Kansas head coach Bill Self reminds me of the old E.F. Hutton commercials – when he talks -- people listen. Lately he’s had the ear of some of the most talented high school and prep stars across the country.
This salesman seems to be selling what America’s best players are buying. At this point you get the impression Self could sell a cookbook to Emeril!
We knew he was good after Julian Wright committed without ever setting foot on campus but on the heels of one of the most satisfying recruiting triumphs of his career we examine what makes Self one of college basketball’s top recruiters.
“Anyone who spends a little time with Bill wants to spend more. He's just an easy guy to like. He is wealthy and enormously successful, but he makes you feel like he could just as easily be your kid's history teacher,” according to college basketball expert, Mike DeCourcy of the Sporting News.
Self’s charisma, and his ability to engage anyone in conversation are certainly a couple of the attributes that make him such a hit on the recruiting trail. But as my wise great grandmother used to say, you can lead a horse to water but that doesn’t mean he’ll drink it.
“Your product, which is great, and the opportunities that the individual is looking for, is what sells them more so than the delivery,” said Self.
I’d break it down to about 80 percent product/opportunity, 20 percent delivery for Self but to the players, he’s like one of the guys. His sales pitch is saturated with honesty and not the negative recruiting talk that often permeates college basketball. There are no empty promises, and from the outset players know playing time on the court will be determined by how hard they work. If a player wants to reach his potential and advance to the next level, he will embrace this type of approach.
6-9 Darrell Arthur welcomed it with open arms.
“I just like the coaching staff and the environment," Arthur said at his press conference on Tuesday. “It was mainly Coach Self -- I need a coach that will push me.”
For every Darrell Arthur, Julian Wright, or Dee Brown, there’s a Charlie Villanueva, Malik Hairston, or an Ike Diogu. Though it seems like Self has nabbed more than his share of marquee recruits the past few seasons, the Jayhawk coach is quick to point out that for every hit, there is a miss in the world of recruiting.
“We’ve also lost out on some guys. We were right there on Villanueva, we were right there on Malik Hairston, and right there on C.J. Miles early in the campaign last year before he signed with Texas,” Self continued. “I think people think ‘God, we’re getting guys’. Yeah, we are getting guys and we’re proud of it, but we’ve also had some we thought we were the leader in the clubhouse and guys were a couple behind going into 16 and we haven’t got them.”
So in other words don’t bother asking Self to breakdown his formula for success.
“Recruiting is such an inexact science. You get guys you don’t deserve to get, and then you don’t get guys you do deserve to get. There’s no rhyme or reason,” Self continued. “Still players should go to the situation that they feel is best for them and they’re most comfortable with. Sometimes there’s a loyalty factor, sometimes there’s an opportunity factor, sometimes a proximity factor, there’s so many factors all the time. So it’s an inexact science on how to do it.”
Recruiting is about timing as much as it is talent, and both have been right for Self during most of his career. After losing a ton of experienced players two years ago, the timing was right when Self went after Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers, and Julian Wright. When former Illinois guard Frank Williams announced his intentions to enter the NBA draft, it was easy for Self to make his sales pitch to Dee Brown and Deron Williams. The former Illini head coach sold his theory of playing both blue-chip recruits at the same time.
Self has a way of making you believe in what he’s saying which reminds me of one popular recruiting story. It involved a visit he made to the home of Dee Brown back when he was a high school senior. Self walked in and told Dee that if he came to Champaign he would become the face of Illinois basketball. Bill was that sure about the former Illinois guard and the impact he could have on the program. At the time, Brown was a bit skeptical and thought Self might’ve been exaggerating. I’d say after one year he no longer questioned whether Self had overstated that belief.
When Brandon Rush officially added his name to the KU roster back in September, Self revealed he had these words of wisdom for the prep star:
“What we talked about is his focus being on helping Kansas, and if he helps Kansas, he’s going to help himself.”
Another seemingly prophetic statement from Self as Rush was the key component in KU’s run to a conference title. Rush dismissed all the negative rumors about his selfishness and his desire to be a one-and-done player who was just interested in Kansas as a stepping stone to the NBA. Brandon became a sponge who soaked up the necessary knowledge and experience on his way to becoming Big 12 Freshman of the Year.
If Self continues to accurately predict the future, Jayhawk fans should remember he also told Sherron Collins he would provide the missing piece to a Final Four run.
Self is smart and puts a great deal of thought into the people he hires on his staff. From the director of basketball operations to finding a place in the program for Danny Manning to the talented assistants he works with, he makes intelligent, and beneficial hires. He’s had great wing men at every coaching stop. It’s Self who has been labeled a great closer, but keep in mind his set up men have been some of the best around. Being an assistant is sometimes a tireless and thankless position, but every head coach will remind you that recruiting achievement is directly connected to the people you surround yourself with.
“It’s not me. Kurtis did the majority of the legwork on (Arthur’s recruitment) and was great. Tim started it and Kurtis kind of took the ball and ran with it early…It’s not the head coach,” Self stated. “You’ve gotta have people out there that put you in position, and then hopefully what you’re selling and your opportunities is what they’re looking for. There are no guarantees.”
“What separates Bill from many of his peers is that he understands the importance of having great recruiters on his staff,” continued DeCourcy. “Look at the guys who've worked for him: Billy Gillispie, Norm Roberts, Joe Dooley -- that's an incredible collection of recruiting talent. When Bill gets an opening, he doesn't just hire an old friend, he goes after Kurtis Townsend and opens up a new region for his regime to recruit. That’s very impressive.”
We can argue about which of Self’s attributes is most attractive to some of America’s most talented youngsters. But there’s no arguing the quality of talent and depth Self and his staff have assembled in Lawrence.
“He has built amazing depth in a very short period of time. But I think you have to go back three years, when he brought in Sasha Kaun and Russell Robinson and got C.J. Giles at the end. That's a strong group, also, and still forms the core of this team. Self hasn't had any one class as impressive as what North Carolina and Ohio State are bringing in next year, but because KU has been so consistent, I don't think that matters,” concluded DeCourcy.
But is Self the nation’s very best recruiter?
“Certainly he ranks among the best, in a very select group. I believe Roy Williams is the best of all head-coach recruiters, because he puts himself in a position where he has to be,” said DeCourcy.