J. Brady McCollough
J. Brady McCollough - Courtside Allen Field House


Saturday, February 23, 2008

Self's roots are in Oklahoma, but his heart is in Kansas

 

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH

The Kansas City Star

 

STILLWATER, Okla. | Stan Clark says that Bill Self is a "Fowl Thing" kind of guy. Clark would know. Over the years, Self has spent many a night at Eskimo Joe's, Clark's bar and grill and a Cowboy institution.

 

Judging by the anticipation during lunch hour Friday, there's no doubt Clark's employees will be ready with Self's favorite chicken sandwich as soon as he arrives. Clark put his general manager on notice that Self would probably come in at some point and to let him know when that happens.

 

"He did spend a good amount of time here when he was here," Clark says. "I hope I get to run into him today."

 

For Pokes like Self, nostalgia tastes like Eskimo Joe's cheese fries. Only, Self hasn't been feeling very nostalgic lately, not with message boards speculating and reporters questioning whether Self would leave Kansas for Oklahoma State if the job comes open this offseason. Self has called the topic "a dead issue," and he really seems to mean it - no matter how much money Cowboys booster T. Boone Pickens may throw at him.

 

"That hasn't been home for me in a long time," Self says.

 

Kansas City area basketball fans are familiar with this story line. Roy Williams said he would retire at Kansas, only to bolt for his home state and alma mater in 2003, opening the door for Self.

 

"I can't change who I am," Williams would say.

 

Even Bob Huggins left Kansas State for West Virginia.

 

"It's great to be home," Huggins would say.

 

Self's roots may be dug deep in the red clay of the Sooner State, but his situation appears to be unique. The Oklahoma State job isn't a lateral move coming from Kansas. Like the geography, it's a step down. Not to mention that Self loves KU.

 

So if he's not going to come back to Stillwater, couldn't Self at least stop by for some cheese fries and flash that trademark smile for the locals?

 

Not this time. Self doesn't show. In his third trip to Stillwater as KU's coach, Bill Self is all business.

 

***

 

EDMOND, Okla. | Home is something different for everyone.

 

For Self, home is his little sister, Shelly Anderson, teaching a new group of first-graders at Northern Hills Elementary. Home is his high school coach, Mike de la Garza, looking at a picture of the 1979 Edmond Bulldogs on his wall and reminiscing. De la Garza put a sophomore named Bill Self into his starting lineup 10 games in, and the team took off.

 

Home is Bill Self Sr. ripping on Junior's golf game.

 

"He might be the worst putter I've ever seen," Self Sr. says. "And you can quote me on that."

 

A few weeks ago, Self Jr. came home. Of course, the visit was based around a recruiting trip to see two stud players in the Oklahoma City area. Self got in early and called Shelly.

 

He told her he wanted to come and watch his niece, Taylor, play basketball. Even though he'd get to watch only a quarter, this was a big deal to Taylor.

 

"I didn't want her to know," Shelly says.

 

Self walked through the doors of the Edmond Memorial gym, where he once gutted out suicides and helped hang up banners.

 

"The buzz was incredible," de la Garza says. "Bill played here so long ago, there's very few people here who actually knew him. They're buzzing around, 'There's Bill Self.' But it was just like he was here any other time."

 

De la Garza watched as Self shook hands with an old football coach. It reminded him of 1976, when de la Garza had just gotten the job at Edmond and Self was an eighth-grader. They met at a camp that summer. Self, never a shy one, introduced himself.

 

"Billy Self," he said. "How ya doin'?"

 

Self was already a good player. His father made sure of that, signing up Billy to play in the inner-city YMCA league in Oklahoma City as a kid. So by the time Billy became Bill - he made the switch before high school - and de la Garza got his hands on him, Self was tough, game-tested.

 

The Bulldogs went 65-18 during Self's four years, and Self was chosen the state's player of the year his senior year after hitting six game-winning shots. He got what he coveted all along: a scholarship offer from Oklahoma State. His success and the way he carried himself made him a pretty popular guy around Edmond.

 

"Kids just idolized him," de la Garza says. "He was the epitome of BMOC. Big man on campus. For years after he graduated, all these players wanted to be Bill Self."

 

Despite his skill as a player, all Self wanted to be was a coach. A college coach. He first told Self Sr. of his goal as a junior in high school.

 

"The rest of us were figuring out what we wanted to do," says Jay Davis, a teammate of Self's at Edmond and a close friend. "He had a real sense of what he wanted to do in life."

 

***

 

Bill Self met his future wife, Cindy, an Oklahoma State cheerleader, in 1984. But he'd meet his hardwood sweetheart two years later in '86, and, surprisingly, she wasn't an Okie. Still, Self carved out room for Kansas.

 

In the fall of 1985, fresh out of college, Self lived outside Oklahoma for the first time as a student assistant for Larry Brown's KU team. Crashing with then-KU assistant coach R.C. Buford and spending evenings on Massachusetts Street, Self was in heaven.

 

"I fell in love with the place," Self says. "You're 35-4, never ranked lower than fourth in the country that year. It's a pretty easy place to fall in love with. There's something different about this place."

 

Just like with Eddie Sutton and Henry Iba at Oklahoma State, Self soaked up Brown like a sponge. He listened to what Brown said, watched what he did. And Self realized something about what it means to be the head coach at a place like Kansas.

 

"Whoever coaches here is never going to be the best coach," Self says. "With all due respect to coach Brown, we had the father of basketball (Phog Allen) here coaching for (39 years). To me, it's being a part of and being a caretaker for everybody else's hard work. It's an awesome responsibility to be a part of something that so many people love and care about as deeply as they do Kansas basketball."

 

Bill Self would go back to Stillwater after that season, but he never got over Kansas.

 

"The only thing he had known was Oklahoma and Oklahoma State," de la Garza says. "I think he got introduced to basketball on a higher scale. It's such a religion there. Kansas ignited his interest in big-time basketball - either going there, or bringing that to wherever he is."

 

It took four stops - Oklahoma State as an assistant and head-coaching jobs at Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois - before Bill Self got his wish. Big-time college basketball. Kansas. Fans who enjoy sitting on those butt-numbing bleachers at Allen Fieldhouse.

 

But, make no mistake, Self is still an Oklahoman at heart.

 

"I am 62 years old," de la Garza says, "and I've known a lot of really important people. Very few people remember their roots and their friends as well as Bill Self does. This is a genuine guy. Family and friends are very important to him. And he doesn't forget them."

 

One guy Self hasn't forgotten, nor will he ever forget, is Oklahoma State legend Barry Sanders. Self's unabashed love for Sanders, who won the Heisman Trophy in 1988 when Self was an assistant at Oklahoma State, could qualify as a "man-crush." When Bob Knight retired on Feb. 4, Self compared losing Knight to Sanders' retirement. To Self, Barry retired from pro football way too early in 1998.

 

But that's just one obvious way Self shows his Okie leanings. The rest can be seen in his personality, in his friends. He never forgets a name. Meet him, and it's not long before he's calling you "bud."

 

John Rohde, a sports columnist at The Oklahoman, became friends with Self when he was an assistant in Stillwater. They're still good friends, a theme with those who come into Self's life. He rarely lets them leave.

 

"He's just nice to everybody," Rohde says. "He's a bumpkin. He's got that in him, but that's a compliment. He hasn't changed a bit, thank goodness."

 

Self doesn't get a lot of time off, but every year, he gets a group of longtime friends together and goes to Las Vegas for some golf and gambling. That's about as big as it gets for Self.

 

"He's an Oklahoman in terms of his sensibilities," Davis says. "His needs are simple compared to what his access is now. He could probably bite off about whatever he wants to, but I think he's always kept it pretty simple."

 

De la Garza has a story that he believes says it all about Self. In December, de la Garza took his son, Scott, and grandson, Jackson, to a game at Kansas. Self saw them walking into the fieldhouse and invited them to attend the team's pregame.

 

"This is my high school coach," Self told the team, introducing Scott and Jackson, too.

 

De la Garza was shocked when all of the players walked up and greeted them.

 

"What's my number?" Brandon Rush asked Jackson.

 

"25," Jackson said.

 

"Jackson, you're my man," Rush said.

 

De la Garza knows his grandson will never forget that.

 

"Bill requires that they respect others," de la Garza says. "They're basketball players at Kansas. They're a cut above everybody else. Bill has said, 'This is how we're going to act at Kansas.' "

 

***

 

All week, Bill Self has lamented his first trip to Stillwater as KU coach. The Jayhawks were thumped 80-60 in 2004, and Self thinks the way he handled the visit was a part of it. He tried to see everybody. That's just his nature.

 

"I had a real good friend I went to lunch with, and that led to a gathering of 10 or 12 or 15," Self says. "I'm just not going to put myself in that position."

 

Self says that he'd rather coach at a place where he knows nobody than a place where he knows everybody. A man with big goals doesn't need any distractions.

 

"Bill wants a national title, man," Rohde says.

 

Even Cowboys fans can see that Self more likely can accomplish that at KU.

 

"He'd be foolish to come back," says Brett Neal, class of '86. "But he's a class act, and we'd welcome him back for sure."

 

Self's family isn't pressuring him to come home either.

 

"He needs to stay right where he is," Self Sr. says.

 

Self's friends and family acknowledge that this may have been more of an issue if he were still at Illinois. But not with him at Kansas.

 

"The guy goes to work every day with a mural painted of the guys that were there before him," de la Garza says. "One of them invented the game. It's big time."

 

Since falling for Kansas in 1986, that's all Self has ever wanted.

J. Brady McCollough - Contact Me