Bill Self on the pressure to win at KU and finding balance in life
At 53 years old, University of Kansas men’s basketball coach Bill Self staves off inevitable knee replacements by not running much any more.
He can still hold his own in H-O-R-S-E … but he’s avoided playing basketball since he pulled a hamstring going one-on-one with the father of a recruit when he was at Illinois and thought, “This is not worth it.”
But even if Self projects a comfort in his own skin rare in such a high-profile job, even if he says he was more stressed at Oral Roberts when his first team lost its last 15 games than he is presiding over a KU empire trying to win national titles, he also appreciates that it’s vital for him to unplug and exercise.
So walking several miles at a time has become his routine escape hatch, since it’s easy on his body and energizing and distracting to pop in his ear buds and listen to music and tune everything else out and just move.
Part of the getaway is to play a variety of music, typically today’s country or classic rock.
Ask him about his favorite musicians, and he’ll first mention his friend and Oklahoma State dorm mate, Garth Brooks.
“If I could pick anybody to see, it probably would have been Luther (Vandross) before he passed … but I would still say (Bruce) Springsteen,” said Self, who has seen him several times. “Withstood the test of time … (Springsteen) and Bob Dylan aren’t going to win any vocals contests, but somehow he’s got a way to get people to be energized by his music.”
And that’s the idea when Self is walking.
“You’re always going to have some things going on in your head; I think everybody probably has that,” he said. “But sometimes it’s nice to just listen to a little bit of music and (be) thinking of the words to a song as opposed to thinking what you should be doing next.
“I think a lot of times we actually think better when we’ve had a chance to kind of refresh our mind and our brains.”
Self wishes he could do it more consistently, saying he’s as apt to walk 15 days in a row as to go in a 15-day slump.
He has a number of routes, including several through campus.
One of his favorites is the 4.5-mile roundtrip to Memorial Park Cemetery and the memorial monument to James Naismith — whose actual grave is farther back in the park.
Self seldom lingers long there: “I get kind of paranoid,” he said, with that distinct grin.
Still, as he walked Wednesday from the area, Self said he always is cognizant of the imprint of Naismith, whose 13 original “Rules of Basket Ball” now can be seen at the DeBruce Center adjacent to Allen Fieldhouse.
“It’s nice to be able to ask a recruit, ‘You know who invented the game?’” he said … and then be able to add that he was KU’s first coach: “It all started here.”
As for Naismith being KU’s only coach with a losing career record?
“I don’t include that,” Self said, laughing.
Self also is proud of the legacy of Naismith’s protégé, Phog Allen, the father of basketball coaching, and other building blocks of KU history.
Between those aspects of the program and investments like the DeBruce Center and KU’s $12 million McCarthy Hall, Self says he believes the program is poised to be “very successful for the rest of time.”
As for what will be the rest of his time here?
Self says he’d be “ecstatic” to make it through the contract that currently runs through 2022.
If his energy and health allow, he’ll hope to go longer.
To get to that point, of course, he’ll have to keep winning — which is all he’s ever done (592-188 in 22 seasons as a head coach, 385-83 with a national title in 13 seasons at KU).
He’ll also have to stay strong and fresh, which he hopes he’s doing through walking … even as he says he needs to lose weight and eat better. (So over lunch Wednesday at Panera Bread, he ordered the Green Passion Power Smoothie and a small French onion soup at a counter that must be one of the few places where he’d be asked his name.)
On the premise that it’s valuable to otherwise get away from a job that has infinite year-round demands, Self seeks other points of balance in his life.
He likes to read but finds himself distracted easily and gets stuck so much in day-to-day reading online that it’s hard for him to stay with a book, which he believes “would improve me as a person.”
Right now he’s moseying through “41: A Portrait of My Father” by George W. Bush. A good book, Self says, and one day he’ll finish it.
Self and his wife, Cindy, don’t get to movies much these days, but he certainly makes up for it with TV — including occasional marathon sessions of “Law & Order” and “NCIS” and such.
Perhaps not surprisingly, he loves to watch sports — so much so that he can find himself in his seat for five hours, as he did recently when he waited through a weather delay to watch the Oklahoma-Ohio State football game.
Perhaps surprisingly, Self also is a news junkie. In his office, it’s not unusual for him to hop up on an exercise bike for a spell and have a news feed on his large TV and game film on his computer … with his phone and iPad at hand, too.
He watched the entire presidential debate the other night between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and he tends to vary his television news sources because it “just blows my mind how the same thing being said is interpreted in so many different ways; if you just watch one, you can get totally brainwashed.”
As opposed to having a thriving mind that Self wants to feed as he fends off the demands of the job — no matter how easy he makes it look.
Getting away from it all and exercising are essential to that and make him feel better … and focus better.
“In theory,” he said, laughing.