Sam Mellinger

Bill Self and the KU basketball pressure he doesn’t want you to think about

This is easy to forget now because Bill Self is working on a $53 million contract at a powerhouse basketball program that will almost certainly build him a statue someday: He started at the bottom.

His first job was at Oral Roberts, where he won six games his first year. That was the kind of job where you didn’t recruit so much as you begged. You cold-called alums and potential donors. Licked the stamps on the envelopes you addressed to send the letters you had to write or type yourself. Those letters rarely received a response.

That experience shaped him forever — personally, in some ways, and professionally in many ways. The Kansas basketball coach always goes back to those days when things go against him now. He jokes about “Kansas math” — when you lose more talent than you bring in, but you’re somehow expected to be better — and has a standard answer when asked about the pressure that comes with one of his sport’s premier jobs.

“Pressure is when you have to win games and your players aren’t quite as good,” he said. “So that’s real pressure.”

He always says that with a smile, then always references the good players he’s had at Kansas. This is the image he wants to project. This is the story he wants you to believe, and it’s not exactly a lie, but it’s also not how so many who love KU feel.

“I shudder to think if we start competing for third and fourth place in the league,” a major donor said. “Our athletic program would be a shambles.”

So, that is pressure.

This is the weird world of Kansas athletics, the result of two (going on three?) disastrous football-coaching hires in a row. Football is every athletic department’s most expensive program and biggest potential revenue producer, and at the moment KU is circling the drain. The Jayhawks just set a record for futility with just 21 yards of offense in a 43-0 loss to TCU on national television. It was so bad they did a running clock and a high school quarterback decommitted.

Everyone who works inside KU athletics is aware that the football there is so awful it threatens the department’s future, not just financially as a virtual money pit but also because football is what matters most in nearly every place outside Lawrence.

That’s particularly true inside television network offices, and there is a growing fear among KU athletics and major donors that football is so bad it could threaten the university’s place in the Power Five, depending on the timing of the next round of conference realignment.

Self has filled that void with at least a share of the last 13 conference championships, a national championship, another Final Four, 15 first-round draft picks and a load of much needed institutional self-esteem.

He has shown himself to be a wizard in making the Kansas machine work for him. This might be the biggest difference between Self and his predecessor, Roy Williams. Everything seemed so hard for Williams, like he was constantly bothered by a few empty seats for bad games over winter break or the expectations that came along with the job.

Those expectations have only grown in Self’s 15 years, and that would be true even without football’s nosedive over the last eight.

But Self has generally put an easy and aw-shucks face on it. Where Williams seemed to look at the pressure like a grizzly bear, Self has made it more manageable, often with humor.

Literally the first thing he did after being introduced as KU’s coach was pretend that his seat at the press conference was already hot. He came up with “Kansas math,” and harnessed the passion into infrastructure updates touching everything from fans’ game-day experience, to a players’ lounge, to a practice facility, to an apartment complex.

In other words, he’s let that pressure work for him, rather than against him.

There are few figures in sports who have a greater chasm between the intensity they show during work and the easy graciousness they present publicly.

But even as he smiles and deflects when asked about the pressure of his job in front of cameras, privately he feels it every day.

Look, Self has won championships, been inducted to his sport’s Hall of Fame and made enough money to set his family up for generations.

So, yes. He’s not lying when he says real pressure is felt by coaches at bottom-tier programs. He’s just not telling the whole truth.

Because this part is true: Self is going to be fine, no matter what happens in this or any other basketball season.

But this part is true, too: Kansas’ athletic department may not be fine, depending on what happens in this or any other basketball season.

Sam Mellinger: 816-234-4365, @mellinger