Omaha, Neb. One week from today, in the event Kansas fifth-year basketball coach Bill Self takes scissors to nylon in Detroit and moves onto his first Final Four, much will be made of him breaking into the ranks of elite coaches for finally getting past the Elite Eight.
His players, peers and bosses would know that to be so much nonsense. They know that after KU won a grinder Saturday night against UNLV, 75-56, he is one victory away from making his fifth Elite Eight appearance with his third different program, and his third appearance with Kansas. They also know that most college coaches don't ever make it as far as the Sweet 16. They know Kansas could not have a better man at the helm if it had first pick from the other 339 Division I head coaches.
Reaching the Elite Eight is not the goal, of course, but his history of doing it so often does speak to how ideally suited he is to coaching big-time college basketball. His players spoke from the heart on that topic after pushing KU's winning streak to nine games.
"I definitely think he's the best college coach in America, the plays he draws up and just the way he is," junior Brandon Rush said. "He can be a comedian when he wants to, and he's a great communicator. He makes what he's trying to do pretty straight and simple to us."
The public sees the smiling Self, snapping off quick one-liners to take control of conversations. The players, behind closed doors during practice sessions, see all sides.
"When we're playing bad, it's really hard to play for him," Rush said. "When we're playing well, I don't know, he's friendly and funny all the time. He makes you want to play well."
Kansas wasn't playing well in the first half against Lon Kruger's Runnin' Rebels. Senior Darnell Jackson got tied up for a jump ball, and the possession arrow pointed the way of UNLV. Self, using an in-game voice that carries like a Gary Woodland tee shot, let Jackson have it.
"D.J., will you get yourself open!" Self hollered, disgust dripping off of every syllable.
"When he gets on me, sometimes I think he's wrong, but coach Self is always right," Jackson said afterward. "He knows the game. He's been in the game too long."
Of more importance, Self knows people, knows how to get the best out of them even when they are in the midst of personal tragedies, knows how to get them to work as one, even though so many of them arrived at his program as the undisputed center of the universe, their entourages told them so.
Self's .812 winning percentage ranks first among Kansas coaches who coached more than one game. (Karl Schlademan went 1-0 in 1920.) His NCAA Tourney record stands at 8-4. Players don't keep track of such things. They feel themselves becoming better basketball players under him. That's what makes them listen to him, no matter the tone.
"The first time I met coach Self, I just knew there was something about him," Jackson said. "I couldn't figure it out when I first got here. When he kept staying on me so hard, kept pushing me so hard, I understood that he was trying to get the player that was in me out of me. I couldn't understand that, and now I do understand that. I understand that I have to be responsible when I'm on the court and when I'm off the court. Coach Self, man, he's just a great coach, he's a great father, he's a great person, and he's a great friend. That's why every day I see coach Self, I just smile because he's the father figure in my life that I want to be like when I grow up."
Self brings such loose charm to any situation that it's sometimes lost on people how controlling an individual he really is. That quality can make it difficult for him to let up on the reins. Self revealed after the victory against UNLV that before the game one of his former managers sent him a simple message: "Make sure you trust your players."
"I'm getting where I trust them more and more," Self said.
Kansas has such a flexible roster that it's a stretch to say any team presents a bad matchup for the Jayhawks (33-3). That's why they have a legitimate shot to go all the way to their first national title in 20 years. Credit the old point guard's vision for knowing what parts to put together.
"It would be a great accomplishment if we did win that national championship," Jackson said.
Then he smiled, picturing something, but what? What was he picturing? Might as well ask.
"I would love to see coach Self cry," Jackson said. "I want to see some tears come out of his eyes."