If Well-deserved Title Comes for Self, Let the Beer Flow

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Bill Self has had worse road trips.

This one came in 1985 before the money and the pressure. On a whim, he and fellow Kansas assistant coach R.C. Buford decided to head from Lawrence over to Kansas City for Game 7 of the World Series.

No big deal. Why not leave an hour before game time and expect to walk right in to see one of sports' biggest events?

"We were going to sit out in the parking lot," Buford said. "This was really a spur-of-the-moment thing."

Oh yeah, forgot one big thing. There was a keg involved, legal tender for a couple of happening guys in their 20s.

"I think we had a party and nobody showed up," Buford said. "We had a keg of beer left."

Self and Buford pulled up to Royals Stadium, beer in tow, and, amazingly, were able to buy face-value tickets along the third-base line to watch the Royals beat the Cardinals.

That, and they became the most popular guys in town when beer stopped flowing. Who else had cold Budweiser on tap after the seventh game of the World Series –- in their car?

"We were the only guys in Kansas City with beer," Buford said.

Not exactly, but you get the idea.

They're still happening guys, more best friends now -- with families and careers these days -- as the Final Four begins. In a quirk of fate, it is in Buford's town. He is the general manager of the San Antonio Spurs. For Self, it's a career achievement.

College basketball's Phil Mickelson doesn't seem to have an enemy in the world this weekend. The affection for him in this town is surpassed only by that for the frozen margaritas on the River Walk.

The 45-year-old Self is one of the most well-liked coaches in the profession. He hit six game-winning shots his senior year in college, married his cheerleader sweetheart at Oklahoma State, treats us media wretches with fawning respect, gets his players to go hard and has only cross words for officials.

Try to find a better rooting interest this weekend. Ben Howland? Gruff, control master. John Calipari? Great coach but half used-car salesman. Roy Williams? Enough has been written and said about Ol' Roy and his kee-ids to shut down a sugar mill.

Self is the coaching story this weekend. Admit it, deep down you wanted to see Mickelson win that first major too.

Self has earned it. He took two other schools (Tulsa and Illinois) to the Elite Eight before breaking through this season with Kansas. The kid who once had the modest goal of becoming a head coach by age 30 now is in his first Final Four 15 years later.

"It wasn't inevitable," Buford said. "He's only 45. This is not an old coach. If you beat a drum long enough, it happens. But there have been people who have been beating the drum a lot longer than him who didn't make it. It's an incredibly difficult task."

Self was working as an instructor at a Kansas basketball camp in the 1980s when he blew out his knee. Larry Brown felt so bad about the injury (Self was still playing at Oklahoma State), that he later hired Self as a volunteer coach at Kansas.

Buford had been Self's player host at Okie State, but their friendship blossomed at Kansas in that one season together in 1985-86. It's quite a friendship that compels guys to drive together over the flat, mundane roadways between Lawrence and Wichita, where Buford was completing his degree.

"He rode with me and drank too much beer," Buford said.

What is it with these guys and beer?

The friends went different directions when Self went to Oklahoma State as a Leonard Hamilton assistant in 1986. Eddie Sutton eventually kept Self on staff when he took over in Stillwater. From Hamilton, Self learned recruiting. From Sutton, he soaked in the X's and O's.

By 1993, Self had his first head coaching job, at age 30, at Oral Roberts. Friends tried to talk him out of what looked like a dead-end job, but Self persevered, leading the Eagles to their first postseason appearance in 13 years (NIT).

His 2000 Tulsa team lost to North Carolina in the Elite Eight. Another Elite Eight followed at Illinois in 2001. Self experienced the first real negative vibes of his career when he bolted.

Nothing can faze the coach, though, this week. Not Roy Williams questions. Not Oklahoma State, which forced its coach (Sean Sutton) out this week, causing Self to have to answer questions about his future.

"I'll deal with anything getting (to the Final Four)," Self said this week. "You could put me answering questions in a dark room with the bright light shining on me for eight hours a day, and I'd still love every second of it."

For the second time in five years, though, Kansas fans have to deal with the prospect of their glorious program becoming a stepping-stone job. Williams left five years ago this month for North Carolina. Oklahoma State sugar daddy T. Boone Pickens' anticipated blank-check offer to Self has fans nervous again.

"It's part of the business," said Brian Hakan, a Kansas City marketing consultant and KU class of '72. "If you want your coach to win, be successful, gregarious, outgoing, likeable, you can't have it both ways. Everybody else wants them too."

Not until after this weekend. At least. The Bufords and Selfs will get together. The times are too good. The margaritas are too cold and too smooth.

Or will it be beer, guys?