Kansas' Self wins titles his way
OCT 16, 2012 6:55p ET
"My staff thinks I could do a lot more as far as being more recognizable," the Kansas coach says. "But that's kind of not what I do. I like how we do it. I like the fact that I can have a relatively — relatively — normal life even though it's not normal. But it's more normal than what I would think somebody like John would be.
"Because John Calipari does the absolute best job of anybody at promoting interest in his program," Self said of the Kentucky coach. "Nobody does it as good as him. Nobody. I could certainly do a lot better job in that area. No question."
Not that Self, who just inked a 10-year, $52 million contract that could extend his stay in Lawrence through 2021-22, isn't every bit as rich as Calipari. Or, like Calipari, charming enough (for recruiting) and tough enough (for coaching and, when necessary, dealing with the media and other issues) to win championships.
It's just that the two men have diametrically opposed styles aimed at achieving the same thing: basketball dominance. Calipari nearly has attained it as the most glitzy man in the game, Self as the most under-the-radar big-time coach out there.
Calipari is the guy who hangs out with Jay-Z and LeBron James. Calipari appears, ever ubiquitous, on my television, smooth-as-silk as ESPN promotes a TV special on his program. This is the rock-star coach with the rock-star recruiting classes — a system of chasing championships based on one-and-done stars.
"There's not that many one-and-dones; just the majority of them go to the same school," Self said. "Seriously. You may have six one-and-dones a year max, and three of them are coming out of the same program."
Self's the guy who is often unable to compete for those players against Kentucky, so he builds his teams around NBA-level talent that stays for years and matures into winners. Yet he probably could walk down any street in America undisturbed. He prefers "hanging with my boys" more than seeing and being seen among the sporting elite.
Which his assistants would love to see him work on: "Probably be more recognizable on the national scene," Self explains.
Self takes a sip of tea, which hides a smile that had peeked through while talking about all this. The charming-but-knowing smile he must use in the living room of recruits, the one for their parents, the one that says: Everyone else can do it his way, but I'll do it mine. I'm just a normal guy, and if your son wants in, aw shucks, we might just do something special ...
Just then an older woman comes by the table.
"Hello there!" Self exclaims, turning his full gaze on her. This is when he spots the younger woman with her. "How's your beautiful granddaughter doing?"
The grandmother smiles. But the granddaughter positively lights up. "She's pregnant!" the younger woman says about herself, turning toward the coach, toward his congratulations, as if Kansas' head basketball coach might bless the child here in this very bar and infuse him with some of that Bill Self magic. "It's a boy!"
"Well, well, that's great," Self says.
It is magic of a kind, what Self has done. As Calipari has been the Great One covered in glitter and bright lights, Self has been his own version — just quieter. Over the past decade, since arriving at Kansas in 2003, Self has been every bit as successful as Calipari, winning eight straight Big 12 championships.
The two men are, in many ways, the ultimate rivals of college basketball. They have squared off against one another in two national championship games — Kansas won in 2008, Calipari last year. As Calipari has racked up class after class of stunning recruits, it's often been at the expense of Self's attempts to land the same players.
"We recruit against Kentucky a lot, yeah," Self says. "We went through a period of time where we were, for the most part, a top-five recruiting class year in and year out. And the last year or two we've been a top-20 class."
Every recruiting season we say: Calipari's going to do it again. And he does. Every season in the Big 12 we say: Self can't do it again. And he does.
"The one thing about what Kentucky's done the last three years is remarkable," Self says. "And if you look at our wins, the last six years, it's remarkable. If you look at what we've done, they tell me our program has won more games than any program ever over any six-year period, ever. And nobody knows that."
Yet again, this will be a Self team tailor-made to overachieve. It has four seniors, including potential NBA players Jeff Withey and Elijah Johnson. But they need substantial help from seven freshmen, including upside talent like Perry Ellis and Ben McLemore.
After explaining all the reasons they aren't ready, they have a long way to go, they weren't as good as last year's squad at the same time — which he says, truly, every season — Self drops the warning sign other coaches need to listen for: "Oh yeah, I like this team."
So remember this as Self and the other Big 12 coaches unofficially tip off the season Wednesday with their conference media day in Kansas City: Self's team, No. 12 in Sporting News' preseason Top 25, could be as dangerous as any other by March.
This is a Self team, that mix of seniors that stayed and talent that needs to be coached up, as much as Calipari has again put together his own version of young studs down south.
Two different men, two different programs, two vastly different styles. And one common denominator: Don't bet against either of them this season.
You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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