Day 1: Kansas | Traveling Violations
LAWRENCE, Kan. – As he arrived for work Friday morning at Phog Allen Fieldhouse, Bill Self found some people waiting for him. Hundreds of them in fact, all camped out in front of the historic Kansas gym awaiting a chance to attend the Jayhawks' first practice of the season.
Which was still about 16 hours from starting.
"I said, 'What are you doing here?'" said Self, the first-year KU coach. "It doesn't make any sense to me."
Sleeping out so you get good seats for practice doesn't make sense in most places. But it is a perfectly reasonably thing to do here.
By 12:01 a.m. Saturday – the first minute allowed by the NCAA – the early crowd would be joined by over 16,000 other Rock, Chalk Jayhawk faithful to watch the first practice of the Bill Self Era.
This is what big-time college basketball at its biggest looks like – obscene fan loyalty, immense expectations and scores of championship banners to commemorate why.
It's why Self is here too. For as good as he had it at Illinois, surrounded by all those local recruits, there are only a few programs with this unique mix of history and support.
"This kind of passion," Self said on Friday afternoon, standing beside the Allen Fieldhouse court as workers lay commemorative visors on each seat, "is what coaches want to experience."
The KU job opened last spring after Roy Williams' soap opera of denials and flirtations finally, after 13 years here, led him back to North Carolina.
Almost immediately Self, a native of Oklahoma who put together winning programs at Illinois, Tulsa and Oral Roberts, was hired. And now that he has taken the reins of one of the sport's most storied programs – the only KU coach ever to post a losing record was none other than Dr. James Naismith, the game's inventor – the magnitude of everything still amazes him.
Self was nearly floored when he was announced to thunderous applause at Allen Fieldhouse. Earlier, at the Jayhawks' preseason media day, he was shocked to find a room with more than 50 reporters waiting for him.
So KU is big. Self, a onetime grad assistant here under Larry Brown, knew that. But now he has to control it, deliver on its promise, satisfy a fan base that is accustomed to winning big.
Williams may have famously never captured a national title here, but he did deliver four Final Four appearances, including trips in each of the last two seasons. He won at more than an 80 percent clip. To say he was popular is an understatement.
Self understands the expectations, even for this year, despite the loss of All-Americans Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison.
"Kansas math is interesting," he said. "You lose two lottery picks and a lot of people think you ought to be better."
He then laughed. Sort of.
Self is the perfect guy for the job. He's proven that he can recruit and teach, and that he knows how to build on momentum. At a place like this, a transition season with limited success won't be tolerated. No one has patience.
He is also humble, approachable and considered as down to earth as any big-time coach in the nation.
"He's a cool coach," said senior Bryant Nash. "You can sit there and joke around with him but he still cares about business and making us work hard."
In the long run, the people here will probably like him more than Williams. At least as long as he wins like Roy.
Self is selfless when it comes to promotion, and a bit old school when it comes to practice. Under Williams the school's Midnight Madness event was called "Late Night with Roy Williams." This year Self went with the more program-oriented "Late Night in The Phog."
Rather than put the focus on his first practice, or the drama skits and dance-offs Williams favored, he helped invite back the 1988 NCAA Championship team, including coach Larry Brown, who hadn't been back on campus in years.
He appreciates that KU is more than its coach. That wasn't always obvious with Williams.
"I don't feel like I am walking into someone else's shoes," Self says. "I'm walking into a tradition."
An incredible tradition, here at the great program on the Great Plains. Incredible expectations too.
But that is why he is here.