Know thy Self: KU basketball coach’s job-hunting prowess teaches importance of persistence

At this time of year, it’s a tradition of mine to compare hunting for a job to the NCAA basketball tournament. Usually the March Madness analogy works well, but sometimes it’s more strained than the look on Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s face as he tries, once again, to rationalize a big game loss.

This year a topic was dropped into my lap. My wife read this Joe Posnanski article about Bill Self and forwarded it to me. If you have time, regardless of your interest in sports, read it in full — it’s excellent.

I was particularly intrigued by what the article had to say about Coach Self’s job-hunting prowess. Two stories jumped out.

First, consider Posnanski’s tale of how Self first came to work at KU:

Self was going into his senior year at Oklahoma State, where he was a decent player for mediocre teams. That summer, he went to Lawrence to help coach at Brown’s basketball camp — this is when Brown was coaching at Kansas. Self was playing ball up there, and he blew out his knee. Well, anyway, it SEEMED like he blew out his knee — it turned out he was fine. But in that moment, it looked like a blowout, and there was panic everywhere. An Oklahoma State starter blew out his knee at a Kansas coaching camp? Nobody in the world felt worse than Larry Brown.

“If there’s anything I can do for you, you just tell me,” Brown told Self, and the look on Brown’s face suggested that he meant ANYTHING.

Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do? We might thank Brown for his kindness, maybe, tell him that we might just take him up on that someday.

Self said: “Well, you could hire me as a graduate assistant coach.”

Who is that guy? Where does that come from? Well, of course Brown said yes, he had just promised, well, “anything.” Only it gets better. Self took Brown at his word. Self had not shown much interest in coaching — he was going to go into business — but he was no dummy; the opportunity to coach for Brown made him think that coaching might be a fine life. He went back to Oklahoma State for his senior year, and he wrote Brown a letter every month, telling him again and again how excited he was to be the next Kansas graduate assistant coach. He did not get one letter in return, not one. He called a Kansas assistant coach he knew, R.C. Buford, now the GM of the Spurs, and said: “R.C., does Coach Brown ever mention me?”

And Buford told him: “I’ve never heard him say your name one time.”

So Self’s senior season ended, he still had not heard one word from Brown. Stop here. What would you do? What would any of us do? We might adjust our plans, call around, see if there’s a chance to coach elsewhere or a business opportunity for a recent college graduate…

Self packed up everything he owned, put it in his car, drove up to Lawrence, and walked into Brown’s office and said, “OK, I’m here. What do you need me to do?” And Brown, beaten, said: “Go sit over at that desk and start working.”

I love it. This is exactly the type of aggressive job seeking that we preach in our office. And it reminds me of 2004 KU Law grad Kyle Skillman, who knew that he wanted to practice sports law.

As a 2L, he approached 1974 KU Law grad Stephen Morgan of the Overland Park office of Bond Schoeneck & King. This office specializes in representing colleges, universities, conferences, and other organizations and individuals in matters regarding intercollegiate athletics.

At the time, the firm had expressed an interest in hiring a part-time/temporary intern, and that’s what led Kyle to Steve. Kyle was persistent, and the firm eventually hired him to clerk during the summer of 2003. Kyle continued to work for BS&K; a few days each week during the 2003-04 academic year.

Fast forward several months. Kyle graduated and passed the bar exam, but had not yet received a full-time job offer from the firm. Rather than bow out, Kyle simply continued to show up every day. Steve continued to reiterate that they didn’t have a full-time opening. Kyle would nod politely and explain that he really enjoyed the practice and appreciated the opportunity to continue to gain experience.

In the summer of 2005, he was given a small raise but was still paid hourly. Finally, in January 2006, the firm extended Kyle an offer for an associate attorney position and a desk with his name on it. He’s about to celebrate the sixth anniversary of his hiring.

Lest you think that Coach Self landing a job at Kansas as a graduate assistant was a fluke, consider the events that led to him coaching at his alma mater, Oklahoma State:

Self managed to get himself an interview, and he talked about how hard he would work, and how relentlessly he would recruit … and he noticed [Coach Leonard] Hamilton’s eyes glazing over.

Stop here. What would you do? What do any of us do when a job interview starts going bad, when it is clear that your talk is not getting through and your dream of getting the job is drowning. Maybe we panic. Maybe we try harder. Maybe we stand up and say, “I see I’m wasting your time here.”

“I’ll tell you why you should hire me,” Self told Hamilton. “Because if you hire me, I’ll get you your point guard for this season and you won’t need to give up a scholarship.”

That stopped Hamilton. “You’ll get me a point guard?” he asked.

“Yep,” Self said. “But he won’t play unless you hire me as a coach.”

And there it was. Hamilton said that if Self could really deliver a point guard, no strings attached, then he had the job. And when Self left the office he called an Oklahoma State senior named Jay Davis, a close friend who had played at his high school, and said: “Hey man, you’ve got to play basketball for Oklahoma State this year.”

Davis had been a very good high school player, but he was happy with his college life — happy as the best fraternity basketball player at the school. He had absolutely no interest at all in playing organized ball and getting yelled at and all that. He said: “No way.”

And Self said: “Um, no, you don’t understand. You have to play. I won’t get the job unless you play. So, you’re playing.”

So, Jay Davis played basketball for the 1986-87 Oklahoma State Cowboys. The team was 8-20 and lousy (“Well, what do you expect, we had a walk-on as our starting point guard,” Self says), but you can still look it up: Davis led the team in assists, steals and fouls. Self was an assistant coach at Oklahoma State for five more years and was there for the rebirth of Oklahoma State basketball.

I can’t help but think of 1982 KU Law grad Mike Seck of Fisher Patterson Sayler and Smith when I read this story. At our invitation, Mike spoke to a group of 2Ls and 3Ls in August 2009 about interviewing for a legal job.

Mike stressed that too often interviewees’ responses are indistinguishable from one another. “I’m an excellent writer.” “I’m a people person.” “I’m a perfect fit here.” “I’ll work hard.”

He commented that his firm values candidates who understand the business model of a law firm and who can, in concrete terms, explain how they can contribute to the bottom line.

He meant that instead of saying that you’re a hard worker, explain through concrete examples how you’ve worked hard in the past and — this was the key — specifically how that work ethic will translate to the law firm setting. In other words, the legal job equivalent of explaining how you’ll deliver a starting point guard to your employer.

In this tough legal market, you need to pick up inspiration from any source you can. It’s hokey, but keep working hard, apply the Bill Self principles, and soon you’ll achieve your One Shining Moment.

Note: Although this posting was written before Saturday’s second-round loss, I still hope you can gain inspiration from the video montage capturing the excitement of KU’s 2008 title run. The video is, of course, Northern Iowa free.

Todd Rogers, assistant dean for career services