, borderline great. We may take a step sideways, but we're not going to take a step backwards."

Showing respect for the past and the "family" feel that was built under the former coach, Self said, "Deep in your heart, once you've been here, you know what it's like. Certainly, this is an enormous responsibility, and I think one of the first orders of business is to stay in contact and stay connected to the people who came here before me, the players that came before these guys, and make sure that this is going to be a family. I'm looking forward to it."

There were two noticeable sighs of relief from the press conference crowd. The first came when Self was asked what style of play his KU teams would adopt. "We're gonna play fast. We've played fast everywhere we've been. We led the league in scoring the past three years. I believe it's a game of pressure: the harder you guard, the quicker you shoot. If you guard, you're going to shoot. And these guys like to shoot, so I know we'll guard. It's a game of comfort zones: these guys have done a great job of living in theirs and getting their opponents out of theirs. We will run more high-low, we'll do some different things because that's what I know but I believe that you're not going to see a lot of difference." Hold onto your season tickets, kids. It's still going to be fun.

The second came when asked when Self was going to be contacting recruits Jeremy Case, J.R. Giddens, David Padgett and Omar Wilkes. "That's the first order of business. I want to go see the families of our returning players, but I will wait until after the recruiting period is over, because we only have 9 days left. I hope (the current players) understand that. I'm going to go see theirs the first part of May, and my first order of business is to get to the Wilkes and the Padgetts and the Giddens and the Cases."

When asked by a reporter what his plans are for KU's one remaining scholarship, Self left it in limbo. However, his answer left the door cracked, possibly for recruit/NBA draftee Charlie Villanueva, although Self can't mention a recruit who has not committed and the reporter who asked the question didn't. "Recruiting's a never-ending process and who knows what's going to happen? We'll evaluate and if there's somebody out there that fits what we're trying to do and gives us a better opportunity to play on Monday night in April, then it makes sense."

And finally, someone used the "E" word, as in Eddie. As in Sutton. As in Oklahoma State coach, Hall of Famer and mentor Eddie Sutton. Will Self bolt when his alma mater's job becomes available? "This (the KU job) is a career-ending job. I love Oklahoma State, but talk about a tough act to follow! Coach Sutton will be a tough act to follow, as well. But my future is not in Stillwater; my future is in Lawrence. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity.

Then Self looked at the Chancellor and Athletic Director on his right, grinned and drew some more laughs by continuing, "I think, contractually, there'll probably be a couple of things in there to make sure (leaving for OSU) couldn't happen."

Everyone laughed – a relieved laugh. Life can return normal, or as normal as life in Lawrence gets, anyway. We have a new coach who is smooth, funny and very, very passionate about being a part of Kansas Basketball. He also needs about two weeks sleep. He's tired. After all, making a life decision takes it out of a guy.

But he doesn't have that kind of time. He's got folks like Allen and Naismith watching, and he a legacy to build, starting with calling those four prized recruits that, along with his returning "studs," may take him and KU Basketball to the promised land for the first time in a long time.

Finally – and not to sound like an After-School Special – but I left the press conference with something he said ringing in my head. This coach gets it: this is bigger than him, and it's bigger than this tremendous group of players and the four great recruits who will most likely be coming. It's about 103 years of tradition and people and players and fans and history at an outstanding university. A freight train is still a freight train, no matter who's driving it.

But it's always nice to have someone in the big chair, someone in charge. Tonight God is in His heaven, He's playing "HORSE" with Doc Allen, and all is right with the world.

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