From his Tulsa team’s narrow Elite Eight loss to North Carolina in 2000 to defeat in the same round a year later as coach at Illinois to his first-round losses at Kansas against Bucknell and Bradley.
From a corridor with a handful of reporters in the Alamodome long after KU’s national-championship game victory in 2008 and at KU’s last game against Missouri in 2012 in Allen Fieldhouse.
Through all that and any number of games and other times spent with him over the years, I’ve been around to witness a fairly representative spectrum of Bill Self’s emotional range.
And it never had featured anything like the overwhelmed moment he flashed on Sunday, when he appeared to actually cry in the KU locker room in Omaha after an instant-classic 85-81 overtime victory over Duke propelled the Jayhawks to the Final Four in San Antonio.
It was “just a lot of water in my eye,” Self said with a laugh during a conference call Monday as KU prepared to take on Villanova on Saturday in the national semifinals. “I’m not that soft.”
“Soft,” of course, is a word that Self normally only uses with a certain contemptuous edge.
So he put up the same deflector in a call with The Star soon thereafter.
“I’m not that soft, to actually shed a tear over a game,” Self said, presumably grinning as he protested too much.
Even if he really didn’t quite spring a leak, that was mostly a matter of semantics.
This seemingly unprecedented indulgence of emotion defied how relatively restrained Self normally is: a measured upbeat in victory (though perhaps quickly punching the air and roaring in big moments, as he did after the Big 12 title game against West Virginia) and appropriately displeased but never despondent after a loss.
And now, this.
In a video taken by KU athletics before media were admitted to the locker room, Self enters the room, gets doused some and bounces around with the team before standing in front of it.
“You know I’m not that emotional,” he starts with a quiver in his voice as he looks down.
Then he starts choking up and needs to intermittently pause, adding, “This is the best … I’ve felt … about a group … and … you guys have no idea … how much this means.”
Putting his head in a towel for a second, he then continues: “to so many people.”
Then Self clears his throat and finally sounds like himself as he tells his players this team will be “loved by this place forever; all you can do is add to it.”
It was one thing to see this semi-spectacle, of course, and another to try to understand from where it came.
As best Self could explain, the recipe contained several forces converging.
That included KU losing in the last two Elite Eights, the long road traveled by a team he told everyone who’d listen wasn’t very good (and would even ridicule during a reunion celebrating KU’s 120 years of basketball) and the knuckleballs that came with this season (see: the saga of Billy Preston) before KU stormed to its 14th straight conference title and punctuated that by seizing the Big 12 tournament championship.
“It was emotional for me because of all the teams that we’ve had, this may not be the one that I’d expect to do this,” he said. “And for me to obviously be on these guys pretty hard for things that I thought were shortcomings and some, basically, personality traits, and to see the reason we won was because they 100 percent flipped those, that gives a coach a lot of pride.”
Stir in coming “up empty” in the last two years in regional finals.
“Our basketball history and tradition here is comparable to the greatest histories of any sport on any campus in America. You know, we've experienced a lot of success that we haven't experienced Final Fours … to the level that I think our fans (deserve),” he said. “When you talk about being at a place where the inventor of the game (James Naismith) was your first coach, and Adolph Rupp and Dean Smith played here, and so many things have spawned off from here, and generationally how much this means to the people in our community and the respect they have for the game, that's what I was talking about.”
Fold in that this was the last chance for seniors Svi Mykhailiuk and Devonte’ Graham, whom Self hugged with ferocity after the game.
“Especially Devonte',” Self said. “To know how much he sacrificed and know the role he's played with our university and with our program, I wanted so bad for him to get there — and that probably triggered it as much as anything else.”
Then there was the nature of the game itself between what Self described as “two heavyweights, two bluebloods,” that would have stirred him up even if it had been a regular-season game.
“I don’t know if I would have felt the same,” he said, “if we hadn’t beaten Duke in an epic game.”
Perhaps less consciously but also a factor: Self’s father, Bill Sr., hasn’t been able to attend games for a while because of health issues.
“He’s fallen on some pretty tough times,” Self said.
When they spoke Sunday night, though, Self was thrilled as ever to get his father’s appreciation — and encouraged that his parents were going to rally to make it to San Antonio.
Which may make for another emotional aspect ahead for someone, you know, not so soft as to shed a tear over a game.