clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Bill Self is coming back to Champaign. You’re allowed to still feel hurt

The former Illini head coach is returning this October.

NCAA Basketball: Kansas at Kansas State Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings and salutations, Illinois Land!

Time heals all wounds. Maybe, but probably not.

We’ll find out on Oct. 29, in just 70 days from this very day. Ten weeks from the date this column is written.

If the relationships in question were between two rational, normal-thinking human beings this would be true. If a husband began traveling for work and the absence brought he and his wife together when he returned, absolutely.

The passage of time in this relationship is there. Rationality or normal thinking is not.

The relationship in question is basketball coach Bill Self and Illinois men’s basketball.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Maybe, but probably not.

It is true, in a sense. One thing this old saying does nothing for is context. Context is always king. More on that later.

As time grows, perhaps bitter feelings of resentment, anger, disappointment, grief, lonesomeness and misery dissipate into melancholy feelings of thankfulness and understanding.

Maybe. But, probably not.

I’ll unpack my personal feelings about the aforementioned relationship in a bit. As I said above, context is king. Let’s provide that now.

Here is a timeline of Bill Self at Illinois

Bill Self “coaching ‘em up” in practice at Assembly Hall. Loved the basketball with Illinois written across it at center court back in the day.
Chicago Tribune

Self arrives in Champaign to take over for the departed Lon Kruger. Kruger went to the NBA to coach the Hawks in a short-lived project.

What a hire. The best thing that could have happened.

After leading Tulsa to the Elite Eight in 2000, Self duplicated the feat in Year 1 in Champaign, going 27-8 and earning a No. 1 seed, all while winning a share Big Ten title.

Here are Self’s three years at Illinois:

  • 2000-01: 27-8, T-1st in Big Ten, Elite Eight
  • 2001-02: 26-9, T-1st in the Big Ten, Sweet 16
  • 2002-03: 25-7, 2nd in Big Ten, R32 (loss to Notre Dame)

Overall at Illinois: 78-24 (.765) overall, 35-13 (.729) in Big Ten

Self roaming the sidelines at a Braggin’ Rights game during his tenure at Illinois.

I wouldn’t have believed it if you had told me after the 2001 (senior year of high school) season came to an end that Self would be gone before I left Junior College. No chance.

I thought we had “our guy” and Illinois basketball was on its way. Boy, was I wrong, in every sense of the word.

Here is a day that will live in infamy in Illinois Land:

April 21, 2003 (Self departs for Kansas).

Self crushes it so hard that he makes the Basketball Hall of Fame just 14 years later, at 53 years old.

This is where the tragedy becomes reality and Illinois basketball sinks into the pits of despair so hard that it has not gone to a Sweet 16 or better since “Self’s players all left,” which embarrassingly, is 2005.

To throw salt in the wound, Illinois played Kansas (and Bill Self) in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, just eight short years after Self landed in Lawrence.

NCAA Basketball: Division I Championship-Kansas vs Illinois
This KU fan knew what was up when Illinois faced Kansas in the 2011 NCC Tournament.
Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Kansas was as No. 1 seed and Illinois the No. 8 seed. Because, of course. Kansas won rather handily. As you can see from the above sign, the KU faithful were pleased with the coach on their bench.

If I listed Self’s tenure the way I did his tenure at Illinois above, this column would be 5,000 words. We don’t have time for that.

I’ll list it below, so it doesn’t seem *quite as impressive. Although it still does.

Here is Self so far in 20 seasons at Kansas (percentage of seasons):

  • 580-132 (.815) overall
  • 276-68 (.802) in the Big 12
  • Two National Championships (10%)
  • 17 Big 12 regular season titles (85%)
  • Nine Big 12 Tournament Titles (45%)
  • Four Final Fours (20%)
  • 19/19 (100%) making the NCAA Tournament (COVID canceled 2020)

This is why I mentioned before that context is king. It wasn’t just about the departure of Bill Self. It was the impact on the success, or lack thereof, on the Illinois basketball program due directly to his absence.

Let’s get to the way I unpack all of this, emotionally and rationally.

Self was not wrong to leave Illinois. It was also not obvious. He could have been just as good at Illinois.

Things aren’t always as they seem. In all likelihood, things are NOT what they seem.

When you look at the bulleted list above again to jog your memory (go ahead and do it), it seems like what I’m about to say makes no sense and is illogical.

You may even think it is just sour grapes, or a hot take. It is neither.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Kansas
Weird. Self is never criticized for being aggressive or intimidating. Who does this remind you of?
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Bill Self could have duplicated, or exceeded, his success at Kansas, had he stayed at Illinois.

Self famously made comments such as “Illinois is the easiest place to recruit that I’ve been at” and alluding to getting a Final Four roster within a four-hour circle around Champaign. Both are true.

Let’s also add context to “success” in the above bold text.

Would Bill Self have 17 Big Ten titles in 20 seasons? Probably not. The Big Ten is a different animal without a complete round robin.

The rest of that above bulleted list is all doable, with the momentum and surge he had in Champaign before his departure.

You know how I can prove that? Easily.

Bruce Weber was 89-16 (.847) with Self’s roster and won two Big Ten Championships and took the 2005 team to the National Championship game in St. Louis.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Ohio State
Weber in 2012 on the road against Ohio State.
Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

After Self’s players left? Weber was 121-85 (.587) with no regular or postseason Big Ten titles in six more seasons after 2006. Weber was fired in 2012.

In the grand scheme of things, had he accomplished half of what he has already done at Kansas had he stayed with Illinois, there would already be three statues of him around the state.

I’m not faulting Self for leaving Illinois for Kansas. He had every right to do it. This is America.

The thing I will dispute until they put me six feet under is that Self could have done all of that at Illinois, and maybe more.

Please take my scientific poll.


Which of these is MOST LIKELY, had Bill Self stayed at Illinois?

This poll is closed

  • 20%
    4+ Final Fours
    (76 votes)
  • 46%
    One National Championship
    (173 votes)
  • 25%
    2+ National Championships
    (96 votes)
  • 6%
    Zero National Championships
    (25 votes)
  • 1%
    17 more Big Ten Titles
    (6 votes)
376 votes total Vote Now

Illinois is not Kansas. Kansas was not THIS Kansas before Self.

Self could have made Illinois into THIS Kansas.

Illinois will now never be Kansas.

Self didn’t make the wrong decision, but the success he’s enjoyed doesn’t make it the right one.

This is Illinois basketball.