A most exclusive club: Kansas basketball coach
Pity the next Kansas basketball coach.
The standard to lead one of college hoops’ most tradition-rich programs has been established at an absurd level over a 120-year history, an anniversary that will be celebrated Saturday when the Jayhawks play host to Oklahoma State.
The position has been held by eight men on a full-time basis, ranging in service from Larry Brown’s five years to Phog Allen’s 39. Both men won NCAA championships. The only KU coach with a losing record was its first, and we can give James Naismith a break on that. After all, he invented the game.
W.O. Hamilton, Dick Harp, Ted Owens, Roy Williams and Bill Self fill out the card. Self’s election to the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame last year brought to five the number of KU coaches to receive that honor.
Collectively, the eight have won 2,235 games, second in the game’s history to Kentucky and ahead of North Carolina, two teams that play in buildings named for reserve guards who played for Kansas.
Not all KU coaches worked in the time of the NCAA Tournament, but the six who have coached since 1939 have each taken at least one KU team to a Final Four. No other program can say that all of their coaches who could’ve taken a team to a Final Four have done so.
“Unmatched, in any sport,” is how ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas put it. “You won’t find in any sport a list of luminaries like Kansas has had, that starts with the game’s inventor.”
How did Kansas find winner after winner to lead its program? Let’s drill down on how each coach arrived at KU.
While working as director of physical education at the Denver YMCA, Naismith took a call from Amos Alonzo Stagg recommending that he accept a position at Kansas: “director of chapel.” Naismith accepted and also took on the role as director of physical education in 1898.
There was no basketball team when he arrived. But Naismith organized teams on campus, and the best of these players formed KU’s first team. On Feb. 3, 1899, Kansas played its first game and lost to the Kansas City YMCA in Kansas City, 16-5.
For nine years, Naismith was considered Kansas’ basketball coach, although there was no official title. He didn’t always accompany the team to its games and often officiated the game he invented, which helps explain the 55-60 career record credited to Naismith.
Phog Allen I
Allen took over the team as a 22-year-old. He had been Baker’s coach for the previous two seasons after his only year playing at KU (1906). Allen kept the Baker job for a third year and added to his workload by becoming Kansas’ coach, leading the team to a Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association title in the league’s first year.
Allen coached KU the next season —1908-09 —dropped Baker and picked up Haskell that year before leaving coaching to enroll in osteopathy school in Kansas City.
William O. Hamilton
It wasn’t unusual for a high school coach to move to a college position. Hamilton oversaw Central High in Kansas City, an athletic power, when he was hired by KU for the 1910 season. Before Central, Hamilton coached basketball and was the physical education director at William Jewell.
Hamilton’s Kansas teams won five conference titles in his first six years. He left after the 1919 season — to devote more time to his budding Chevrolet dealership — with a 123-59 record.
Phog Allen II
Allen returned to coaching at Warrensburg Teachers College, now Central Missouri, in 1912 and led the basketball, football and baseball programs. In 1919, Kansas sought an athletic director, and Allen was chosen over former KU football coach Bert Kennedy.
After Hamilton quit, Kansas assigned track and field coach Karl Schlademan to basketball, adding to his duties. But the workload proved too heavy and Schlademan gave up basketball after one game. Allen, who was coaching a freshman team, took over the varsity. His annual salary to run athletics and coach: $3,500.
Success, drama, excellence and tension, all the way to Allen’s reluctant retirement nearly four decades later, shaped the course of Kansas and basketball history. His two tenures add up to a 590-219 record with the 1952 NCAA title, two other title-game appearances, two retroactively awarded Helms Foundation national championships and 24 conference titles over 39 seasons.
Allen’s departure got messy. He had turned 70, the state’s mandatory retirement age in 1955, making the 1955-56 season his last. But Wilt Chamberlain was a freshman that year —freshmen were ineligible to play on the varsity then — and Allen wanted to coach his prized recruit, if only for a season.
Kansas chancellor Franklin Murphy did not make an exception for Allen despite a tide of opposition from fans, reporters, the state legislature and Allen himself.
In a letter to Murphy, dated April 2, 1956, Allen wrote, “Naturally, this mandatory rule which is often stressed does not impress me too highly. But I honor you and your position.”
There was no search for the successor, although athletic director Dutch Lonborg received a passionate plea from a state representative to consider legendary Newton High coach John Ravenscroft for the job.
Harp, a guard on Kansas’ 1940 NCAA finalist team, had been Allen’s assistant for eight years and was elevated to the top spot at a salary of $7,500.
Harp peaked in his first season, with the Chamberlain-led Jayhawks falling to North Carolina in triple overtime for the NCAA championship. He added another conference title before stepping down in 1964 with a 121-84 career mark to become director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Hired by Harp as an assistant in 1960, Owens became a candidate after Harp’s resignation. Many Kansas fans wanted the job to go to Ralph Miller, a Harp teammate at Kansas who was winning at Wichita State.
Athletic director Wade Stinson took Owens to lunch at the Lawrence Country Club and offered him the job: a one-year contract for $10,000.
“That was a $2,500 raise,” Owens said. “I was thrilled.”
Owens remained on the job for 19 seasons, amassing a 384-182 record with six conference titles and two Final Four appearances.
As the Jayhawks’ fortunes dipped in his final years, athletic director Monte Johnson made the decision to fire Owens, who wanted one more season to right the ship.
“We had a couple down years, but we were making headway,” said Owens, 88. “But I had the privilege of getting to know Dr. Allen, and Dick Harp was such a gentleman. I have so much respect for Larry, Roy and Bill, and just being one of the eight coaches is very special to me.”
Johnson headed to the 1983 Final Four in Albuquerque, N.M., with 10 candidates lined up for interviews. But before he spoke to any of them, he took a call from friend Clyde Reed Jr., former publisher of the Parsons Sun and member of the Kansas Board of Regents. Reed had lived in Denver when Brown coached the Nuggets and highly recommended Brown.
The next day, Johnson received a call from analyst Billy Packer, also raving about Brown, who was coaching the New Jersey Nets at the time.
Two calls about Brown in a short period may have been coincidence, but they changed Johnson’s approach. He went ahead with the interviews, and the first one was with Dean Smith, the Kansas grad coming off his first national title at North Carolina the previous year.
“My thought process was if he wanted to finish his career at Kansas, we’d be tickled to death,” Johnson said.
Smith told Johnson that he and his wife were happy in Chapel Hill, and Johnson ran some other names by him, including Brown’s. Smith liked Brown but expressed concern about Brown’s wayfaring nature.
But after leaving the Final Four, Johnson felt stronger about Brown, who was brought in for an interview between his Nets games.
The final conversations were with Brown and Eddie Sutton, a Kansas native who was at Arkansas. Brown won the day.
“I had him pictured in my mind as a really high-energy, hyperactive guy the way he coached,” Johnson said. “But it was like the exact opposite in person: laid back, down to earth, easy to talk to.”
Brown has had 10 stops in the NBA and two others in college. His stay at Kansas for five years was his second longest coaching stint with any single team. He finished 135-44 at Kansas, where he won the 1988 national championship.
Brown offered to athletic director Bob Frederick a suggestion for his successor, a coach named Williams. But not Roy, the North Carolina assistant. Brown recommended Ohio State’s Gary Williams for the job.
Frederick interviewed Gary Williams, who turned down the job. Frederick and a small search committee then traveled to Springfield and interviewed Missouri State coach Charlie Spoonhour. But KU didn’t make an offer.
Frederick, like his predecessor, spoke with Smith about returning to Lawrence. Smith wasn’t interested but offered an under-the-radar alternative in Roy Williams. “I wasn’t even a household name in my own house,” Williams later said.
Williams was lined up for interviews at smaller schools when Smith told him to hang tight. Smith and Harp, who had just spent three seasons at North Carolina as special assistant, persuaded Frederick to take a chance. And in 15 seasons, Williams’ teams went 418-101 with four Final Four appearances and nine conference championships before Williams left for North Carolina in 2003.
The departure nearly came three years earlier, in 2000, when Bill Guthridge stepped down from North Carolina and Williams’ alma mater applied the full-court press. Having just coached a freshman class that included Drew Gooden, Nick Collison and Kirk Hinrich, Williams decided to remain at Kansas.
But the Jayhawks had a leading candidate if Williams had chosen to leave: former associate athletic director Richard Konzem said the job would have been offered to Vanderbilt coach and former KU assistant Kevin Stallings.
Speculation that Roy Williams would not pass up a second opportunity to return to North Carolina grew stronger at the 2003 Final Four in New Orleans. Self, who had just finished his third season at Illinois, was there and spotted Konzem outside the team hotel. They chatted for 45 minutes, and Konzem believed that if Williams took the Tar Heels job, Self would be interested in KU.
Both happened. But Kansas put in its due diligence: telephone interviews with Oregon’s Ernie Kent, Marquette’s Tom Crean and Wichita State’s Mark Turgeon, a former Jayhawks guard.
Self also made a call, to Bilas.
“He asked me about Kansas, and I asked him, ‘Why aren’t you there yet,’” Bilas said. “He said he thought he could win a national championship at Illinois, and I said I knew he would win one at Kansas.”
On April 21, 2003, Self, once a KU graduate assistant, was introduced as the Jayhawks’ eighth full-time coach. He is 434-92, is bidding for a 14th consecutive Big 12 championship, won the 2008 NCAA title and was the 2012 runner-up.
“After they won the championship, he called me and said, ‘Thanks; you were right,’” Bilas said. “It was one of the coolest things I’ve experienced in my career.”