Kansas City, Mo. Inevitably, Jay Bilas and Bill Self, two men at the top of their professions playing different roles in the same industry, would enjoy each other’s company.
Born 362 days apart, Bilas, 47, and Self, 48, share many traits. Both are extremely bright smart alecs. Both open with humor and close with intellect. Confidence never has been a problem for either approachable guy’s guy.
A coach can’t reach the top without consistently picking the right words at the right instant. The same goes for a basketball analyst.
They don’t take turns stroking each other’s ego. They’re too secure for that. One reason Bilas has a college basketball voice that resonates so deeply is that he has no agenda but to tell the truth as he sees it. He’s not in it to make friends. He’s in it to try to become the best who’s ever done the job. His candor makes his word easy to trust.
At this point, with a national title, six Elite Eight appearances at three different schools and seven consecutive Big 12 titles, the question isn’t whether Bill Self is a great college basketball coach, rather why? What makes him so successful?
No chance Bilas wasn’t going to deliver an interesting explanation. He didn’t disappoint from across the table at the bar in the Big 12 media hotel Tuesday night. No chance he wouldn’t hit on the perfect word to capture the ninth-year Kansas University basketball coach.
“He’s uncompromising,” Bilas said. “ ‘This is the way you do it.’ Sit in practice, and he’ll stop and say, ‘Ball reversal. Ball reversal. Ball reversal.’ It’s not like he’s saying, ‘You need a 47-degree angle on the screen, not 45-degree.’ It’s do the simple stuff and do it right. And it’s not do it right one time or two times or whenever you feel like it, every single time. ... If you don’t do the hard things, then you’re soft. It’s not like, ‘Hey, you’re a bad guy,’ but, ‘Right now, you’re soft.’ He wants you to play tough.”
Bilas pointed to Self as a coach who lives a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote late Xavier and Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser favored: “Our chief want in life is somebody who shall make us do what we can.”
“Bill demands you do what you can,” Bilas said. “And the players respond to that and they get better, year after year. And it’s not like this only works at Kansas. He had really good teams at Oral Roberts. He had really good teams at Tulsa. He had really good teams at Illinois, and he’s had really good teams at Kansas.”
Bilas marveled at Self winning 165 games the past five seasons, an average of 33 a year.
“The consistency, the level of leadership that requires, is amazing,” Bilas said. “A lot of guys have had the talent he’s had. It’s not like he’s recruited only McDonald’s All-Americans. That’s not the case. He has one of the best jobs in the country, but for him to win that many games, that’s incredible consistency. You don’t do that without doing it in practice every day.”
Bilas said when he was recruited from Los Angeles to Duke by Mike Krzyzewski, he had no idea Coach K would develop into “one of the best ever. You’ll put him in the top five ever, without arguing.”
“By the time Bill’s done, he’s going to be in that conversation,” Bilas said. “I’ll tell you what, there aren’t five better coaching right now. No way.”