LOUISVILLE, Ky. – At Kansas, there is only one coach who can ever be considered The Greatest. His name is on the gymnasium, which kind of gives Phog Allen squatter’s rights.
But what if ...?
What if Bill Self wins a second national title this year, as he may well do with a team that is the overall No. 1 seed in this NCAA tournament? And what if there are more to come after that? He’s only 53 years old, young by modern standards – if he follows the Mike Krzyzewski plan he could have another 20 years left in him.
Of course, automatically assuming a second title this season would be an insult to a red-hot Villanova team that stands in the way of a third Final Four under Self. The top-seeded Jayhawks and No. 2 seed Wildcats square off Saturday in what should be a high-level South Regional final. And even if Kansas gets by Villanova, there would be two more major challenges to come in Houston.
But let’s examine what it would actually take for the name “Self” to actually creep into the same sentence with the name “Phog.” Sounds heretical to Kansas fans – but should it be?
There are a couple of things Bill Self will never be:
• The namesake of one of the most famous arenas in the sport. (But they should name something for the guy eventually.)
• The Kansas basketball coach for 49 years, the way Allen was.
• The Kansas football coach for one year, the way Allen was, going 5-2-1 in 1920.
• The guy who put Kansas basketball on the map, the way Allen did.
• The pioneer Allen was, helping create the NCAA tournament, lobbying for basketball as an Olympic sport and creating the National Association of Basketball Coaches.
So, yeah, Phog Allen had quite an impact. He’s earned the reverence.
But if you want to get down to actual hardware, Self could wind up hauling in more of it than any Kansas coach – Phog included. Because this is the inconvenient truth most Jayhawks fans tend to gloss over: beneath the mountain of history there – from James Naismith as first coach on down the line – there isn’t an overwhelming amount of NCAA tournament glory.
Kansas has won three NCAA titles. That’s eight fewer than UCLA; five fewer than Kentucky; two fewer than Indiana, North Carolina and Duke; one fewer than Connecticut; and tied with Louisville. When you’re tied for seventh on the all-time list that matters most, you’re still a cut below the best of the best.
Self has one of those three, earned in 2008. Larry Brown has one, from 1988, though it was followed closely by NCAA probation. The third was won by Allen, in 1952, which is fairly prehistoric – although not as prehistoric as the Helms Foundation championships Kansas claims Phog won in 1922 and ’23.
With two Final Four appearances, Self trails Roy Williams (four) and Allen (three) and is tied with Brown and Ted Owens. But as everyone knows, Williams never won a title at Kansas. And it only took Allen a total of five wins to reach his three Final Fours, back when the brackets were much smaller.
So Bill Self has as much NCAA tournament claim to the throne as any Kansas coach. And then there is the Big 12 Conference title streak, which is a difference maker.
The Jayhawks have won 12 straight Big 12 titles, a ridiculous accomplishment in an era of greater parity and increased investment in facilities and salaries by more schools. Phog Allen? Best he did was half that, six in a row from 1922-27. Williams’ best streak in 15 years at KU was four straight from 1995-98. Owens won two straight on a couple of occasions during his 19-year tenure. Brown won one in five years.
That separates Self into a different category. And, again, if he adds another national title or two, and/or multiple Final Fours, he will have everything but a name on the arena and half a century of tenure.
But Self is both smart enough and secure enough to never even put himself in the same breath with Allen. He’s not going to go there.
“I don’t think at Kansas your goal is to ever try to be the best that’s been there,” he said Friday. “That’s not going to happen. As a player, your goal is not be the best player that’s ever been there. Wilt [Chamberlain] played there and Phog Allen coached there.
“It’s not something that I think we have to hold ourselves to other standards, but I think if you embrace the tradition and history and the success, it allows you to do a better job because you can build off of that and you can recruit off of that, and that’s something that we’ve always tried to do.”
That is more Self savvy. He has welcomed the magnitude of the program and thrived in its klieg lights. This is not Gene Bartow withering at UCLA or Tubby Smith toiling under a burden at Kentucky or Mike Davis struggling to feel comfortable at Indiana.
Once Self went to that first Final Four, in 2008, he could say he belonged at Kansas. And the Roy Williams nostalgia stopped cold when the Jayhawks cut down the nets that year in San Antonio. When Kansas made a more improbable Final Four in 2012, that fully solidified his spot at a school he’s come to love.
“The year he spent with Larry [Brown] as a GA [in 1985-86], he got a good feel for Kansas,” said Bob Davis, the 32-year voice of the Jayhawks. “He saw what it was about and wanted to be part of that.
“He’s just comfortable in his own skin. He’s not shied away from what Roy did, or Larry, or Ted. He’s himself. What he’s done is as good or better than what they did.”
But there is one name Bob Davis will put on the untouchable list: Phog Allen.
Phog does stand alone. For now, and perhaps for all time. But if Bill Self adds another national title this year and keeps building, there can at least be a debate about putting him in the same breath with the Kansas program icon.