BILL SELF: From ORU, to Tulsa, to Illinois, to Kansas, to Springfield

Okmulgee native Bill Self delivers his induction speech at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sept. 8 in Springfield, Mass.

 

BY JOHN ROHDE

(Reprinted from 2017 Commemorative Yearbook & Enshrinement Program)

Sept. 8, 2017

Bill Self was asked if he remembered what happened when his Oral Roberts team played on Dec. 2, 1994. Self paused briefly, then asked for the opponent.

Informed it was Texas A&M, Self answered instantaneously. “It was a home game against (coach) Tony Barone and we lost on a late tip-in,” Self said, and he was correct. Hosting the Bank IV Classic at the Mabee Center, ORU overcame a 15-point deficit, but missed two attempts in the closing seconds and lost 60-58 on a tip-in with 25 seconds left.

Asked if he recalled the significance of that game, Self deadpanned, “You mean other than losing?”

Self’s team indeed had lost. Again. For the 18th straight time. It was a losing streak that stretched nearly 11 months, spanning the last 15 games of Self’s first season as a Division I head coach and the first three games of his second season.

The skid mercilessly came to a halt with a victory against Appalachian State the night after losing to Texas A&M. Self’s team promptly lost four of the next five, closed out the season by losing five straight, then started his third season with a two-game losing streak.

At this point, Self’s career record stood at 16-40 (.286). Though he was employed at a parochial institution, Self’s immediate future as a coach didn’t appear to have much of a prayer.

Early struggles were anticipated, however. ORU had just completed a two-year process of dropping its brief NAIA status to re-qualify for its previous NCAA Division I standing as an independent.

Self had spent the seven previous seasons serving as an assistant coach at his alma mater of Oklahoma State, roughly 70 miles west. His first four seasons (two as a part-time assistant) came under Leonard Hamilton and the last three were full-time stints for Eddie Sutton, whose powerful influence essentially clinched a 30-year-old Self getting hired at Oral Roberts.

Back then, painted across each baseline on the court inside the Mabee Center was the message “Expect a Miracle.” It was Sutton who playfully suggested to Self that the court’s baseline message be changed to “It’s Going to Take a Miracle.”

With such a precarious start, there was no telling where Self’s fledgling career was headed. He certainly didn’t seem destined for the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass., but here he is at the tender age of 54.

As the painted message had suggested, Self’s sudden surge of success indeed was a miracle. He won 31 of his last 38 games at ORU. He finished his third year with a 10-game winning streak, then followed with a 21-7 record and an NIT appearance. This raised Self’s career record to an average looking 55-54 (.505), but his overall achievement with the Golden Eagles was far greater than ordinary.

The University of Tulsa, located just 8.2 miles north of ORU, swooped in and hired Self away from the Golden Eagles in early July of 1997. Self’s work at ORU essentially had served as a four-year audition. There was no need for Self to formally interview for the TU position. Turns out, never again would Self have to interview for a job.

Self’s first team at Tulsa battled injuries and the death of a key player’s mother, yet still managed to finish 19-12. His second team went 23-10 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament. It was at this point when Self began a steady, relentless march from Tulsa, to Illinois, to Kansas, to Springfield.

Since that second season at Tulsa, Self’s teams have made 19 straight NCAA appearances, played in nine Regional Finals and advanced to two Final Fours. Self’s 2008 team at Kansas won the national title with an overtime victory over Memphis at San Antonio in what remains the only Final Four in history to have four No. 1 seeds. The 2012 Jayhawks lost the national title game in New Orleans to a Kentucky team that had six players taken in that year’s NBA Draft, including the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

In this same time span (1998-2017), Self’s teams have won 17 of 19 regular-season conference crowns and placed second the other two times. This upcoming season, Kansas will attempt to become the first Division I program ever to win 14 consecutive regular-season conference titles, having tied UCLA’s record of 13 straight (1967-79) last season.

Yes, the same coach who lost 18 straight games spanning his first two seasons is about to seek his 14th straight conference crown and his 20th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. But first, he will be inducted as a first-ballot Naismith Hall of Famer.

Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva telephoned to notify Self of his induction. Or perhaps the news came from a much higher calling.

When he answered his cell phone, Self was driving to his office and had just turned right onto Naismith Drive outside historic Allen Fieldhouse. Not kidding. Swear to James Naismith.

Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers Larry Brown and Bill Self, plus Bill Self Sr.

Self becomes the 20th inductee associated with Kansas basketball to join a Hall of Fame named after the man who not only invented the game in 1891, but also served as the school’s first head coach seven years later. Adding to this impressive KU mojo, Self’s first coaching job was as a graduate assistant in 1985-86 under Jayhawks coach Larry Brown.

Self was announced as a nominee on Dec. 21, 2016, a day which commemorates the birthday of basketball. When he became a Hall of Fame finalist, Self sheepishly admitted he felt unworthy. When Self was chosen as an inductee, he was overwhelmed.

“Obviously, I’m very honored and flattered and excited and thrilled to be inducted,” Self said, “but my personal opinion is there are a lot of coaches out there who have done more than me. I believe that in my heart.”

Self said he feels particularly honored to be inducted as an active coach. Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame guidelines state in order to be considered for induction, an active coach must “have coached as either a full-time assistant or head coach on the high school and/or college and/or professional level for a minimum of 25 years. That person will then be considered for Enshrinement in the sixth year of retirement or 26th year of active coaching.”

Self barely was eligible for induction, having been nominated after 23 seasons as a college head coach and five seasons as a full-time college assistant. Self reached the 26-year requirement in a span of 28 seasons, despite what he referred to as a “comical” start start at ORU. “Hopefully, I have a lot more to accomplish before I retire,” Self said. “I was shocked that I would be considered at such a young age. It certainly wasn’t anything I was seeking, by any stretch.”

As is often the case, this humble inductee is being Self-effacing. A brief recap of his HOF qualifications:

  • A man who lost 40 of his first 56 games as a head coach went on to become the ninth-fastest Division I coach to reach 600 career victories and now owns a 623-193 (.763) career record.
  • Self’s .825 career winning percentage (416-88) at Kansas is the highest ever in the school’s storied history.
  • Since the 1999-2000 season, when Self advanced to the Elite Eight with a 32-5 Tulsa team that lost 59-55 to North Carolina in the South Regional final, only Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski (529-116; .820) has a better overall record than Self (526-117; .818) — barely.
  • His active streak of 13 straight Big 12 Conference titles at Kansas from 2005-17 tied UCLA’s all-time Division I record. However, Self is the only coach to have won 13 straight. Coach John Wooden won the first nine of UCLA’s 13 straight before retiring.
  • Self is the all-time winningest coach at Allen Fieldhouse and has three more career Big 12 titles (13) than home losses (10) inside the 62-year-old building, where he is 220-10 (.957) overall.
  • Self is a four-time national coach of the year, eight-time conference coach of the year and has been a seven-time Naismith national coach-of-the-year finalist, which included a run of four straight seasons (2000-2003).
  • He has coached five consensus First-Team All-Americans, including 2017 consensus national player of the year Frank Mason III; six conference player of the year honorees; 61 all-conference selections; 34 academic All-Big 12 selections; and 18 players drafted in the first round of the NBA Draft.
  • Self’s nine 30-win seasons rank third in Division I history and included a stretch of fourth straight from 2009-13 with the Jayhawks.
  • His career winning percentage in NCAA Tournament play is .717 (33-13) at Kansas and .705 (43-18) overall.

Not bad for a native Okie born in Okmulgee who didn’t move outside state lines until age 37 to become head coach at Illinois.

Self’s first two seasons at ORU were fraught with unfathomable attrition. He began his first season with 15 players and finished with seven. He began his second season with 15 players and finished with eight. That’s 15 defections in two seasons for a multitude of reasons, ranging from poor grades to simply being poor players. “I certainly didn’t anticipate that happening,” Self said. “I thought we would get moderate talent and, for whatever reason, figure out a way to win. That wasn’t the case early on, however.”

The summer before Self’s first season began was even more humbling. Six months after he was hired at ORU in March of 1993, Self suddenly didn’t have an athletic director. As a result, Self became the school’s interim compliance director until a new AD was hired. Self and assistant coach Barry Hinson would stuff and lick season-ticket envelopes. Low on funds, the school had no money for postage so letters would sit in the mail room for months until funds became available. In addition, Self and Hinson did marketing and fundraisers, all this while also trying to find players.

Believe it or not, one of Self’s most important players introduced himself while buying a submarine sandwich in a Subway across the street from the Mabee Center. Earl McClellan begged Self to let him try out for the team. A shorthanded and desperate Self gave his consent, and that walk-on freshman became the team’s starting point guard the next four seasons. McClellan nearly left the team after his sophomore season to join the ministry on campus. Self convinced McClellan to use athletics as a platform to spread his religious beliefs. McClellan remained with the team, and Self sealed the deal by putting him on scholarship his final two seasons. Now a pastor in Dallas, McClellan remains one of the Self’s all-time favorite players.

Self’s first team at ORU finished 6-21, which was a one-game improvement from the previous season of 5-22. Physically incapable of practicing 5-on-5, Self at times would team up with three assistant coaches and his brother-in-law to scrimmage and consistently beat the team’s starting lineup.

“We played for the right to eat dessert when dining at the Western Sizzlin,” Self recalled. “It almost got comical that first year. I don’t think too many people were expecting much from us with that being our first year in Division I, but we were close to being one of the biggest jokes in college basketball. Deep in my heart, I thought we would get it turned, but it certainly was wearing on us. I didn’t want to start two walk-ons every game, but that’s kind of what we were left with.”

The Golden Eagles improved to 10-17 in Self’s second season, to 18-9 his third season, then closed his fourth season by winning 12 of their last 13 regular-season games before losing at Notre Dame in the opening round of the Postseason NIT to finish 21-7. That final season at ORU (1996-97) included upset victories over Arkansas just three seasons after the Razorbacks had won the 1994 national title, plus a triumph over Oklahoma State just two years after Self’s alma mater had advanced to the 1995 Final Four under Sutton.

Though ORU went 14-0 at home that season, it still didn’t get picked to host an NIT game. “Hey, I was just happy we got in,” Self revealed. “Our coaching staff was crunching numbers every day, trying to figure out if we would get into the NIT. There was no way ORU was going to host a game at that point.”

After accepting the job at Tulsa, Self struggled for acceptance from a squad recruited by predecessors Tubby Smith and Steve Robinson. “I wasn’t embraced at all in the beginning because the players really respected coach Robinson,” Self said. “Coming to Kansas (in 2003) was tough, but going to Tulsa was the toughest transition I’ve had in terms of winning over the players.”

Self’s first team at TU went 19-12, losing a 60-59 heartbreaker against No. 20-ranked New Mexico in the second round of the Western Athletic Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, a loss that likely prevented the Golden Hurricane from getting an NIT bid. Self has advanced to the NCAA Tournament ever since – his last two seasons at Tulsa (1998-2000); all three seasons at Illinois (2000-03); and his first 14 seasons at Kansas (2003-present).

Self made back-to-back Elite Eight appearances coaching at two different schools – his final season at Tulsa (1999-2000) and his first season at Illinois (2000-01). He also advanced to the Elite Eight in his first season at Kansas (2003-04).

The Fighting Illini roster became so loaded under Self, he nearly did the unthinkable and turned down the KU job. Two years after his departure, Illinois was ranked No. 1 from Dec. 7 through the end of the season (15 straight weeks), went 37-2 overall and finished as national runner-up with an entire starting lineup Self had recruited. “It wasn’t a no-brainer for me to leave Illinois,” Self said. “Back then, I wish the timing was way different. I wanted to be at Illinois a bit longer. I certainly wanted a chance to coach those guys we had recruited, but very rarely is the timing ever perfect.”

The timing seems perfect for Self’s induction, with him on the cusp of setting a Division I record with 14 straight regular-season conference championships despite perpetual roster changes. Three times the Jayhawks repeated as Big 12 champs despite replacing all five starters. Multiple times they repeated after losing three or four starters. “Tying UCLA is a big deal,” Self admitted. “To have this kind of consistency in such a powerful league is something our players have taken great pride in over the years.”

And yet, Self remains haunted with one shortcoming, which is advancing to two Final Fours despite reaching nine regional finals. “There’s been too many times we’ve come up one game short,” Self said quietly. “Certainly, that’s what sticks with me more than anything else.”