Friday, January 2, 2004

It’s easy to see why Self left Illinois for KU

Nothing against Illini, but Kansas classifies as hoops heaven


There's no easy way to break this to Illini Nation, so I'll just get right to it: If I had the opportunity to coach basketball at the University of Kansas, I would leave Urbana-Champaign for Lawrence faster than a Dee Brown end-to-end break.

Nothing against Illinois, a wonderful institution my kids aspire to attend. Nothing against the athletic program built by Ron Guenther and his predecessors. Nothing against coach Bruce Weber and the young men who play ball at the Assembly Hall.

It's just that Illini basketball isn't Jayhawks basketball. There. I said it. I guess that makes me Public Enemy No. 2, right behind Bill Self.

Last spring, Self exercised a clause in his contract that allowed him to leave Illinois (after paying a hefty exit penalty) and return to Kansas, where 17 years earlier he was Larry Brown's graduate assistant.

For that, he is despised by many Illinois fans.

They are upset Self's departure kept Illinois from landing prized recruits Charlie Villanueva and Shaun Livingston. (Never mind Villanueva had no plans to step foot in Champaign or that Livingston might go pro right from high school.)

And they are angry Self's exit, coming just three years after Lon Kruger left to seek NBA riches, reinforced Illinois' reputation as a "stepping-stone" school (rather than a "destination" school) for good coaches.

Interestingly, some of Self's detractors have made life miserable for Weber by comparing him often (and unfavorably) to the former Illini coach. A perturbed Weber, inferiority complex on full display, reacted by belittling Self as he lashed at critics.

"It was silly," Self says. And he's right.

Hey, all Self did was leave a big contract for a bigger one, leave a good situation for a better one and leave a fine program for one of the very best. And he did it all above board, never pretending that he would stay married to Illinois forever.

I spent an hour chatting with Self in his KU office Monday, and he ended up asking me almost as many questions about Illinois as I asked him about Kansas. He misses the players he recruited, the people he came to know, the community he enjoyed.

Still, he made it clear that he has no regrets.

"This is Kansas. There is no better place for basketball. Illinois fans are passionate, but here, basketball is a way of life," Self said.

"The attention to detail that fans have about everything here is amazing. We wore red uniforms for a game and the papers ran polls on whether fans liked them. We changed the court to put a huge Jayhawk symbol on it, and hundreds of fans came by just to look at it. Allen Fieldhouse is a sacred building, and Kansas basketball is a sacred institution. People care more deeply than I could even describe."

How deeply? Well, yet another sellout crowd of 16,300 turned out Monday for a game against Binghamton. Because it was during winter break, there were few students in the audience; typically, 7,000 seats are reserved for them.

The intensity inside the arena was incredible. Although it was a weeknight, nonconference game against a patsy (KU won by 32), there was more energy in Allen Fieldhouse than there usually is in the Assembly Hall for an Illinois-Indiana game with Big Ten Conference title implications.

"Illinois wants to be the kind of program Kansas is," said ex-Illini guard Sean Harrington, who now is Self's administrative assistant. "This is the perfect place for coach Self. It's the perfect place for just about anyone who loves college basketball."

Because of the atmosphere, Kansas can battle Duke, North Carolina and other elite programs on a national recruiting scale. Self can get into doors now that he simply couldn't when he was at Illinois -- and he got into some pretty decent doors back then.

Just as Brown and some of Self's other recruits had been slow to warm up to Weber, a few of Roy Williams' recruits did not immediately take to Self.

"We learned how to win under a different system, so, yeah, it wasn't easy adjusting to coach Self," Keith Langford said. "But he has taught us that there is more than one way to win. He runs tough practices, really pushes us, and he'll criticize us when we need it. At the same time, he's fun. Really funny, too."

Fans have complained about Self's relatively "slow-paced" offense (apparently forgetting departed stars Kirk Hinrich and Nick Collison keyed Kansas' attack), and they were outraged after the Jayhawks were upset at Nevada last week.

"A loss like that can humble a team and make the players hungry," Self said. "We aren't nearly as hungry as some of the Illinois teams I coached, but we have the potential to get there. Roy's team almost won it all last season, but they started 3-3. We're 7-2. We're gonna be OK - I think."

Most KU fans think Self is OK, too. A 19-year-old student was so awed Monday when she got to meet Self that she started crying as she shook his hand.

Walking down the hallway that leads to Self's office, I passed photos of James Naismith, the inventor of basketball and first Kansas coach. A framed picture from 1932 featured Naismith and Phog Allen, the legendary Jayhawks coach. There were shots of Williams and Brown and of former All-Americans such as Collison, Danny Manning, Jo Jo White, Wilt Chamberlain and Clyde Lovellette.

There were no pictures of Self. Not yet. By the time he leaves Lawrence, however, there will be. There might just be another championship banner hanging in Allen Fieldhouse, too.

Bill Self is an outstanding basketball coach who was offered a ton of money to coach for a storied basketball school. He decided to say "Yes, I'll work in basketball heaven."

Who among us would have decided differently?

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