Before the streak began, before he began collecting conference titles like candlesticks, the coach who does nothing but win conference championships did not even have a league to win.
Bill Self hated this, of course. But it really is the best place to start.
The year was 1997. Self was in his fourth season at Oral Roberts. He was a 35-year-old head coach in his first job, and to that point, his first program rebuild had taken on a natural progression. The team won six games that first year, and notched 10 victories the next. They broke .500 in year three, and by the early part of the 1996-97 season, Self and his staff were hopeful for a postseason appearance.
The only problem: Oral Roberts was without a league, meaning there was no conference championship to win, and no NCAA automatic bid to claim in a conference tournament. Self and his assistants had resigned themselves to a possible NIT appearance, but even that would take some politicking. In those early years, though, Self was not above some extra elbow grease. At different times, he had worked as acting compliance officer, sold spots on his own radio show and hawked season tickets to alums and fans.
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Now he would become his program’s lobbyist, hitting the phones to get his Golden Eagles in the NIT, and hoping that some league — any league — might notice what was happening at this small-school basketball program in Tulsa.
“We were the easiest prom date of all time,” said Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson, an assistant on that Oral Roberts staff.
Hinson laughs at this story now, and why not? Nearly 18 years ago, Bill Self was just trying to find a conference to compete in. Now Hinson’s old friend is the mastermind of The Streak, the most jaw-dropping run of conference supremacy in college basketball’s modern era.
On Monday night in Ames, Iowa State defeated Oklahoma 77-70, giving Kansas at least a share of the Big 12 title for the 11th straight year. On Tuesday night at Allen Fieldhouse (8 p.m. on ESPN2), the ninth-ranked Jayhawks can win the crown outright with a victory over No. 20 West Virginia.
In historical context, Kansas has tied Gonzaga’s 11 straight West Coast Conference titles for the second-longest conference championship streak and is just two titles short of UCLA’s record 13 straight Pac-8/Pac-10 titles during 1967-79. In the present moment, the Jayhawks have collected another Big 12 title in a season in which the league again ranks as the nation’s top conference based on computer rankings.
“It’s an amazing run with the teams that we have in this conference,” Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said.
In Lawrence, of course, the streak has taken on a life of its own. There are T-shirts. There is pride. There is the president of the United States, making jokes about the run of titles during a campus visit to KU in January.
"Coach Self won 10 straight,” Barack Obama said. “I lost two straight (elections in Kansas)."
But Hinson still wonders. Do people truly fathom what is happening at Kansas right now? From 2008 to 2012, Hinson spent four seasons on Self’s KU staff, witnessing titles five through eight. After three seasons away, Hinson had an epiphany of sorts — a question to ponder.
Will this ever happen again?
“That’s a good question,” Hoiberg said. “In today’s age, can you have a streak like this?”
A few years ago, Kansas clinched one of its conference titles on the road, winning a share of the Big 12 title with a few weeks left in the season. The victory kept the streak alive, but the Jayhawks still had their sights set on an outright championship, so the celebration in the locker room was muted.
There was a little screaming, some dancing, but nothing too wild. Nothing that would let anybody know that a championship had just been won.
As Self stepped in front of his team, perhaps he sensed the emotion that was permeated the room. It was, for those that were in the room that day, an overwhelming sense of relief. But where was the joy?
“Don’t ever, ever take it for granted,” Self told his team. “Don’t ever take it for granted. One day, this won’t be the case.”
And yet, it is so easy to take dominance and project it as the new normal at Kansas.
“I think fans do,” Self said. “Fans around here do. But that’s OK.”
Still, the numbers can be staggering. Since the streak began, more than 3,600 days ago on March 5, 2005, the Jayhawks are a combined 86-5 in home conference games. They have won 71 percent of their Big 12 road games, compiling a 65-26 record. And they have won Big 12 titles when logic and other factors have suggested they wouldn’t.
Kansas won the Big 12 title when Texas had a future NBA MVP in Kevin Durant. KU won the Big 12 twice when replacing all five starters. the Jayhawks won the Big 12 in 2005-06 while starting three freshmen and opening 3-4 in league play.
“I think people around here probably assume (a conference championship),” Self said. “But let me tell you something: You win the league three times in a row in the Big Ten, it’s not a big deal, it’s a huge deal.
“You have somebody else in our league win it three times or two times in a row, it’s a big deal.”
To listen to Self speak about his program’s title streak can be an interesting exercise. On one hand, Self does not want anyone to take all these conference championships for granted. On the other hand, you get the sense that Self takes a bit of masochistic enjoyment in the way he has distorted expectations.
In 12 seasons, Self has built a Kansas program in which a streak of double-digit conference titles can feel close to normal, and this, in itself, is quite an accomplishment.
“You may have some coaches that say: ‘Well, our goal is a national championship,’ ” Self said. “Well, that could be a goal. But if you’re not the best team in your league, the chances are the goal of a national championship is not as realistic.”
If there is one surprising thing about The Streak, it’s that Self rarely talks about the goal of winning the Big 12 with his players. There are moments, of course, little messages here and there. The players finish every practice by yelling “Big 12 champs” while breaking the huddle.
That’s about it.
“Bill had a constant saying,” Hinson said. “ ‘Let’s get better every day. Let’s get better every game.’ Really, we focused more on the journey than the destination.”
In these terms, this season has been no different. The Jayhawks lost two lottery picks, added four freshmen, and the expectation remained the same. In the preseason, Self warned about his team’s inability to convert easy baskets. Indeed, this Kansas team is on pace to finish with the worst shooting percentage inside the three-point line of the Self era. And yet, the Jayhawks are still on the cusp of a title, shaking off three road losses in February.
“(We thought) we deserved it, like it was going to be given to us,” Kelly Oubre said. “So we kind of fell off a little bit. But now that it’s right there in our face, we’re more hungry than ever — and we’re gonna go take it.”
For Self and Kansas, this might be the most impressive part of The Streak. As the Big 12 trophies stacked up, each new freshman class came to Lawrence believing that Big 12 titles were a birthright. For a coach, this can be both a blessing and curse. Self has always relished the pressure of expectations, the way they can push players to perform above their ability level, but there is also the constant fear of entitlement.
Oubre is a college freshman this year. Next year, he might well be in the NBA. When The Streak began, he was in the third grade. When the streak ends, he will likely be a millionaire. But for now, Oubre is listening, and the message is the same: Don’t take this for granted.
“I’m a firm believer in life, that we all get opportunities,” Self said. “But sometimes opportunities are few and far between … you have a chance to do something special, and you’ve got to take advantage.”
Longest conference title streaks in NCAA men’s basketball