The only thing more unpredictable than marriage these days is the relationship between college basketball coaches and their teams.
Some are in long-standing relationships that no one questions; some end prematurely, which leads to another union; and some are in the early stages, full of hope and some doubt.
Look no further than the three major Division I schools surrounding Kansas City.
At the University of Kansas, Bill Self and his Jayhawks are one of the happiest couples in the country.
Eighty-eight miles west, a second marriage has taken place. Bruce Weber, Kansas State University’s new coach, is again trying to sustain success at a program that someone else built.
In the opposite direction, the marriage between Frank Haith and the University of Missouri’s Tigers has been questioned by many. In year two, they’re trying to prove they can last beyond the honeymoon.
All three programs have challenges. All three are at different stages in their relationships, which raises the question:
How will they coach this year?
A culture of winning
The Kansas Jayhawks
Bill Self stood in front of his team at halftime of Kansas’ NCAA tournament game against Purdue last March, and another disappointing early exit loomed over the locker room like a dark cloud. Self had seen the pressure of the moment get to his other teams.
Bucknell. Bradley. Northern Iowa. VCU. Teams that upset KU in the tournament are punch lines for opposing fan bases. They’re reminders to Self’s players of how quickly it can end. This felt like one of those games. His team had shot 29 percent in the first half. The Jayhawks trailed by six points at halftime.
“Enjoy it,” Self said he told his team in the locker room. “Smile. Have fun. Shoot it!”
About an hour later, guard Elijah Johnson stepped into a deep three-pointer, the shot that would give Kansas its first lead that night.
“He took that shot with a smile on his face, too,” point guard Tyshawn Taylor said after Kansas had survived and advanced. “Everybody go watch the tape. He smiled when he shot that.”
Self made several brilliant coaching moves that night and throughout the NCAA tournament on KU’s way to the national title game. One was a triangle-and-two defense that he rarely used in the regular season and was one of the biggest differences against Purdue and North Carolina. Every move was made with confidence. No detail left to chance.
“I’ve never seen him get in a situation and not handle it,” Johnson said. “I’ve never seen him regret something.”
As Self enters his 10th season at Kansas, he has a new contract that will keep him at KU through at least 2022 and faith from everyone in the program. It’s a faith that has helped Kansas win eight straight Big 12 titles.
“One thing that I think is good for coaching is when you have some success, kids listen better,” Self said. “Whatever we tell them now, I think they’ll buy into it more than ever because they know it works. I think that’s one of the residual effects of winning that makes it easier to coach kids.”
Self has built a culture where it’s OK to wait your turn. Sometimes that leads to players transferring elsewhere. Sometimes it leads to Jeff Withey. Some think Withey, a center who sat on the bench for two years, will be an All-American this season. Starting guard Travis Releford redshirted after his freshman season because he didn’t figure to be part of the rotation. Johnson also waited his turn, playing 6.6 minutes per game his freshman season after coming in as a top-25 recruit.
“I think the difference for us is we learn basketball first, and when Coach starts to gain confidence in you, that’s when you’re able to go and just play,” Johnson said. “A lot of places they just let you go and teach you along the way. Coach does it the right way. Why would he take a chance on you doing it the wrong way when this guy knows exactly what to do? It makes perfect sense.”
Self is not perfect and still has his doubts from time to time. After the Purdue game he said, “I kept telling the guys, ‘Hey, we’re going to win the game,’ but I wasn’t exactly believing what I was telling them.”
The Jayhawks believed, and a group that was supposed to be Self’s worst team made the national title game. After that run, plus the 2008 championship, the Bucknells and Bradleys are rarely brought up anymore.
So far this season the Jayhawks have had close calls against some of those lesser-known schools as the offense has taken time to adapt without Taylor and forward Thomas Robinson, now with the NBA’s Sacramento Kings.
Yet Self is so revered that several national analysts have picked KU to win the title after losing a lottery pick and an all-Big 12 point guard. And no one has the audacity to pick against Self to win a ninth straight Big 12 title.
“It’s a direct reflection of Coach,” Johnson said. “The people who were doing it eight years ago are not doing it now. He’s still there. I feel like that has to mean something. He’s doing something right. I just appreciate the fact that he tries to shed the light on us and make it look like it’s us who’s doing it. When all of us know who it really is, the head honcho.”
Forget the doubters
The Missouri Tigers
Bill Self is able to coach without anyone doubting him. Frank Haith started his career at Missouri with almost everyone doubting his credentials and character.
Last August, almost three months before Haith had coached a game at Missouri, a Yahoo! Sports report named Haith in a story about University of Miami booster Nevin Shapiro, who was in prison for his role in a $930 million Ponzi scheme.
Missouri athletic director Mike Alden already faced scrutiny for hiring a coach with a 43-69 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Then came the report, which said Haith was aware of a payment made to a recruit. Some called for an annulment. Admit your mistake before it’s too late, Mizzou. And if the players had any doubts about Haith, this would have been the time to really raise an eyebrow.
But instead Haith’s team let the man’s actions speak for him instead of listening to what everyone else said.
“The way in which he still conducted himself,” former Missouri guard Kim English said. “He got up early, he was in the gym, he watched film, he worked with us and after work was over, he recruited and then went home to his wife and kids. He never wavered in what he did every day.”
Haith mostly ignored the allegations — he denied the claims — and his players respected him for not letting it affect his coaching. The Tigers went on to have one of their best seasons, finishing 30-5 and winning the Big 12 tournament in Mizzou’s final year in the conference.
“It’s the Show-Me State and it’s hard at the get-go, but once the people of Missouri fall in love with you, it’s definitely an unconditional love,” English said.
Haith got where he is by studying the game and preparing his teams for every scenario. “What makes him good is he knows how to adapt,” Texas coach Rick Barnes said. Haith was tested last year when big man Laurence Bowers was lost before the season because of an ACL tear.
Haith, as Barnes said, adapted. He moved English, a 6-foot-6 guard, to power forward and installed a one-in, four-out offense that Haith said he learned from former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy. With four shooters on the court at all times, the Tigers shared the basketball and became the most efficient offense in the country.
This season Haith will coach a team that has higher expectations because of the success of last year’s team, even though a lot of that talent is gone. Phil Pressey is the only returning starter, and Michael Dixon left the team after he was suspended to start the season.
Without Dixon, the Tigers are relying on defense and rebounding more than last year. They’ve out-rebounded every opponent through their first seven games, built to play a more traditional style with Connecticut transfer Alex Oriakhi alongside Bowers.
“I go back to our identity,” Haith said. “We’re not going to be fluid right now offensively, but we are going to be tough — and that’s what we challenged them to do. That’s who we are at this point in time. It’s all about understanding who you are and buying into that.”
Last year’s team succeeded because from the moment Haith took the job, his players bought in. It helped that English had wanted to go to Miami out of high school. He had declared for the NBA Draft after the 2011 season and said he would have stayed in the draft or transferred had then-Missouri coach Mike Anderson remained or Alden had hired a coach other than Haith.
Any drama that surrounded the Tiger players seemed to go out the door after a simple request Haith made to English soon after he got the job.
“He said that players play their best when they know that they’re playing for their head coach,” English said. “That definitely stuck with me, because it’s true. If you’re trying to perform for NBA executives or you’re trying to play well or not play poorly to not disappoint the fans or you’re worrying about teammates, how they feel about you, if you’re afraid of your head coach so you’re not playing confident.
“If you’re playing for your head coach and have the trust in your head coach and your coach has trust in you, then your game is going to be so free, and it’s the best feeling in the world, and I definitely played all of last year for my head coach.”
Moving on in Manhattan
The Kansas State Wildcats
Bruce Weber needed to start over. That much was apparent in mid-February last season when Weber saw the writing on the wall and started to reflect on what went wrong during his nine seasons as the University of Illinois’ coach. His Illini had just lost their fourth straight game and were about to miss the NCAA tourney for the second time in three years, the first time that had happened at Illinois since 1992.
“Instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coach not to lose all year, and that’s really sad, to be honest,” Weber said at his postgame news conference that night. “You’ve got to develop a culture, and I think the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness, and that’s my fault.”
In Manhattan, Weber inherits a culture of winning. The Wildcats made the NCAA tournament four out of five years under coach Frank Martin after a 12-year tourney absence.
Weber was in a similar situation 10 years ago. At Illinois, he inherited a winning program from Bill Self, who had won 78 games and two Big Ten titles in three seasons. Weber maintained it at first: The Illini won the Big Ten championship his first year and made the Sweet 16. In his second season with Self’s players, he went 37-2 and made it to the national championship game.
But in Weber’s final five seasons in Champaign, the Illini made only two NCAA tournaments and had a 57 percent winning percentage. That made some K-State fans skeptical when athletic director John Currie hired Weber coming off a 17-15 season.
“I know there were some people grumbling a little bit when I took the job,” Weber said.
As Haith proved in Columbia last year, those grumbles will go away if you win. And Currie made a smart pick in the short-term for a program that returns all but one contributor (Jamar Samuels) to an NCAA tournament team.
“Obviously, when a new coach comes in, you’ve got to feel him out, you’ve got to learn him,” former Illini forward Roger Powell Jr. said. “You don’t come in and instantly gain that trust. It takes time.”
Weber says the key to a coaching change is winning over the players, and that’s what he tried to do as soon as he arrived in Manhattan in April.
“I want success now,” he said. “I don’t want to wait. I’m not worried about five years from now. I’m worried about this year and having them have great seasons and our team having a great season.”
Weber’s ability as an offensive coach could translate to more success with Martin’s players. The Wildcats played bruiser ball, and Martin’s offensive philosophy was essentially to get up a shot and go get it if you miss. Weber coaches a more aesthetically pleasing motion offense.
“Bruce wants us to keep that same intensity on defense and crashing the boards. He said he doesn’t want us to lose that at all,” senior guard Rodney McGruder said. “There are things that he’s incorporated in our games, and mix those with what we’ve learned from Frank, it could be scary for other people.”
At Illinois, a school Self has called the “easiest place to recruit to I’ve been,” Weber felt pressure to get the top recruits in the state. As he said on that night in February, he had gotten away from what made him successful, and part of the reason might have been that he wasn’t recruiting the type of players he wanted.
“You’re trying to please everyone instead of trying to please myself, and that’s my fault,” he said at his postgame news conference.
Weber says he’s re-energized now, and at Kansas State, which gave Martin room to operate, he will have some freedom to do things differently.
Powell, who is now an assistant at Valparaiso, believes in Weber. He also sees the parallels from that first year at Illinois in 2003 to Weber’s current situation.
“The biggest thing that he did with us being juniors and having a core group of guys that had played together, he really let us play,” Powell said. “He put in structure, but he put in the freedom for us to make plays, and I think it really helped us be successful.”
Weber gives the impression that he has learned from his mistakes, and he likes this new match.
“I’m not saying it’s perfect by any means right now,” he said, “but being through those situations helped us.”
In a self-reflective moment at Big 12 media day, Self summed up the relationship between school and coach best.
“They pay you to deal with crap,” he said. “Trust me, all coaches deal with it. Although that’s a big part of the job, that’s not the most rewarding part of the job. It’s still coaching kids and trying to put a team together and see a team through October to March. To me that’s what’s fun, exciting and challenging.”