Eric Musselman for passing on this article on Bill Self by J. Brady McCollough of the Kansas City Star:
Self was 30 years old, a former assistant at Oklahoma State who thought he knew everything. But his first of four seasons at Oral Roberts showed Self how much he needed to learn before he could build a team and shape it into a consistent winner.
He exuded confidence, but it became harder to believe in his methods later that season, when Oral Roberts lost its last 15 games. The team was downright miserable, finishing 6-21, and eight players had quit.
Less than a year after taking the job, Self’s coaching career was at a crossroads.
“Right then, Coach had to make a decision,” said Barry Hinson, then an assistant at Oral Roberts. “Either go back to being an assistant — and maybe get another shot at being a head coach. Or … if we turn this around, we can do anything.”
At that moment, though, it was hard for Self to imagine success. He was as discouraged as he’d ever been, the doubt starting to creep in.
That Self even wanted the job to begin with showed that he was a believer. Oral Roberts had undergone a two-year transition period from the NAIA level of competition to NCAA Division I, and Self’s first season would be Oral Roberts’ first as a full-fledged Division I member. The Golden Eagles didn’t have a conference, which meant they couldn’t automatically qualify for the NCAA Tournament.
Friends and trusted colleagues told Self to run away. But he had always wanted to be a head coach by the time he was 30, and this was the position that was open.
Oral Roberts had gone 5-22 the previous year, and, problem was, the Golden Eagles were still playing with NAIA talent. Self had to keep an open mind in recruiting. One day that fall, he was eating lunch at a Subway when a young man named Earl McClellan approached him. McClellan was a freshman from Providence, R.I., who had come to pursue his faith. He also was interested in walking on to the basketball team.
Eventually, Self realized that he was going to have to tweak his style on and off the court.
Self dropped the motion offense he learned under Eddie Sutton at Oklahoma State and switched to the high-low set that he still uses today. Oral Roberts immediately began to improve, but there was more to the turnaround than X’s and O’s.
“He became a lot more comfortable,” Kruse said, “just in relating to the players. The first couple years he was very pulled back. He didn’t allow a lot of personal time, just hanging out, talking about life. My junior year, we went over to his house to eat. He became someone we could build a relationship with.”
When the 1996-97 season arrived, Self had surrounded captains Kruse and McClellan with three classes of recruits, and the program began to feel like a family. In the second game of the season, the Golden Eagles played Self’s offense to perfection and beat Arkansas 86-81. That was no fluke, because Oral Roberts later knocked off Oklahoma State 71-60. Self’s boys went 21-6 and returned to the postseason, losing to Notre Dame in the NIT.
That loss felt totally different than the 21 they’d survived in 93-94. When it was over, Self walked around the locker room and doled out hugs to everyone.
Self took the University of Tulsa job that offseason, and his career took off from there to Illinois and then Kansas. But he’ll never forget the players at Oral Roberts who stuck with him.
“Those are ones that will go down as some of my all-time favorite players to coach,” Self said. “I probably learned more from them than they ever learned from me.”
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