Eric Thomas: Bill Self’s illness reminds us how much he has accomplished as Kansas head coach (Column)

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Note: The Lawrence Times runs opinion columns written by community members with varying perspectives on local issues. Occasionally, we’ll also pick up columns from other nearby news outlets. These pieces do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Times staff.

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The University of Kansas men’s basketball team and its fans face the prospect of entering the postseason with head coach Bill Self away from the bench. It’s a striking absence — hopefully temporary — for a program that has been defined by its head coach.

Self was hospitalized Thursday, forcing the hall of fame coach to miss the Jayhawks’ quarterfinal 78-61 win Thursday against West Virginia in the Big 12 Tournament. Assistant coach Norm Roberts coached the game against the Mountaineers. The Jayhawks will face Iowa State at 6 p.m. Friday.

I join Jayhawk fans in hoping for Self’s recovery and his quick return to the team.

The news of Self’s illness also comes during a season that has been marked by the coach’s absences.

Self served a four-game suspension imposed by the university at the start of the season for his role in a scandal involving alleged recruiting violations and inquiries by the FBI.

However, this season has also been defined by the dominance of his team in the Big 12 Conference and in national rankings. The team is poised to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament after winning the Big 12 regular season.

This kind of dominance from Self and his teams has become common during his 20 seasons as head coach at Kansas. Self’s Jayhawks have won either a share or sole possession of the Big 12 regular season title in 17 of 20 years. Kansas has qualified for 32 consecutive NCAA Tournaments, a record in men’s basketball. 

What’s so jarring about his recent absences is this: Self has been the constant in the program, as star players ascend to the NBA, role players graduate, assistant coaches snag their own head coaching jobs, and athletic directors leave and arrive. Self’s tenure also straddles three different chancellors of the university.

So many other contemporary basketball coaches hopscotch around the country for coaching jobs.

Consider coaching legends such as Bobby Knight, Rick Pitino and John Calipari. While we might associate them with their signature head coaching jobs at Indiana, Kentucky and, well, Kentucky, they have crisscrossed the country and even jumped to other leagues for their jobs. Knight fled Indiana after a scandal for Texas Tech, while Pitino and Calipari have coached in the NCAA in many regions, plus the NBA.

Self is the counterpoint. He has stayed put in the Midwest, coaching in Oklahoma, Illinois and Kansas. And his folksy Midwesternism — while no match for Roy Williams’ “awww shucks” rhetoric — seems right at home in Kansas.

Indeed, reading quotes from his press conferences reveals a casual, if not swerving, path to his thoughts. There is nothing slick on display when Self comes to the lectern in his KU quarter-zip sweatshirt.

(Another Midwestern note: Self’s career at Kansas might never have happened if not for a decision by the University of Missouri. The cross-border rivals had the chance to hire Self from the University of Tulsa in 1999, Self said. Imagine how Kansas basketball might look today with Self coaching the Tigers and wearing black and gold.)

In the Big 12 Tournament, Self’s Jayhawks hope to repeat last year’s championship: a three-game streak through the tournament in which they won each game by at least seven points.

Starting this month, they also hope to defend their 2022 NCAA championship. Like most other signature KU basketball moments, Self put his stamp on that game. During halftime — and with his team trailing by 15 points against North Carolina — Self convinced his squad that the deficit could be overcome, even in the championship game.

Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo reported this anecdote from the title game last year: Self reassured his team that there was time to stage a comeback. After all, the Jayhawks had won the title in 2008 after trailing late in the game.

“Which would be harder,” Self asked, according to Eisenberg, “being down nine with two minutes left or being down 15 with 20 minutes left?”

Self is also widely acclaimed to be one of the best in-game tacticians as a head coach. His teams often emerge from timeouts with a precisely run set play that dissects the defense. The most famous example? Mario’s Miracle, which made the 2008 championship possible.

Self’s longstanding basketball excellence speaks for itself. While his teams were mocked for their early exits from the NCAA Tournament in his first years in Lawrence, his two national championships have earned him a spot in the coaching hall of fame and make him the target of rumors that he will sign an NBA coaching contract.

Self has become an institution at KU. His success has meant that his job has never been in serious jeopardy. A four-game suspension while his team played warm-up games, rather than something more extreme, signaled the KU administration’s faith in him, even with national news media attention on recruiting improprieties.

Next year he is set to eclipse the number of KU wins by legend Phog Allen, the namesake of Allen Fieldhouse. Right now, he only trails Allen by 13 wins, and he already has a higher winning percentage (82% versus 73%).

Add to that the installation of the rules of basketball at KU during Self’s coaching tenure, the pending renovation of Allen Fieldhouse and his extraordinary lifetime coaching contract. That arrangement allows him to extend the contract one year at a time. Self’s career is pointed toward more history.

KU basketball has titanic names in its coaching ranks: James Naismith, Allen, Larry Brown, Ted Owens and Williams.

If nothing else, Self’s absence yesterday clarifies how fitting his name will remain alongside those legends.

Eric Thomas directs the Kansas Scholastic Press Association and teaches visual journalism and photojournalism at the University of Kansas.

Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here. Find how to submit your own commentary to The Lawrence Times here.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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