Self's drive guides Jayhawks into title game

Published Apr. 2, 2012 1:28 p.m. EDT

In Saul Bellow's 1959 novel ''Henderson the Rain King,'' a troubled, middle-aged man gives up his high social status and heads to Africa, hoping to find spiritual contentedness.

The book reminds Sheahon Zenger of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self.

Not the gotta-find-yourself part. Self is pretty secure. The overarching theme of the book, though, nails the essence of Self in Zenger's mind.

''The whole concept of the book is about `being' and `becoming.' That's Bill Self,'' Zenger said. ''You either be in life or try to become, and he just is. I'm not trying to make him greater than he is, but that's him down to his bones.''


OK, so maybe Zenger is a little biased. He is, after all, Kansas' athletic director and is in the Big Easy because Self coaxed his underappreciated team into Monday night's national championship game against Kentucky.

He also might be right on the mark.

In the what's-their-angle world of college coaching, Self is a straight shooter.

His team messes up, he's going to tell them, directly, publicly, through the media, if need be. Ask a dumb question or fail to bring something to the conversation, he'll challenge it. Question him about something, anything, he'll give an honest answer.

Plenty of coaches are demanding, blunt, will call out their teams when they need to. It's a requirement for success.

Self does it without being vitriolic or embarrassing his target, serving truth with a grin or backing up the negative with a positive.

Sure, he's as fiery as anyone, stomping and screaming when things don't go the way he thinks they should, but there's a sincerity that lets everyone know he's not doing it for show. He believes down to his core in what he's doing and saying.

''Honestly, I think coach is our biggest critic,'' Kansas junior guard Elijah Johnson said. ''That's the best thing about our team. We hear, `Hey, good job,' we get pats on the back, congrats. Coach (also will say) `You're better than that. It's not just about today's game. What's the best you can do?' Whether we're winning by five or 30, he's always going to expect the best from us.''

It helps that the Self method has proved effective.

Following successful runs at Tulsa and Illinois, the 49-year-old from small-town Oklahoma has solidified his place among college basketball's best coaches while at Kansas.

Since being hired to replace Roy Williams in 2003, Self has guided the Jayhawks to eight straight Big 12 championships and into the NCAA tournament nine straight seasons, including a national championship in 2008 and five trips to the regional finals or beyond.

This season, he took what was supposed to be a rebuilding year and made it one to remember, pulling the tactical and motivational strings to orchestrate a where-did-that-come-from run into the title game.

''With all they lost, for Bill to put that team together, do what they've done, it's phenomenal - I can't begin to tell you,'' Kentucky coach John Calipari said.

It's nothing new.

While most other programs have dips while rebuilding every so often, Self wins. Every year. Rebuilding doesn't happen in Kansas anymore.

Part of it is his ability to manage and motivate, using his in-game tactical skills and give-me-everything-you-got urgings to his players to coax wins out of his teams.

But without good players, it's hard to make that part work. And, boy, can Self get players.

His recruiting classes annually rank among the best in the nation, sending a paddlewheel of talent into Lawrence. Lose Brandon Rush and Mario Chalmers, and Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich are waiting. Marcus and Markieff Morris head to the NBA? That's OK. Self's got Thomas Robinson and Tyshawn Taylor ready.

That's where his honesty and sincerity come in.

While some coaches come in with an easy-to-see-through cars salesman routine, Self puts the bottom line out front. No promises of playing time, no grandiose proclamations of glory. Just part in the hard work, you'll have a chance to be successful.

''He lets you know where you stand right off the bat,'' Kansas guard Travis Releford said. ''He tells you up front that you're going to have to work your butt off if you come here.''

Driving the players to put in that work is Self's enthusiasm.

Pumping his fists and screaming like the fans in the seats behind him, Self stalks the sideline as if he's coaching on a football field, not hardwood.

He was once a scrappy guard who got by on guts in four years at Oklahoma State and still thrives on the adrenaline rush of competition, of laying out and seeing how far it takes you.

That's why when Kansas knocked off Ohio State in the national semifinals Saturday night, the look on Self's face was one of pure joy, as if the latest of this improbable run of comeback victories was the greatest moment of his life.

''I'm really enjoying it,'' Self said. ''Obviously, I don't want it to end. It's one of the things where the guys somehow find a way. They're finding a way on the biggest stage.''

And Self is their leading man.

Coaching college basketball is a multifaceted job. Not only do coaches have to create game plans, motivate players, hit the recruiting trail, they are often the face of the university, particularly at a place like Lawrence, where Kansas basketball is Nos. 1-10 on the priority list.

Self is the perfect spokesman, a straight-from-central-casting combination of regal looks, charm and sincerity, someone who'll look you in the eye and won't forget your name. He's a head-turner every time he enters a room, even outside Lawrence, causing hushed whispers and there-he-is finger pointing.

The coach of one of college basketball's most successful programs, Self is more Harrison Ford than Adolph Rupp.

''He's got `it,''' Zenger said. ''He takes over the room without trying to. Some guys take over a room because they're trying to. Think about all the words we use about college coaches: passionate, energetic, exciting. He's just Bill Self. He just has it.''