The demands of the job don't really stop, and the more accurate way to say it is that the demands of the job don't really stop growing. Bill Self is nobody's sympathetic figure here. He works on a $50 million contract and is generally treated like a king.
It is a strange existence, where conference championships are merely an ante to the game and anything less than a Final Four is an objective disappointment, but here we are anyway. Self can make a Final Four, or he can feel like a failure. There is no in between.
The basketball coach at Kansas can't be an A-minus student.
"This means so much to so many people," Self said. "We understand that."
Self is here, of course, with Kansas for his third Final Four. The margins of the life he's chosen are brutally thin. If Perry Ellis didn't play the worst game of his career against Villanova two years ago, maybe Kansas would've made another Final Four. If a last-second shot against Memphis in 2008 doesn't go in, he's still without a national championship.
If a last-second shot by Duke last week does go in, he's at home with another round of Why Can't Bill Win In The Elite Eight questions.
One of Self's greatest strengths is the image he projects. Cool, confident, cutting. Nowhere in major American sports is image as important as college football and basketball, and Self plays this part of the job masterfully, even if there's a touch of acting involved.
"He puts more pressure on himself than anybody else," Kansas assistant coach Kurtis Townsend said. "And he feels like a failure if he doesn't ..."
Townsend's words trail off, and later he comes back to the point to clarify. Self tries to judge his own performance by how close his players come to their best, not necessarily whether they reach the Final Four — but at Kansas, the difference in the two is almost always negligible.
Self has had too many teams that were good enough to be here but fell short. He knows that, and has said as much out loud. Making the Final Four means ingratiating himself just a little more into the history of Kansas basketball. Missing the Final Four means an opportunity lost, forever, one more chance for someone to say he's no doing enough with the inherent advantages of his job.
This is objectively true: Self should have been to more Final Fours by now. If you go by seeding — 41 percent of the Tournament's No. 1 seeds have made the Final Four since the bracket expanded to 64 teams, 21 percent of No. 2s, and so on — Self's teams would've been expected to make four or five Final Fours by now. Using the same seeding history, they would've been expected to win two or three national championships by now.
"We probably should've got here a couple more times," Townsend said.
Ask around, and three tournament losses seem to sting more than the others. VCU in 2011 is the runaway winner, the night the Jayhawks hit just two of 21 three-pointers and Markieff Morris committed eight turnovers. They often mention 2014, too, the team with Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid that lost in the round of 32 to Stanford. If Embiid was healthy, they always say ...
Last year is the other one that comes up. Frank Mason was the consensus national player of the year and Josh Jackson the No. 4 pick in the NBA Draft. They hit just five of 25 three-pointers and lost to Oregon in a virtual home game at Sprint Center in the Elite Eight.
Self talks about all of this with his team, and often.
"Very, very often," Devonté Graham said. "Especially if he gets a sense we're being complacent, he'll bring it up, about guys who sacrificed more than we did."
In the face of all this, Self continues to evolve. To change. Graham said Self has grown "looser" each year. Self makes it clear that he and he alone calls the plays, but he's always gone along if one of his guys asks to run something specific. More and more, though, he's asking his players what they want to run. What they're comfortable with.
There are patterns in a KU basketball season. He is never so tough on a group as he is in October and November. He called his team the softest he's ever had at KU in December, and that made headlines, but there isn't a single team of his that he hasn't cursed like dogs in those months.
Then, usually around January, he gradually allows that, maybe, perhaps, sure, this isn't the worst team in the history of organized basketball. He did it a little later this season, mid to late February, but it always happens.
In November, one mistake is enough to ignite a rant challenging a guard's manhood and self-worth. In March, one good play is enough for him to say out loud, Guys, you don't know how good you are.
"That's the method to his madness," Townsend said.
It's a balance within a balance. Self must navigate ego against humility, confidence against diligence, while working through a bigger reality that — particularly with Kansas football still non-competitive — his entire athletic department depends on his program. The standard is to make the Final Four or be thought of as a disappointment.
His job is like riding a lion, in that way. He's learning the rhythms, even 15 years in. One of the few knocks available against Self is NCAA Tournament performance, but in the last three years only North Carolina and Villanova have won more.
The team he's been harder on verbally than any other is unarguably playing its best when it matters most. The standards at Kansas are such that it's often about what you didn't do, but rather than what you did.
But here, finally, is a group that makes that notion absurd.