Commentary

Self's tourney has been a roller-coaster ride of melodrama

Originally Published: April 6, 2008
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

SAN ANTONIO -- Think of all the places Bill Self has been from one Sunday to the next.

He's been on his knees in Detroit, praying to the final second that his Kansas team would not suffer ignominious defeat at the hands of tiny Davidson.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesBill Self's wild NCAA tournament continued Saturday with a crazy game that featured a 28-point lead whittled to four ... against Roy Williams.

He's been on top of the world in San Antonio, watching his Jayhawks roar to an unimaginable 28-point lead on former KU icon Roy Williams and North Carolina. Then down in the dumps as the lead was whittled to four. Then back on top in an 18-point upset victory that has taken Self and Kansas to the national championship game.

He's been packing for Stillwater, if you believe he'll accept an offer later this week from alma mater Oklahoma State to become the richest coach in college basketball history. Sources say that no contact has been made yet with Self or his representatives but that a massive offer is inevitable sometime after the championship game.

"There's been two of the three that have affected me," Self said. "That's beating Davidson, and that's having the opportunity to play in the championship game. The third [Oklahoma State] hasn't affected me. That hasn't even been a thought. That's not out of disrespect; it's because I'm not going to let that happen. My focus is here and now.

"But it's been a remarkable week."

So remarkable, so emotional and so stressful that my head would explode if I were to trade places with Self. Somehow, he seems unaffected.

"Bill's so level," said Kansas radio voice Bob Davis.

Sunday at the Alamodome, Mr. Level did what he normally does around reporters -- talk until Kansas staffers had to force him into a golf cart and drive him off. In a profession in which the demands on a coach's time are such that most master the art of talking and walking away at the same time -- from fans, from media members, from each other -- Self stands still. He is a conversationalist, content to hang out and talk hoops with whoever is in his airspace.

If he has any enemies, it's a short and private list. Unlike his self-serving, agenda-obsessed counterpart in the title game, Memphis' John Calipari, Self is instantly likable -- and grows on you from there.

Self called Calipari "a salesman" Sunday, and he didn't mean it as an insult. Self can sell, too -- but he's genuine enough to do it without coming off like a guy with a trench coat full of hot Rolexes.

I've had so many people tell me how I should handle [the Final Four], and for once I've listened to people who know better. So it hasn't been a problem. I haven't returned one phone call; I haven't answered one text.

--Bill Self

At his weekly radio show from the Salty Iguana in Lawrence, Self will chat with the fans who come to hear the show in person. He'll get their names and remember them next week.

"That's where he's at his best," Davis said.

Self must be at his coaching best Monday night if his Kansas team is to beat Memphis for the national title. To do that, he has had to lock in and wall off the outside world, which isn't easy for a people person to do.

"I've had so many people tell me how I should handle [the Final Four], and for once I've listened to people who know better," he said. "So it hasn't been a problem. I haven't returned one phone call; I haven't answered one text; I haven't been to the [National Association of Basketball Coaches] convention."

And no, he hasn't been talking to anyone about Oklahoma State.

This is the second year in a row a coach has had to deal with a well-publicized job opening while playing in the Final Four. Last year, it was Billy Donovan and Kentucky. This year, it's Self and Oklahoma State.

The Cowboys picked a funny way of showing Self they love him. They forced out Sean Sutton the very week Self was trying to win a national title, putting him in a very awkward position.

Why Oklahoma State didn't wait until the day after the championship game to edge out Sutton, I have no idea. The school has succeeded in making itself an annoying subplot for Self to deal with.

"It's really not very fair," said Donovan's dad, Bill Sr., who watched Billy deal with The Kentucky Question last year. "The guy deserves this one moment. This is the biggest game of his life. Leave him alone for a day or two, then Tuesday ask him 8,000 questions.

[+] EnlargeBill Self
AP Photo/Charlie NeibergallWill he or won't he? The Oklahoma State Question is looming over Bill Self ... win or lose.

"It's a tightrope walk. You're trying to keep your team focused, and it keeps coming up. It's stressful. It wears on you. No matter what answer you give, it's not the right answer. It's not easy."

It hasn't been easy just getting to this point. Very few coaches walk a straight, gilded path to fame and fortune, and Self is no exception.

After his playing career at Oklahoma State, he did grunt work as a graduate assistant at Kansas under Larry Brown, then was an assistant at his alma mater under Leonard Hamilton. His first head-coaching job was at Oral Roberts, and in his first season, his team lost 18 straight games while going 6-21. Fifteen players transferred out in his first two years, and Self spent time stuffing season tickets in envelopes and mailing them to fans.

"I loved it," he said.

He went 39-16 his final two years at ORU and has never looked back. From there, it was on to Tulsa (74-27 in three years), then Illinois (78-24) and now Kansas (141-32). Monday marks his chance to check the last empty box on a college coach's career checklist by winning a national title.

Then, come Tuesday -- about the time he probably would like to collapse and spend the next 36 hours in bed -- Self can expect 8,000 versions of The Oklahoma State Question.

Most people would think Self crazy to leave one of the Cadillac programs for a good-but-not-great one in the same conference. But armed with T. Boone Pickens' money, Oklahoma State is offering a chance to go from rich to filthy rich. And it is offering the Edmond, Okla., native a chance to come home.

And it offers the chance to lift up one more program.

"Deep down at the core, coaches like fixing things," Self said.

He wasn't talking about Oklahoma State when he said that, but it was an interesting comment. Might mean something. Might not. We'll have to wait and see.

Win or lose Monday night, stay or go thereafter, Self's remarkable run of melodrama will continue without pause.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.