The first time I was told about Bill Self was when he was the head coach at Tulsa and a friend of mine told me, "Watch these guys play. I really think you'd like Self's brand of ball." I watched in awe during some of those classic WAC match ups vs. Fresno State, the one team that seemed to have Self's number in his last year at Tulsa. His teams played so hard, shared the basketball, and got after it on the defensive end.
No disrespect but getting players to "buy in" to that kind of "team ball" at schools like Tulsa and Oral Roberts is not the same as implementing that philosophy at schools like Illinois and Kansas. But Self has been able to do that.
The business major who attended Oklahoma State is the consummate salesman. Throughout the years he has sold his brand of ball to some of the nation's best prospects getting them to believe that if they sacrifice for the team the individual accolades will follow. It's not easy for high-scoring high school prospects to understand that they can still reach their goals and play at the next level playing for the greater good vs. individual stats.
If he wasn't patrolling the sideline in Lawrence you could see Self being a successful business entrepreneur. Whatever he chose to do Self would find a way to be a hit just like he found a way to get the attention of Larry Brown eventually becoming his grad assistant at KU. He is smart and savvy and understands how to work the system.
He's never wavered from his inherent belief in how the game should be played but he's never been afraid to tweak it for the current situation in front of him. Adapting to the times is critical for any coach.
He does everything with a purpose.
Self's 20-year run to 500 has been amazing putting him in elite company but the humble Oklahoman would be the first to point out that in his first year at Oral Roberts his team amassed a school-worst 5-22 record. He will acknowledge the magical number but will likely use it to praise current and former players who have helped him achieve the accolade over the years."
I'm glad I got it. It means I've been doing this awhile. I only care about this team having the best year possible and the seniors the best year possible," Self told reporters after the 108-96 OT win at Iowa State.
To Self the most important game has always been the next one no matter who the opponent is. That's why on Saturday after the win against TCU Self was quick to deflect attention to the task ahead which in this case was not getting to 500, it was about getting a critical conference "W" at Iowa State.
KU's 10-year coach may not want to talk about HIS numbers but his career win percentage is nearly 76 percent - and up to almost 85 percent at KU - he's the 9th fastest coach to earn his 500th victory, he's earned a national championship and a coach who's proven no matter what sideline he's on winning comes with regularity. Near the pinnacle of the sport and clearly one of the game's best, yet he's as humble as ever.
His humbleness should never be mistaken for a lack of confidence though. Humble enough to point out the drive down Naismith Drive when he was hired at Kansas but confident enough to step in for Roy Williams and join the list of storied KU coaches. He believed he could make his own mark on a program as great as KU's, and he has.
Over the year's Self's internal belief and his uncanny ability to transfer that will to his players has become a trademark. Kansas is never out of a game. Fans feel that, coaches feel that, and so do the players. Ask any of the guys on the 2008 national championship squad who made that huddle believe against Memphis.
That's one of the reasons why the way he got his 500th was so perfect. Self thrives on going on the road and winning. All the great coaches do. This one looked unlikely with under a minute to go and down 5, but again his players found a way to persevere making #500 a memorable one.
"I won't remember 400 or 300 or 200 or 100, but I guarantee you I'll always remember this one, cause it was a good one," Self said.
But it wasn't just the comeback that made this a trademark win. Self has always known how to push the right buttons with his players. He's got charm and wit but anyone who's been around a KU practice or a game huddle knows - he can be tough. He found the right way to motivate his guys getting an early technical to make sure they were engaged and then pulled Elijah Johnson right out of an elongated slump in a big way. He gets the best out of everyone around him.
Even after an emotional win like that the first thing he did was apologize to Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg for Johnson's late game dunk. Johnson eventually apologized on ESPN for the play. He holds everyone to a high standard and everyone accountable.
Since the first time I saw him coach I believed he'd win a national championship, wherever he chose to spend his career because he's that good. Now I believe KU's winningest coach is well on his way to another league title and the Hall of Fame.