LAWRENCE — Wayne Simien wasn’t about to toss his new coach a softball.
The date was April 21, 2003, and Bill Self had just been introduced as the eighth Kansas basketball coach in program history. Simien, who played forward for the Jayhawks from 2001-05, got his first impression of Self at a team meeting soon after, and at least visually, it wasn’t a good one.
“It was pretty late. He looked terrible,” Simien told The Topeka Capital-Journal ahead of Self’s induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (NBA TV) at 5:30 p.m. Friday in Springfield, Mass. “You could tell he’d been up on the phone a lot and flew in late.”
The disheveled Self used that first meeting as a Q&A of sorts for his new players, who asked mostly mundane questions about offensive philosophies and what color jerseys they could expect to wear in the fall.
Simien spent more time reading Self’s demeanor and body language than listening to his answers. Then the floor was his.
Still seething over former coach Roy Williams’ departure to North Carolina just weeks earlier, Simien put Self on the spot. What, Simien asked, did Self tell his Illinois players when he left them behind?
“I don’t specifically remember what he said,” Simien said, “but I do remember the trust process starting just by seeing how it wasn’t an easy thing for him to leave those players.”
Simien admits at that time his feelings were still hurt from Williams’ abrupt exit — “I was a pretty emotional basket case,” he said — and what he needed more than anything from Self was a sign the decision to leave the Illinois players was a difficult one.
“Obviously we had just lost a coach and were in a similar situation,” Simien said. “(Self) was very real and vulnerable about how difficult that was and yet how excited he was about the opportunity to coach us.
“That’s when things started out well for him and me.”
Simien, the heart and soul of those first two Self-led KU squads, knew whether he bought in would have an effect on the rest of the team.
“Really it came down to, I’m going to buck and fight the system or I’m going to embrace this new change and try to make this a great experience,” Simien said, “and it ended up working out far greater than I could have imagined.”
While he had earned Simien’s trust, Self’s first few years in Lawrence were a mixed bag.
Coming off a national runner-up finish in Williams’ last season, the Jayhawks lost in two Elite Eights and had a pair of first-round exits in Self’s first four seasons. Looking back, Self said the transition from Illinois to KU was probably harder on his inherited players than it was on him.
“I don’t think I did a good job the first couple years,” Self said Tuesday. “I tried to impose my will on them and they fought it, in large part because they had experienced more success than what I had actually experienced prior to getting here.”
Simien agreed with some of that assessment but disagreed with Self shouldering the blame.
“We were stubborn as well, and so we didn’t make the transition easy for him or us,” Simien said. “I think it’s just really difficult in that situation when you have so much success like we had those first two years, and then to come in and embrace a completely different way of doing things and to expect it to be successful.
“It was difficult, but I wouldn’t put all the onus on him because we were pretty stubborn and thickheaded as well.”
Getting his new players on the same page was a challenge, Self said, but something he stopped short of calling a truly tough situation.
“Tough to me is when there’s expectations to win and you’ve got no players. That’s what’s tough,” Self said. “Tough is when you just got laid off but you’ve still got a family to provide for. That would be tough. Adjusting because it’s a new style or expectations or whatever, that just goes with the territory.”
Self adjusted — and then some.
The KU coach, of course, won the national championship in 2008, was the national runner-up in 2012 and has put together a staggering 416-88 record in his 14 seasons in Lawrence. Perhaps his biggest legacy is still ongoing — the Jayhawks have won 13 straight Big 12 regular-season titles, tying the John Wooden-led UCLA program for most consecutive conference crowns.
Part of the first KU squad to win the Big 12 under Self, Simien said the streak is the coach’s signature legacy.
“There have been plenty of coaches that have won one title, maybe even two titles, and that doesn’t really get your name mentioned with the likes of John Wooden,” Simien said. “That’s why I think this streak really differentiates itself from anything coach Self has done because it puts you in a class with the greatest coach of all time.”
Simien has the unique distinction of having played under three different Naismith Hall of Famers: Self, Williams and Pat Riley, who coached Simien and the Miami Heat to an NBA championship in 2006.
The differences between those three coaches, Simien said, is “night and day.”
“It’s really hard for me to compare one over the other just because their personalities are different, their coaching styles are different, their systems are different, but they all produce incredible results,” Simien said. “I think if anything it’s helped me understand that, man, there’s a diversity of ways to be able to coach and to lead a team at the highest level and it’s one of the things I appreciate because I’ve gotten the chance to learn several different styles and to apply those throughout my life in different ways.”
With his professional career over, Simien said he’s had the “luxury” of remaining around Lawrence and spending a good amount of time around Self and the program. With that first meeting with Self in mind, Simien summed up the pair’s relationship in a video message posted this week to KU’s social media accounts:
“I knew when you first got here to Kansas I was getting a damn good coach,” Simien said, “but I didn’t know I was getting such a good friend.”