The smile surfaced after one of those particularly tough Kansas losses, the kind every team experiences at least once or twice during the rough and rugged Big 12 Conference grind.
Bill Self's Jayhawks had just been manhandled by Baylor in Waco, Texas, back in February, an 80-64 loss that left Self lamenting his team's “average effort,” and inspired the Kansas coach to spend as much time in his postgame meeting with the media talking about players not deserving to start as he did specifics of the game.
And then it happened.
When all of the rehashing was over and most of the Jayhawks had made their way to the team bus — heads down, hoods up as they walked — Self's face lit up just outside of the visiting locker room at Baylor's Ferrell Center.
It was his granddaughter Ella's first game in person and although the outcome was not what he would have wanted her to witness, none of that mattered when Self met up with his family before hopping on the bus and took Ella from the arms of his daughter, Lauren Browning.
“Time kind of stops when you have a chance to see and hold your grandchild,” Self told the Journal-World during a recent interview.
While the mere presence of his granddaughter, Ella Jane, who was born on Dec. 5, was enough to single-handedly brighten Self's mood, the whole experience of getting to know her has been doubly sweet because it has allowed him to see Lauren in an entirely new light, as well.
Like many people, Self has celebrated plenty of Mother's Days throughout his 55 years, honoring both his mother, Margaret, and wife, Cindy, many times over on the special holiday.
But he's never had one like this. And that fact was not lost on the KU coach, who recently talked with the Journal-World about becoming a grandfather, and, more specifically, watching his own daughter become a mother.
“Kids so much try to put growing up in fast-forward and adults so much would like the chance to put it in slow motion,” Self said. “Up until Lauren was married, I still thought of her as my little girl. And I guess I still do. But I'm proud to see the woman she's become and when I look at her now I see a young lady I'm awfully proud of. She'll be a fabulous mother and she got to witness, first-hand, how to do that from Cindy, so she'll be fabulous.”
Although Lauren, who works with Young Life outside of Dallas, has given Self plenty of things to be proud of throughout her life, Self said becoming a mother, and doing it with such ease and grace, was up near the top of the list.
He also said that seeing Lauren operate during the early stages of Ella's life has taken him back to the days when his own children, Lauren and Tyler, were that age.
“It's been fun watching her and her husband, Hayden, do this,” Self said. “The way that they treat Ella, following the book to a tee on all the dos and don'ts, I'm sure will be loosened a lot with child two and three if they decide to go that route. But it is fun to witness and certainly makes me very proud.
“What is unique and overwhelming, you know you want what's best for your kids always, but to see her go on and actually have a child, it makes you so proud of your daughter — or your son, I assume — that they've been able to bring a child into your life that brings so much joy to others.”
On that front, Self has been lucky so far. Spoiled, he calls it.
“We were able to see Ella five consecutive weeks, from senior day (Feb. 26) to the Big 12 tournament (March 7-10) and then all three weeks of the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “So that's been great.”
In fact, Self was just with Ella and her parents in Florida last weekend for the baby's first trip to the beach.
During each visit, Self sees something from Lauren that merely confirms what he already expected would be true — that she will be an excellent mother.
“I've always thought that,” he said. “She's so conscientious and she loves kids so much.”
The early days of Ella's KU fandom started out a little rough but ended with her grandpa coaching his team back to the Final Four.
“Her first game was Washington and her second game was Arizona State and we almost got beat our third game with Nebraska,” Self joked of KU's 1-2 record during that three-game stretch. “So we may have had some issues right off the bat if things didn't get turned around. But she's been great. She's been to a few games and she's handled them well, with the sound and everything. I think she may play with dolls more than she may play with a basketball, but it certainly looks like she'll grow into a pretty good fan.
“You know, they say there's nothing like being a grandparent and I don't think you can really understand it until you actually are one,” Self continued. “And it has been everything we thought it would be and more.”