For college coaches, the National Basketball Association is an irresistible siren. It's not hard to figure out why: Coaches are insanely competitive people with a burning desire to take on and conquer new and ever larger challenges. The old analogy about sharks drowning if they don't stay in constant motion applies here. For many, the climb is all there is. The prestige of the NBA, the opportunity to match wits with other elite coaches and the best athletes in the world -- fellow paid professionals, for better and worse -- is the next upward motion. It is a coach's opportunity to prove his skills are universal, his acumen applicable to all levels of the game.
Plus, you don't have to recruit, which is super nice.
That's why we've seen pretty much every marquee coach of the past 20 years flirt with the NBA, make the leap or both. Rick Pitino did it twice in New York and Boston; John Calipari coached the Nets. Mike Krzyzewski has had not-so-quiet flirtations with the Los Angeles Lakers on more than one occasion. (Remember when former Timberwolves GM David Kahn made a run at Coach K? Yes, it actually happened. Yes, it was hilarious.) Tom Izzo, possibly the college-y college coach of them all, flirted hard with the idea before declaring himself a Spartan for life. Billy Donovan got all the way to an introductory news conference with the Orlando Magic before checking out of the play. Brad Stevens turned down so many college offers that he had everyone convinced he wanted to stay in Indianapolis for the next 30 years ... just before he joined the Boston Celtics.
You can't blame any of them for pulling the trigger, and certainly not for thinking long and hard about the idea. When coaches climb one mountain, they don't turn around and admire their ascent. They start looking around for new things to climb. Stagnation is death.
Which brings us to our next question: Does Bill Self feel this way? He offered a pretty sizable hint this week:
"[The NBA] hasn't really tempted me because I haven't had that many people talk to me about it," Self said Monday night, speaking to The Oklahoman during ceremonies in which he was inducted into the Oklahoma Sports Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City. "But at some point and time, sure, I think it would.
"It would be great to be able to match wits with the best athletes in the world, but I'm certainly happy where I'm at." [...] "I'm not saying I never would. But I'm locked in."
On one level, it would be silly for Self to close off potential career paths. Nothing would make Kansas boosters come running with fistfuls of contract cash like the threat of their highly successful coach bolting for a high-profile gig in the Association. It's smart bargaining, at the very least.
But it's also fair to wonder whether Self might really be looking for a new challenge sometime down the road. He's been massively successful at Kansas, winning or sharing nine straight Big 12 regular-season titles, churning out No. 1 seeds, notching a national title in 2008. With the exception of a few more college rings, there isn't a whole lot more Self can do to assert his excellence. At this point, these things all feel less like hard-won accomplishments than effortless facts of life. It's like when you level so far up in a video game that things stop being fun. What do you do then? Play a different game.
For whatever reason, Self is rarely mentioned in the ranks of possible future NBA coaching candidates. Maybe everyone just assumed he'd want to keep what he has going at Kansas forever. And really, it's not like he's going anywhere now, or any time soon -- he's merely refusing to say "never." But it is kind of fun to imagine Self, after turning the Big 12 into his personal playground for the better part of a decade, feeling that creeping sense of stagnancy coming on, looking around and realizing that if he's not on the top of the mountain already, he's close. Someday, he might take a look around and decide to see what else is worth climbing. He'd hardly be the first.