NCAA Tournament

Roy Williams may be here, but this is Bill Self’s time at KU

Updated: 2013-03-22T15:16:09Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

— This is where the other statue might have been. You are in front of Allen Fieldhouse, a three-pointer away from the 8-foot-8 bronze Phog Allen. They call Phog the father of basketball coaching, and inside this building they still tell visiting teams to beware of him.

He is a legend in this place and the statue is here to prove it. Ten years ago this month, another man was poised to join him. That’s easy to forget now. Roy Williams took this proud program to new heights.

He hadn’t won a national championship, but he did most everything else. No program was winning games at a higher rate. He was a few weeks from his fourth Final Four. They chanted his name before every game, and he threw T-shirts into the stands. Nobody talked seriously about a statue yet, of course, but Williams could have had nearly anything here.

That all changed a decade ago. Williams took the Jayhawks all the way to the championship game, told Bonnie Bernstein he didn’t give a (crap) about North Carolina and then left for Chapel Hill anyway. They printed up nasty T-shirts here, called him a traitor, and many thought there was no way this new coach from Illinois could match one of the best runs in modern college basketball history.

Who predicted this? Williams has continued his wild success at Carolina. Won the national championship his second season, then another in 2009. But the place he left behind is in better shape than ever.

A decade after his departure, Williams is coaching North Carolina in his old home’s backyard for the first time. He is 0-2 against Kansas, with both losses coming in the NCAA Tournament. There will be a third game Sunday if both teams win tonight at the Sprint Center. And if there is, it will be the first time Williams’ old program is clearly the stronger team.

The truth is, Kansas basketball is better than Williams left it, and who saw that coming?


People who know Williams well were holding their breath this week. They worried for their friend. Even after all these years, they say being so close to Lawrence and one game from potentially playing Kansas again will batter his heart. If he is booed, one said, it will distract him. It will be a problem.

At exactly 4:25 Thursday afternoon, those friends could have felt relieved. Williams walked onto the Sprint Center court for the first time and heard cheers, even from the Kansas fans. He saw smiles. Waved at familiar faces. Someone asked him to sign a giant picture of him and Kansas coach Bill Self shaking hands, and he did. A young boy asked him to sign a Kansas shirt, and he did.

This must have freed his mind. This is all personal to Williams in a way that it never will be for Self. Privately, people who know Williams well will tell you that. Williams moved away from Kansas, but he’ll never be able to move on. Not completely, anyway.

That’s why he wore that Jayhawk sticker to the 2008 Final Four. That’s why, a decade later, he still talks about how he gave his “heart, body and soul” to Kansas for 15 years. He name-drops Jayhawks players all the time. This is personal for him.

When some fans at Illinois took offense at Self’s leaving, he never paid it much mind. Self moved on in a way that Williams can’t. Self was only at Illinois for three years, but this difference is at the core of who both men are, for better and worse. There aren’t a lot of people who are close to both coaches. But some who are describe subtle but important contrasts.

Games and practices consume Williams in a way that’s unusual, even by the obsessive standards of college coaches. Williams sometimes tells players, “You guys don’t want this more than me,” and he means it. When fans or media ask questions about strategy, Williams sometimes takes offense. Anything you’ve thought of, he’ll say, he thought of first.

Williams is fiercely loyal and overwhelmingly passionate. That’s part of why he felt the need to go home, back to Carolina, and how he’s been able to win two titles and make another Final Four there.

But this can be both a strength and a weakness. His convictions bend players to his beliefs and system, but there is a stubbornness that some who know him well think is a deterrent at times. There are principles and systems he learned from the legendary Dean Smith that he will never waver on. He can be slow to adjust, they say, particularly on defense. Ball screens, for instance, have often given his teams fits.

Self is a chameleon. He is like this both socially — he charmed the Oral Roberts at his first head coaching job, and teenage basketball stars at his others — and as a coach. He came to Kansas loyal to his high-low offense but ran more ball screens than anyone in the country during the 2008 championship season. The one thing he won’t budge on is a relentless toughness, a quality that some of Williams’ teams lacked. Most everything else is liquid.

He’ll spend timeouts asking players what they see: Do you have any suggestions? He’ll spend bus rides asking them about their favorite music: Have you heard this new song?

The Big 12 isn’t as good as the Atlantic Coast Conference most years — or, truthfully, as good as it was when Williams was at Kansas — but this ability to adjust is an enormous part of how Self has won or shared nine consecutive regular-season conference titles.

Actually, it’s an enormous part of how he walked into a tenuous situation — proud history, beloved former coach, players who probably weren’t as good as their reputations — and took a wildly successful program to new heights.

You can argue that Williams has been better at Carolina (two titles to one, three Final Fours to two), but there is little question that Self has been better for Kansas. He has a higher winning percentage, the same number of conference titles and a national championship in five fewer seasons.

A decade later, Self has pushed the old coach into a detached place in the program’s history. Kansas is Self’s now.


In front of Allen Fieldhouse, a three-pointer away from that 8-foot-8 bronze Phog Allen — this is where the other statue might be someday. Ten years ago next month, nobody could be sure how the new guy would do. That’s easy to forget now.

Bill Self took this proud program to new heights. He won a national championship and is a year removed from the Final Four, with a top-seeded team that could go back. No program is winning games at a higher rate the last seven years.

They scream for him before every game and watch him blow into his hands just before tipoff. So much has changed in a decade. Nobody is talking seriously about a statue yet, of course, but Self can have nearly anything here.

There is an entirely different feel around this program, and that’s a direct consequence of the coaching change. Williams’ obsessiveness never grew fully comfortable with the enormous size of Kansas basketball. It was like he was running into the wind. Self’s easier ways have turned that wind to his back.

Self is 2-0 against the coach his fan base used to adore, with both wins coming in the NCAA Tournament. There will be a third game Sunday if both KU and North Carolina win tonight at the Sprint Center. If so, it will be the first time Self’s program is clearly the stronger team.

The truth is, Kansas basketball is better than Self found it, and who saw this coming?

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send email to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow him on Twitter at mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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