Lawrence's new Rock (Chalk) star
LAWRENCE, Kan. -- Rock stars don't even get this kind of treatment.
OK, maybe Bono, Sting and the Boss can command an awesome reception when they walk out onto the floor -- or stage -- of a sold-out arena darkened in the stands except for a spotlight on the performer.
But, then again, those three music icons might finish second to Bill Self here in Lawrence, at least these days.
Self's reception this past Friday night for "Late Night in the Phog" was one usually reserved for legends. And the Kansas first-year coach who has taken two programs (Tulsa and Illinois) to the Elite Eight in the past four years struggled to get out his words when he took the court after his Clintonian-like introduction.
Yes, the scene was akin to the Bill Clinton video montage and drawn-out entrance of the former President at the 2000 Democratic National Convention. Those in Los Angeles that night were rallying around a new leader for the partisan Democrats hoping to hold on to the White House.
This night was about Kansas' fans hoping they'd found the right chief executive officer of their state's most treasured institution.
"It was overwhelming,'' Self said.
Give the Kansas athletic department credit. It did a wonderful job editing Self's speech from his April news conference when he was hired. The clips were powerful, and built his arrival Friday night to a crescendo:
"I woke up this morning and I was driving to the office. On purpose, I drove up Naismith Drive. I always thought, 'How cool would it be to have an office on Naismith Drive?' Now it actually gets to happen."
Dramatic pause, cut to black.
"This program is so big. This program is bigger than one player and it is bigger than one coach. You have been spoiled. You have had a coach (Roy Williams) here for the past 15 years that has done a remarkably great job. He has done it with class and dignity and his performance on the court certainly equals the performance off the court."
Pause ... fade to black.
"It is a tough act to follow. But you know something, Larry Brown was a tough act to follow."
"Ted Owens, who went to two Final Fours, was a tough act to follow."
"Phog Allen was a tough act to follow.'"
"The guy who started it all, Dr. Naismith, was a tough act to follow."
"I see this as a great opportunity to sit, in my opinion, in the most prestigious chair in all of college basketball. I am looking forward to that.
"There's no place like Kansas."
And with that, the thunderous roar of the crowd took over. Everything was scripted as if a Hollywood or music producer was hiding in the bowels of the arena.
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For Kansas' fans, there's no coach like Bill Self. They got the one they wanted when Williams left his adopted home for his native Carolina. And now Self must live up to the incredible hype that he has received.
"Fans will tell you that this is our year," said Self, sitting in what was Williams' palatial office that almost seems too big for the more pedestrian Self. "But when the team (Kansas) just misses some free throws and has a bad shooting night in the final game, wasn't that our year? When arguably one of the best players (Wayne Simien) doesn't play the second half of the season then that's a pretty good year. It's a different mentality here.
"We've talked about everything but basketball since I got the job. I'm very anxious to get going. It's going to be a lot of fun."
No matter where he's coached, Self has found a way to connect with his players. He is personable, but also tough. He demands excellence, but more than that, he craves exceptional effort.
The Jayhawks slapped a new logo on the Fieldhouse floor, altered the uniforms and tweaked a few other things in the locker room. But the biggest change is the man on the bench, and Self will get his way of doing things into these players' heads, if he hasn't already .
"Coach Self keeps telling these guys that we're not a team yet," said longtime Self assistant Norm Roberts. "He said we wouldn't be until we go through some things. But it will happen."
The players talk about how this Kansas team is a bit more relaxed. Many of the Jayhawks, however, will begin a season with uncertainty about what is on the horizon. Remember, this is a group that's come back to Lawrence from the Final Four without a national title the past two Aprils. It's also a team starting its first season since 1999 without All-Americans Kirk Hinrich or Nick Collison in town.
"One of the things we try to do is make them feel uncomfortable," Self said of his mind games early in the season. "Whatever their limits were, we try to stretch them a bit and make them not really sure. We've got them uncomfortable right now.
"When you're comfortable, then you get complacent. It's not boot camp. But they don't know what's going to happen next. That's a good thing. I'm usually just messing with them."
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The leadership has changed, with longtime coach Roy Williams departing for North Carolina. But, Mr. Williams didn't leave the cupboard bare.
New coach Bill Self inherits a diaper-dandy class that ranks with the nation's best. The Jayhawks also have outstanding returning talent and one of the top 1-2 scoring combinations in college basketball: junior forward Wayne Simien and junior guard Keith Langford. Add the winning experience of junior point guard Aaron Miles in the backcourt -- and this is one of the premier teams in America.
It will be another big year for "Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk" fans. Kansas could end up in the Final Four once again.
Self walked onto the Illinois campus back in 2000 fresh off an Elite Eight appearance with Tulsa. His challenge was to get a group of Illini loaded with talent, but one that hadn't advanced past the Sweet 16, to play up to its ability in the NCAA Tournament. Feeding off the toughness of guys like Sergio McClain and the NBA talent of Frank Williams and Cory Bradford on the perimeter, Illinois won 27 games and earned a No. 1 seed in Self's first season. Illinois missed the Final Four by six points in a loss to Arizona.
When he got to Tulsa, he took over a program also used to postseason success, but expectations were a bit unrealistic. Yet, in his final year, he took Tulsa to the Elite Eight, setting the standard for his predecessors -- Buzz Peterson for a year and current coach John Phillips -- at an almost impossible level.
Now, Self must at the very least sustain the standard of excellence established over 15 seasons by Williams.
Every year is our year in Lawrence, where Kansas is consistently one of the top five programs in the country. Big 12 titles? NCAA appearances? Trips to the Final Four? They don't come with the job, but certainly are part of the job.
The Jayhawks are among a handful of teams mentioned each year to get to the Final Four. Getting to San Antonio next April would mean a third straight trip, but it would be the first for Self as a head coach. And matching recent Final Four threepeats of Michigan State (1999-2001) and Kentucky (1996-98) doesn't fall solely on Self's shoulders. Kansas may have lost NBA first-round picks Collison and Hinrich, but the Jayhawks still return a nucleus good enough to get back to the Final Four.
This Kansas squad is similar to recent Michigan State and Maryland teams, except these Jayhawks don't yet have a national title. The stars who got these teams to the Final Four all departed, yet Kansas' core of returning veterans at least gives it a reason to believe a title is within reach. Simien, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, Michael Lee and Jeff Graves were all instrumental in last year's runner-up finish. Add the stellar recruiting class inherited by Self -- one highlighted by J.R. Giddens and David Padgett -- and the talent is in place for Self to work his magic.
And because of his track record, Self has created not only the beginnings of a legacy, but reason for Lawence to expect success.
"You don't have to worry about me being hungry for this year,'' Simien said. "I missed 22 games."
"We have the talent to get back there," Miles said. "I trust and pray that we will."
While the focus in Phog Allen was on this season, Self's veteran staff of Roberts, Tim Jankovich, Joe Dooley and Ben Miller has already put together a top-five 2004 recruiting class with point guard Russell Robinson and big man Alexander Kaun. Robinson is from New York, while Kaun is originally from Siberia but prepped in Florida. Both of their commitments prove that Kansas, under Self, just like it did with Williams in charge, has a national reach.
The Jayhawks aren't without questions, such as who will be that bail-out player like Collison was for the past two seasons (probably a healthy Simien), and whether or not Langford can make the spectacular perimeter plays like Hinrich. But this team won't lack leadership. Too many players played too big of roles last season to not feel comfortable taking shots or taking charge in the locker room.
As for Self? Well, his opening act in Lawrence comes Nov. 21. And judging by his performances in Oral Roberts, Tulsa and Illinois, he's just warming up, too.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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