NEW ORLEANS – For each college men’s basketball program and each corresponding fan base, there exists a memory bank of seasons and their endings that is as encyclopedic as it is heart-wrenching. A Kansas fan, for instance, savors Danny Manning in 1988 and Mario Chalmers 20 years later because they provided the national championships. But sharing brain space with that euphoria is the misery of first-round losses to, say, Bucknell and Bradley.
So it is that Bill Self carries his 19th Kansas team into his third national championship game understanding all sides of that equation. No men’s program has won more games than the Jayhawks, but that tradition was established long before Self arrived. It is owed to Phog Allen, for whom the home arena is named. Shoot, the Jayhawks program was founded by none other than James Naismith, whose contributions to the sport include inventing it.
Self brings to this matchup with North Carolina, then, a remarkable sense of – I’m sorry – self. He knows what he has accomplished, which is winning that 2008 title and reaching three other Final Fours. He also understands how Kansas fans process the teams that might have, that should have – but didn’t. It isn’t lightly.
“At most places, winning one national championship would be quite an accomplishment,” Self said. “I think as many good teams as we’ve had, one’s not enough.”
One might well become two Monday night. North Carolina’s victory over Duke on Saturday night was nothing if not spotlight-hogging. What preceded it was a performance in which Self’s Jayhawks continued impersonating a freight train.
But in a Final Four that will be remembered as much for who leaves it as who wins it, Self carries into the final a stature the sport needs. Roy Williams retired from North Carolina last spring and left his chair to former Tar Heel Hubert Davis, who has injected the Carolina faithful with a new level of, well, faith over the past month alone. Davis’s victory over Duke was the last game for Mike Krzyzewski, the sport’s most prominent figure.
Those departures leave an opening for voices, for ideas, for authority. Self, 59, has to be in that next group.
“We’ve lost some icons due to retirement that have been the pillars of our profession for a while,” Self said. “And I think that all coaches my age – I don’t think you’re going to see any one person step into a role like Coach K’s had or anything like that. But I think, collectively, I think we can do a good job of having a voice, because our game is great, but our game needs changes, too.”
On Friday, Krzyzewski acknowledged that his pre-Final Four news conference might be his last chance to speak, as an active coach, about the state of his sport. This isn’t just about name, image and likeness rights or the transfer portal, the hot-button issues that have dominated discourse over the past year. It’s about structure and leadership, two topics about which Krzyzewski can speak with clarity.
“This is a transformational time for college athletics,” Krzyzewski said. “When you transform, the main thing you transform is structure, organization. The structure we have right now does not work … This is a time not to look at nits and bits. It’s a time to look at the whole thing.”
There is weight in those words not just because they make sense but because of the man who spoke them. That character is exiting the stage as an active participant. Williams’s words mattered similarly, and he’s gone, too. Jon Scheyer will replace Krzyzewski at Duke, but he’s just 34 and has never so much as run an entire preseason camp. Davis, 51, has already replaced Williams at Carolina, but the Tar Heels job is new enough and big enough that he can’t think about the global issues facing his sport.
“I haven’t had time to think about it,” Davis said.
That’s not abdicating responsibility. It’s being realistic. The time to consider broad-brush issues comes from comfort, from confidence, from stability and familiarity. Davis and Scheyer must be laser focused on the enormous jobs they have inherited. It’s a lot.
Self can more easily step back. With 29 years as a head coach, he is in that sweet spot of having enough experience behind him that his words matter but enough seasons ahead of him that he still cares deeply about the landscape. Villanova’s Jay Wright, 60 and with 28 years of experience, is in the same situation with the same clout. Kentucky’s John Calipari – 63 and with 30 years of college experience – joins them, as does Gonzaga’s Mark Few, who’s 59 and has coached the Bulldogs for 23 seasons. Michigan State’s Tom Izzo is 67 and likely can see the end. Rick Pitino is 69 and resurrecting his career at Iona, no longer in the Kentucky-Louisville high-speed lane. Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim is 77 – older than Krzyzewski, older than Williams – and will presumably move on.
College basketball needs advocates who get the way the sport works from the inside but are self-aware enough to envision realistic ways to affect necessary changes. Self qualifies in both credentials and attitude. He has dealt with an NCAA infractions case that has hung over the program and, in generations past, might muddy his legacy. But in a world in which players can now (rightfully) be compensated for their market value, what once seemed seedy can become above board.
Plus, the sheer numbers give him standing. If Kansas beats North Carolina on Monday night, he will join Wright as the only active coaches with multiple national titles at their current schools. With Krzyzewski’s retirement, the only active coaches with more than Self’s 762 victories are West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Calipari and Pitino. He has the experience to think about his sport and the responsibility to relay those thoughts to the people who can make improvements.
“The best way to help college basketball is to get ideas and have people involved that understand college basketball,” Self said. “And a lot of times, it can’t be from someone within the profession.”
Bill Self is in his profession. Monday night, he could be back at its pinnacle. That matters for Kansas specifically. But it matters for a sport that needs to replace its most powerful voices and is looking for qualified candidates.