Why Kansas Jayhawks’ win vs. K-State meant so much to Bill Self after dad’s passing

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Kansas coach Bill Self, left, who lost his father Bill Sr., just days ago, is congratulated by assistant coach Kurtis Townsend after the Jayhawks stormed back to beat rival Kansas State, 78-75 Saturday at Bramlage Coliseum in Manhattan. KU trailed nearly all of the game, but managed to dig deep and come away with the win. (Rich Sugg/rsugg@kcstar.com)

I was about to leave, and Bill Self Sr. asked me one more time.

“Want something else to take with you? A Coke?”

This was October of 2015 — in the living room of Margaret and Bill Sr., the parents of Kansas basketball coach Bill Self — when I said I was fine. Bill Sr. insisted, though: You sure you don’t want another water for the road?

I declined, and then Margaret smiled next to him.

“He said no,” she said softly.

This was before a Kansas road football game that day, and I’d made my way to their home in Edmond, Oklahoma, while researching a story on Bill Sr. and Margaret’s son. In particular, I wanted to know why — more than any other college basketball coach I knew — KU’s Bill Self valued toughness from his players.

The answer I received that day was mixed. The response in the days after, though, was not.

And all that came rushing back on Saturday as KU completed a 17-point second-half comeback in its 78-75 road victory at Kansas State — the day after Bill Sr. died at age 82.

“That would’ve been special for him,” a teary-eyed Self said at the press conference afterward.

Back in 2015, I asked Bill Sr. why his son valued toughness. And he came up with all sorts of theories.

Maybe he had developed that from his playing days. Bill Sr. loved to joke that his son received the “muscle twitching in his lower body from his daddy,” and that lack of speed meant he had to find ways to succeed in other ways.

So the two would gather often at the hoop in the family driveway. Self Sr. taught him to shoot with his left hand and off his correct foot.

He had to work because he really wasn’t a pure shooter like Mark Price,” Bill Sr. said then. “He had to work on everything to be successful.”

Maybe it was the challenging jobs too. Bill Sr. spoke about his son’s night-shift position at a freezer department food distributor, where he had to stock and unstock shelves. Or the summer gig of picking up hay on a nearby farm, loading bales onto a truck.

That could’ve been part of it too, Bill Sr. said. Except that Margaret — a little while later — spoke up to say what she believed.

“His daddy won’t say this, but his daddy was very tough,” Margaret said, motioning to her husband. “This guy.”

Bill Sr. scoffed.

“I didn’t have to go through anything,” Bill Sr. said then. “We just grew up on a farm.”

Interviews over the next few weeks, though, revealed over and over that Margaret’s words were true.

Bill Sr. was raised in a small Oklahoma town of around 300 that he figured I couldn’t even find with help from Google. His father was a glass cutter — the family lived on a small farm where they raised both cattle and hogs — and his graduating class had seven people.

Bill Self’s sister Shelly Self Anderson, in 2015, said it was there her father grew up learning about hard work, whether it was picking cotton in the fields or tending to the family’s garden.

“That’s just how they were brought up,” Self Anderson said. “You work hard, and nothing’s given to you. You work hard for what you get.”

Bill Self’s friends often realized this about his father the hard way.

Self’s buddy Jay Davis remembered a golf outing growing up when — after a tee shot — he picked his ball up to put it on a tuft of grass. The problem was, Bill Sr. saw him do it.

That was the easy way out, Bill Sr. told him. A few minutes later, Bill Self came over to his pal.

“If my dad sees you do that,” Davis remembered Self saying, “he’ll never play a round with you again.”

Self Anderson said, in 2015, her father saw the world in a simple, black-and-white way: Do what you’re supposed to do, and deliver on your word.

She remembered growing up that her father always seemed to have proper perspective when significant issues arose. If there was a car wreck, for instance, his biggest concern was the condition of everyone involved.

The small stuff, though, could get him going. If Self Anderson forgot to call someone back or didn’t leave a note when she said she would ... well, that wasn’t OK.

Because of what it meant.

“He just is of that belief that people can make life a lot harder than it has to be,” Self Anderson said in 2015. “Just do the right thing, make the right choices, and everything’s fine.”

Oh, and don’t miss an opportunity to work for what you want to accomplish.

During an interview in his office later in 2015, Self told me about days when he and his friend Kirt Jones would work 12-hour days for his father digging postholes. Bill Self Sr. paid $3 an hour, and by the time they were done one day at 8 p.m., Self remembered Jones had nearly passed out.

That was just what you did, though. The minimum expectation of doing your job wasn’t something to be praised on its own.

Self remembered the same thing when he played basketball growing up. He said his father never praised him for how many points he’d scored or gave him credit for “being on” a particular night.

But he did remind him of any possessions where he didn’t try his hardest.

“It wasn’t like you got brownie points for doing what your job is,” Self said in 2015. “So I’ve always bought into that. I think that philosophy comes from him more than anybody else.”

Self reflected his father’s personality in college at Oklahoma State and beyond.

Bill Sr. said in one game at Colorado, he played with mono. Self also broke his hand before his sophomore season but recovered quickly while not missing any games.

Bill Self’s parents also relayed that their son once had major surgery while coaching at Illinois right before a big game at the United Center in Chicago. He brought a doctor with him to the building to be hooked up to an IV before the game.

He coached then as well.

“(It was) ‘like, ‘Those are my players,’” Self Sr. said then, “’and I’m not going to let them down.’”

Some two decades later, Self didn’t let his players down Saturday either.

He gave some thought to not attending the K-State game. But he said he talked to his ailing father just before Tuesday’s Oklahoma game, and Bill Sr. was upset then that his son had missed KU practice time to come see him.

Self decided to coach against K-State. It’s what his dad would’ve wanted.

Especially because these KU games had meant so much to him for so long.

Bill Sr. said in 2015 he loved watching KU games at home because he could use foul language if he wanted. Margaret jokingly said they never liked to invite guests over on Jayhawks’ game nights, “because both of us are just crazy.”

Bill Self always respected what his dad — an old ball coach himself — had to say, though. Self’s friend Mark Maguire remembered in 2015 hopping into Self’s car after one game when he immediately dialed up his dad to get his thoughts.

Bill Sr. also had his favorites. Back in 2015, he loved a seldom-used freshman named Svi Mykhailiuk, telling his son that he needed to play him more. The reason? Bill Sr. claimed Svi was his great, great-grandson.

I told Bill that,” Bill Sr. said in 2015 with a grin, “but that didn’t do any good.”

Bill Sr. lived for watching KU basketball games, though, a reality his son only learned more while spending the last few days this week with family.

And after falling behind by 16 at half, Self watched as his players did their best tribute to his father.

They hustled. They played hard. They didn’t give up.

And they battled back for the biggest halftime comeback in KU basketball history.

Self looked upward when asked about his team’s toughness on this particular night.

“To win this one like that was something extra,” Self said, “because the way we won, it would’ve been exactly the way he lived.”

Grind it out. Make the most of every situation, even when it doesn’t look good. Do your job.

And most of all, stay tough.

The message had made it to a future generation.

And — for a night — a team couldn’t have honored its coach’s family legacy any better.

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