Bill Self is the protagonist in a remarkable showdown between the NCAA and Self’s Kansas basketball program.
He was named 39 times in the Notice of Allegations the NCAA dropped on KU on Sept. 23, in the wake of an FBI investigation into college basketball corruption. He was hit with a head coach responsibility charge, his program with multiple Level I allegations.
A Hall of Fame coach faces the prospect of suspension or dismissal, of a record tarnished by asterisks or worse should the allegations be upheld when the case is adjudicated. A celebrated basketball institution has been charged with lack of institutional control, four words that in the past induced panic and plea bargaining from coaches, athletic directors and university chancellors.
Well, Self is as dug in as the NCAA. His university-backed statement in light of the NOA accused the NCAA of a “false narrative” based on “innuendo, half-truths, misimpressions and mischaracterizations.”
The NCAA, emboldened by incriminating text messages from Self to former Adidas consultant T.J. Gassnola and long accused of going light on its lucrative wrongdoers, seeks 200 pounds of flesh in KU’s prominent coach.
That coach seeks to confirm the NCAA as a foolhardy organization relevant only as the butt of our jokes.
This all made Self’s return to Tulsa this week rather fascinating, since anything a revered coach who becomes equally embattled does is noteworthy.
The 56-year-old Oklahoman said he played golf and dined with old buddies Tuesday. He saw many more of them Wednesday in a packed ballroom at the DoubleTree downtown, where he was keynote speaker for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes Steve Davis Champions Luncheon.
“It’s good to be back around friends,” Self told an audience that included old industry pals Eddie Sutton, Ted Owens and John Phillips, plus players from his Oral Roberts and Tulsa teams two decades ago.
Self hobnobbed for over an hour before the program in a private room. When the scene shifted to the main ballroom, it took 15-20 minutes of more meet-and-greet before he could sit down and take a bite of salad.
Self closed his remarks by saying he had to scoot back to Lawrence for practice, but that didn’t dissuade another pack of picture-seekers from swooping in. Self posed with them all.
When he saw me lurking and agreed to a quick chat, I wondered if he saw this as shelter, if temporary, from the storm.
“Well, sure,” he said. “But the whole thing is I can handle this. I’m excited about coaching this team and leading this team and the program during a time where obviously waters are clearly pretty choppy.”
The storm is the thing, of course. It is the lead story as college basketball goes to practice. It will be the lead story everywhere the Jayhawks go this season. Self, right in the eye, will be the lead story.
Fans in opposing arenas and neutral television viewers will likely see him as a criminal. KU’s most loyal supporters will see him as a victim. I suppose those thirsty for the NCAA’s unraveling could see him as a martyr.
At any rate, Self will definitely be seen. There is no middle ground here. The NCAA’s accusations and his defense have taken care of that.
That could grind Self down as much as the mechanisms of the legal process, particularly given the responsibility he acknowledged Wednesday during his presentation.
“You’re never going to be the best coach at the University of Kansas,” he said. “I happen to work at a place that’s tradition rich and there’s so much history.”
He also said: “It’s your job to be a caretaker to all those who came before you, whether you’re a coach or a player.”
Self was mostly spectacular his first 16 seasons as KU’s caretaker. Now, depending on the verdict in this case, that could be ruined. There is a reputation, a legacy and a program’s (short-term, at least) future in the balance.
How does a coach feel with that hanging over him?
“I feel actually OK,” Self said. “I know we’ve got the school’s total support. I know that we have great representation. I should just let my statement speak for itself and let the university speak for itself. There really won’t be much to comment on until we put together our game plan and facts together as a university to submit back to the NCAA to review.”
That so much of the process is out of your hands moving forward?
“Well, it’s been out of my hands, basically, since the trial,” Self said. “All I can do is help contribute the cause and what the attorneys are doing. It’s in the hands of lawyers now.”
What about regrets over anything that has happened here? Surely there are …
“I wish the whole thing hadn’t happened,” he said. “But I’m not going to go into any details on anything right now based on what my superiors have told me.”
Self also said: “It’s going to be time-consuming. I just can’t let it consume me. I’ve got to coach my team.”
That’s one of the few certainties surrounding Self right now. He does have a team to coach. He left Tulsa to do just that.
He left some old friends in a familiar place and ducked back into a storm unfamiliar in its intensity. With a coach in the eye who is either going to ride it out miraculously or be wrecked by it.