What makes Kansas' coach so successful? Self confidence

By Joe Posnanski ,

In this week's Sports Illustrated, I wrote a little something about the Kansas Jayhawks and the challenge of being the tournament favorite. Along the way, I spent quite a bit of time with Bill Self. I find him fascinating. And so, I wrote the following insanely long piece about him, in addition to the magazine story.


Sometimes, when you walk into a locker room or a coach's office, you will see signs on the wall. And, as often as not, those signs will have something to do with confidence. For instance, you might wander into a baseball clubhouse or a college football locker room see a sign like this:

"Besides pride, loyalty, discipline and heart, confidence is the key to all locks."-- Joe Paterno

Or, for the more historically inclined, you might see:

"Whether you think you can or you can't -- you are right."-- Henry Ford

If the person hanging the signs has a literary ear, you might see something from the Bard:

"Our remedies oft in ourselves do lieWhich we ascribe to heaven"-- William Shakespeare

Or the sign might reflect the words of an extraordinary woman:

"We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained."-- Marie Curie

And the coach who wants to reach back into his inner child might go with a sign this:

"Be who you areSay what you feelBecause those who mind don't matterAnd those who matter don't mind."-- Dr. Seuss

What do these signs do? Maybe nothing. But coaches put them up anyway because they know: Confidence is sports' elixir. Confidence is what can make a bland team good, and a good team great, and a great team legendary. Confidence is what can lift us up in the final seconds, on the 18th hole, with two outs in the ninth. No, the shot does not always fall, the putt does not always drop, the hit does not always go through. But that's not the point. There is no "always" in the games people play. No, sports are about something else ...

"Guys," Kansas coach Bill Self tells his players as they enter the most important basketball tournament of their lives. "There's gonna come a moment in time when we're going to have to make a play. So you have to ask yourself a question, and you're the only one who can answer it."

He glares at them: "Are you ready for that moment?"


This is about Bill Self, but it really is not. It's about confidence. More to the point, it's about how a small-town Oklahoma kid, son of coach, became America's leading exporter of confidence. It's about how an OK college basketball player with no burning desire to coach has coached at four different colleges, four entirely different experiences, and won at all of them. It about how a nice guy with a slight stutter and hair that people on the Internet love to question has once again built a Kansas team that can win that national championship.

It is about ... well, first you have to hear the Larry Brown story. Self was going into his senior year at Oklahoma State, where he was a decent player for mediocre teams. That summer, he went to Lawrence to help coach at Brown's basketball camp -- this is when Brown was coaching at Kansas. Self was playing ball up there, and he blew out his knee. Well, anyway, it SEEMED like he blew out his knee -- it turned out he was fine. But in that moment, it looked like a blowout, and there was panic everywhere. An Oklahoma State starter blew out his knee at a Kansas coaching camp? Nobody in the world felt worse than Larry Brown.

"If there's anything I can do for you, you just tell me," Brown told Self, and the look on Brown's face suggested that he meant ANYTHING.

Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do? We might thank Brown for his kindness, maybe, tell him that we might just take him up on that someday.

Self said: "Well, you could hire me as a graduate assistant coach."

Who is that guy? Where does that come from? Well, of course Brown said yes, he had just promised, well, "anything." Only it gets better. Self took Brown at his word. Self had not shown much interest in coaching -- he was going to go into business -- but he was no dummy; the opportunity to coach for Brown made him think that coaching might be a fine life. He went back to Oklahoma State for his senior year, and he wrote Brown a letter every month, telling him again and again how excited he was to be the next Kansas graduate assistant coach. He did not get one letter in return, not one. He called a Kansas assistant coach he knew, R.C. Buford, now the GM of the Spurs, and said: "R.C., does Coach Brown ever mention me?"

And Buford told him: "I've never heard him say your name one time."

So Self's senior season ended, he still had not heard one word from Brown. Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do? We might adjust our plans, call around, see if there's a chance to coach elsewhere or a business opportunity for a recent college graduate...

Self packed up everything he owned, put it in his car, drove up to Lawrence, and walked into Brown's office and said, "OK, I'm here. What do you need me to do?" And Brown, beaten, said: "Go sit over at that desk and start working."

And that's how Bill Self became a basketball coach.


"I'm gonna tell you something about Bill," longtime friend Barry Hinson says. "In his senior year in high school, he made seven buzzer-beaters to win games. Seven! You know how you do that? You have no doubts, that's how."

See, the thing that strikes you about Bill Self as coach is how he's good at all of it. He coaches. He recruits. He sells. He inspires. He tells jokes at Kiwanis' clubs. This is a guy who won at Oral Roberts when the school was coming off its worst basketball season ever. Then he won at Tulsa, following the coaching powers of Nolan Richardson and Tubby Smith and Steve Robinson. Then he won at Illinois, won the Big Ten title his first year by building the most physical team in the most physical league. And then he went to Kansas, replaced legendary coach Roy Williams, and in five years won a national championship -- beating Williams himself along the way.

Every one of those stops demanded something different. He had to coach up his talent at Oral Roberts, and create an us-against-the-world aura at Tulsa, and coach his players to overpower people at Illinois and create a place for himself in the crowded tradition room at Kansas. And he did all of that, did it all because, well, because ...

"Look, everybody here in the upper echelon of college basketball can coach," Self says. "Everybody. And everybody works hard. And everybody has good kids. I really don't like it when I hear people talk about all that stuff, how good a coach someone is or how hard they work or whatever. Everybody's doing that. That's not what it's about."

It is about ... well, wait, you should hear the Leonard Hamilton story. So, you know, Self coached for a year under Brown, and he loved it. He loved everything about Brown, even when Brown ripped him. Especially those times. Like once, Self helped himself to the training table food after the game and before the players arrived. Brown said: "Oh, I didn't know you had worked that hard during the game." Lesson 1: A coach NEVER eats before the players. Lesson 2: Withering irony can be a very effective teaching tool. Self learned both lessons well.

So, sure, he now wanted to coach. And he figured the best place to start would be to apply for an assistant job at his school, Oklahoma State, where Hamilton had just taken over. Self managed to get himself an interview, and he talked about how hard he would work, and how relentlessly he would recruit ... and he noticed Hamilton's eyes' glazing over.

Stop here. What would you do? What do any of us do when a job interview starts going bad, when it is clear that your talk is not getting through and your dream of getting the job is drowning. Maybe we panic. Maybe we try harder. Maybe we stand up and say, "I see I'm wasting your time here."

"I'll tell you why you should hire me," Self told Hamilton. "Because if you hire me, I'll get you your point guard for this season and you won't need to give up a scholarship."

That stopped Hamilton. "You'll get me a point guard?" he asked.

"Yep," Self said. "But he won't play unless you hire me as a coach."

And there it was. Hamilton said that if Self could really deliver a point guard, no strings attached, then he had the job. And when Self left the office he called an Oklahoma State senior named Jay Davis, a close friend who had played at his high school, and said: "Hey man, you've got to play basketball for Oklahoma State this year."

Davis had been a very good high school player, but he was happy with his college life -- happy as the best fraternity basketball player at the school. He had absolutely no interest at all in playing organized ball and getting yelled at and all that. He said: "No way."

And Self said: "Um, no, you don't understand. You have to play. I won't get the job unless you play. So, you're playing."

So, Jay Davis played basketball for the 1986-87 Oklahoma State Cowboys. The team was 8-20 and lousy ("Well, what do you expect, we had a walk-on as our starting point guard," Self says), but you can still look it up: Davis led the team in assists, steals and fouls. Self was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State for five more years and was there for the rebirth of Oklahoma State basketball.

Not long after that, Self and Davis were best men at each other's weddings.

Here's something funny about Bill Self, something you can miss if you are not paying attention: Self will always try to answer the question. At first blush, that may not seem funny or interesting at all -- doesn't everyone try to answer questions?

But if you think about it for a moment you will realize that, no, most people in sports, in politics, in entertainment, in just about any field with a lot of questions will only SORT OF give you answers. It's natural for people to only answer half the question, or use the question (whatever it is) as an opportunity to say exactly what they want to say, or misunderstand the question because they weren't really listening. If you listen to an interview, really listen, you will be stunned to hear how often the answer doesn't really have all that much to do with the question.

But Self answers questions. If you ask Self how he thinks his team played in a game, he will tell you exactly how he thinks his team played. Played well at times. Had trouble attacking the zone. Needed more energy at the start of the second half. And so on. If you ask him something goofy -- such as when one reporter asked him whether he would prefer to go on a 22-2 run in the first half or in the second half -- he will laugh and say that he'd prefer both but then he will think about it for a moment and decide that, yes, a second half run probably would lead to more victories. If you ask him how his life changed after he led Kansas to the national championship in 2008, he will refuse to fall back on the safe answer, the "it really didn't change my life at all" numbness that coaches will generally say without thinking.

"I think it gives you a little more credibility on the practice court," he says. "I really think that's the big thing. When you win one, it's not like the players can look at you and say: 'Well, this guy doesn't know what he's talking about.' And let's face it, that's what players always want to believe about their coaches, isn't it?"

Self's answer-every-question-directly style is not something you notice right away. It's something you pick up over time, over years. It's something you notice when Self gives blunt and interesting answers during what are typically pointless television halftime interviews. It's something you notice when a kid from a college newspaper asks a question -- Self will answer it with what seems to be the same earnestness with which he answers questions from the NCAA Division I all-time winning coach Bob Knight. It's something you notice day-after-day: Bill Self always seems to be trying.*

*You know who else is like this -- always answering the question directly and specifically? Jack Nicklaus. You will not see Nicklaus on many reporters "all-time great interview" lists, because he's not exactly funny, and he's not a particularly great story teller, and he's not going to say many controversial things because he does not appear to think controversially. But Nicklaus will answer your question, exactly as you ask it. In a sport with comedians, agitators and philosophers, Nicklaus is the most quoted golfer ever, not only because of his greatness but because, time and again, he just answers the question.

That's confidence. People who write about Self will almost always point out -- and rightfully so -- how nice a guy he is off the court, and how tough he is coaching on the court. People will point out how easily he moves in a crowd of big-money boosters, and how natural he looks surrounded by students, and how comfortable he will be speaking in front of big crowds, and how dogged he is on the recruiting trail. He's the natural chameleon. He is whatever he needs to be at the moment.

"I guess I've always been that way," Self says, though he looks uncomfortable answering the question. Then again: He can't help it. The question was asked.

"To me," he says, "to be successful you need to respond to whatever the situation calls for. I tell our players that all the time. You win games by making plays. I know that's a cliche, but it's true. You don't win games with the best offense, because sometimes your shots don't fall. You don't win games with the best defense, because sometimes the other team just keeps making shots. You win games by making plays in that moment, responding to that exact challenge."

It is about ... well, OK, you have to hear the Oral Roberts story. Self was hired to be coach at Oral Roberts when the basketball program was at a low point. Self took the job and believed he would turn it around because, well, that's just how he ticks.

So, the day came when he was going to be introduced ... only this being Oral Roberts, it is done a bit differently. Self was brought to the giant chapel, where every student in the school was present. And, understand, Oral Roberts is an evangelical school; it was built, Oral Roberts himself always said, because God told him to build it. Self grew up in a quiet Methodist home.

Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do, thrown into that chapel, 4,000 kids in the pews, all of them wanting to know a little something about the new coach?

Bill Self preached. He preached that he was going to bring a winner back to Oral Roberts. He preached that he and his staff was going to work night and day to make it happen. "It was unbelievable," says Hinson, Self's friend who was there as an assistant coach. "He transformed himself." In time, after a rough first two years, Self and Hinson and the team did become winners, did go to their first postseason tournament in a decade. But perhaps the most lasting memory happened that day in the chapel, when quiet Self preached and preached, and the students swayed with him, and he made everyone believe, and that when he finished everyone in the place, everyone, including Oral Roberts himself, said "Amen."

When Self was introduced as the new basketball coach at Kansas -- replacing Roy Williams, who had taken the Jayhawks to four Final Fours -- there was a special seat with the Kansas logo on it for him to sit on. But before he did sit on it, he felt it with his hand. "Feels hot," he said.

Everybody laughed. Self laughed. He will laugh at his own jokes, just to let you know he is joking. But it wasn't a joke. It was the perfect thing to say. Self knew that's exactly what everyone was thinking -- he was on the hot seat. He had come to Kansas to replace Williams, who had led the Jayhawks to No. 2 or No. 1 in the polls 11 of his 15 years. Williams had gone home to North Carolina, and he had left behind angry and bitter Kansas fans who felt like Williams had betrayed them. He left behind sky-high expectations.

It's never easy at Kansas, anyway. There really isn't a school in America that has quite the same basketball tradition of Kansas -- no other school that can say that its first basketball coach was James Naismith, who, you know, invented the game. And the funny thing is, that his replacement and disciple, Phog Allen, was almost as influential in his own way. Allen was instrumental in creating the NCAA tournament. He was the driving force behind putting basketball in the Olympics. And he also taught the game to a couple of Kansas kids named Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith. This year, three schools won their 2,000th game -- Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina. Phog Allen was instrumental in all three. Allen also recruited to Kansas a big man from Philadelphia named Wilt Chamberlain.

Anyway, basketball tradition at Kansas is like air -- it's everywhere, it gets into everything. Only the truth is that when Self took over, Kansas had not won a national championship since 1988. And before that, you had to go back to 1952. There was an impression, not entirely without merit, that the Jayhawks played soft in the biggest games. There seemed this national impression that Kansas was a good program but not great like North Carolina or Kentucky or Duke. Self knew all of this when he took the job. That's why he reached over and touched the seat and said, "Feels hot." He wanted everyone to understand: He knew exactly what he was getting himself into.

That's Bill Self too. He has an almost pathological need for there to be no misunderstandings. He cherishes confrontation. He demands clarity. He does not mind if his players dislike him -- that's part of the deal -- but he will be sure, damn sure, that they know exactly where they stand at him at all times. They WILL know. Self will gather them together in the locker room, and he will go around the room, and he will say to his players, plainly, directly: "You are too selfish with the ball ... And you don't trust your teammates enough ... And you try to take too much of the credit ... And you will slack off when you start feeling too good about yourself."

"That, to me, is a bit part of what coaching is about," he says. "I mean everybody does it differently. But for me, there shouldn't be any secrets. They have to know exactly what where they stand, what I think about them, what they have to do to become better players, what their strengths and weaknesses are. We have to be clear. If I hear a player say that they don't know where they stand with me, with our coaching staff, that would really bother me. Because I know how hard we work to make sure they know exactly what we think."

It's telling to watch Self coach practice. Most college basketball practices look the same -- with players' energy levels drifting up and down and coaches trying to modulate things by screaming at the top of their lungs an so on. Self is no different. Take a typical practice in February, and Kansas' seven-foot freshman Jeff Withey apparently does not run hard enough to get back on defense.

"That," Self yells, "was the most pathetic thing I have ever seen in my entire life."

And while Self may have waited 47 years to see something that pathetic, he only has to wait two more minutes before he catches another freshman, this time Thomas Robinson, loafing on his way back to defend. This strikes Self as even MORE pathetic, especially when Robinson insists he was not loafing ("Do you want me to show you the tape?" Self screams).

Self sends those two off to the treadmill to run off his anger. And while they run, Then he watches another freshman, Xavier Henry, go to the wrong place in the trap offense, and, sure, that becomes the most pathetic thing he has ever seen. And when junior All-America Cole Aldrich throws the ball away, and senior All-America Sherron Collins follows that up with a turnover of his own, well, Self's face goes from burgundy to maroon, and he just stands there speechless, his fingers digging into the sides of his forehead like he's trying to keep his head from detonating.

"NO!" he shouts, an all-encompassing "No," that stops everyone cold.

Yes, pretty typical stuff. But the odd part is that when the practice ends, Self seems pretty happy. "That was a good practice, wasn't it?" he asks, and when I tell him that it seemed pretty good except for the yelling and the various levels of pathetic, he smiles and shrugs.

"I've got to stay on these guys," he says. "That's what they need."


Here is Bill Self's one-word philosophy of life: Unstoppable. He loves that word. He will tell his players, again and again, that they are unstoppable, that unstoppable is what they need to be, that unstoppable is their path to success, that unstoppable is the only way to live.

This Kansas team is ridiculously good. Self knows it. There are different opinions about what makes a tournament-tough team, but most coaches will take their chances with a gritty senior point guard (Collins), an All-America big man who can score inside and change the game defensively (Aldrich), a 6-foot-6 wingman with a pure shot (Henry), the fastest player on the floor (Tyshawn Taylor) and 6-foot-8 twins -- yeah, twins -- who can demoralize teams with their offensive rebounding and ability to create shots in the lane (Marcus and Markieff Morris). This is a different kind of tournament, with big-name schools like Connecticut, Arizona, North Carolina and UCLA out. Sure, there are good teams there. Kentucky's freshmen are incredible -- John Wall is an NBA star playing college basketball. Syracuse has come together beautifully, and the Orange play that killer zone. Duke seems to have gotten its mojo back. There are others. But it does seem like Kansas is the team with the best shot at greatness.

Self doesn't back off of this -- quite the opposite. He knows that this team can do only one of two things: Win or disappoint. "Yeah, that's the deal," he says cheerily.

So, how do you win with the best team? Self thinks there is only one way: You make them believe in unstoppable. You make the players believe that going cold and missing shots is a GOOD THING because, as he tells them. "That gives us a chance to show how tough we are." You make the players believe that no pick is strong enough to stop them and no defense crafty enough to contain them. You make the players believe that the game is already won, and the only thing that's left to do is show everybody.

Yes, it's about confidence again. You know, it hasn't always been easy for Self at Kansas. That first year -- with remnants of those excellent Williams teams -- Kansas went to the Elite Eight and lost to Georgia Tech in overtime. The next two years, Kansas lost in the first round of the tournament, to the Bucknell Bison and Bradley Braves, the killer Bs, and Self beat himself up. He found it difficult to change the culture at Kansas and would later wonder if he should have been more adaptable. "I didn't coach very well that first year," he says. "And the Bucknell loss especially ... I carried that with me for a long time."

The next year, Kansas lost to UCLA in the Elite Eight -- Self's third time losing one step away from the Final Four. And then came the magical run -- early-round domination, a hard-fought victory over America's Choice Davidson in the Elite Eight, an absolute obliteration of Williams' Carolina and all the ghosts, and finally that wild comeback victory over Memphis for Kansas' second national championship in more than 50 years.

Self will tell you, will insist, that that championship didn't change him. It may have changed people's perceptions about him -- you remember that whole bit about how players have to listen to him even more now -- but Self will tell you, inside, that he always felt like he could recruit well enough and coach well enough to win a national championship. He had that confidence. He doesn't know where it came from. He didn't learn it from books or gain it from great quotations from great people. He just ... had it.

And in the end, it is about ... well, here's one final Bill Self story.

In the final two minutes of that national championship game against Memphis, Self found himself furiously trying to pump confidence in his team. Memphis led by nine. You don't come back from nine points down, not with two minutes left, not against a great team, not in the national championship game. Self shouted, "You got to believe!" again and again, as trite as anything, but he could not think of anything else to say. Those were the words banging in his head. This, basically, was what he knew. You got to believe.

Darrell Arthur made a long jumper, just inside the three-point line. The deficit was seven. Self quickly called timeout. He sketched out a full-court press defense. You got to believe. Collins stole the inbounds pass, appeared to step out of bounds, there was no call, he got the ball back and nailed a three-pointer. The deficit was four. You got to believe. Memphis' Chris Douglas-Roberts made two free throws. Mario Chalmers made two free throws. The clock was ticking down. You got to believe.

Then, Douglas-Roberts missed two free throws. Arthur made a shot in the lane. The deficit was two. Self was going crazy on the sideline. Douglas-Roberts missed two more free throws. Kansas called its last timeout. You gotta believe. Derrick Rose made one of two free throws. And that led to Chalmers' three-point shot, Mario's Miracle, and Kansas won the game in overtime.

Self was dizzy from joy. People kept asking him if he really thought that his Jayhawks could come back from nine points down, and he admitted that he didn't know, but he wanted to believe, he needed to believe, you gotta believe.

Later, I saw a tape of the pregame speech that Self gave his team before the Memphis game. He told them: "The reason I feel so confident about us winning is because we don't have to change one bit who we are. ... All we got to do is be ourselves."

And then he told his players this: "Most every day -- if not every day -- for the rest of your life, you will be reminded, or think of, this night. And I want to thank you in advance, right now, for the great memories it's gonna be. Let's go have some fun."

Maybe it's isn't pithy. Maybe it isn't deep. Maybe it isn't Lombardi. Shoot, maybe it isn't even grammatically sound. But there is Bill Self in 15 words -- all of his Oklahoma charm, all of his certainty that things will work out, all of his ability to inspire confidence in people:

"I want to thank you in advance, right now, for the great memories it's gonna be."

There's Bill Self. Make it a sign. Put it up on the wall. Believe. And then, enjoy the memories it's gonna be.

Loading ...