By Jimmy Sullivan
“Parity” is a word that often gets tossed around in sports. Many people use it, but not everyone knows what it means or if they want it. Many people, though, know that sports don’t have a ton of it, and this is particularly true of college athletics.
College football has seen this first-hand over the past few seasons, with 128 Division I teams frantically following the dust trail left by Clemson and Alabama. In college basketball, for all of its March Madness upsets and mid-major Cinderella stories, there is a certain level of order that comprises the sport. To a certain extent, you know that the sport’s best teams–Duke, North Carolina, Villanova, Michigan State and Kentucky, among others–will have a chance to win it all at the end of the season. But all of those teams have peaks and valleys which include seasons even the best coaches in the country would like to have back.
That makes what happened last week all the more notable.
Take yourself back to March of 2004. No matter where you were or what you were doing, you can appreciate that the world was an extremely different place. Facebook was a month old. Twitter was over two years away. The iPhone was in the infancy of its development. The No. 1 song in America was “Yeah!” by Usher, Lil Jon and Ludacris. The Marlins were the defending World Series champions. Oklahoma State won the Big 12’s college basketball regular-season title.
March 2004 was a very long time ago. It was also the last time the University of Kansas was not atop the Big 12 until last week.
Texas Tech and Kansas State will be sharing the Big 12 regular season title this season, with both teams finishing at 14-4 in conference play. Kansas was eliminated from regular season title contention with a loss last Tuesday to Oklahoma, which came at the end of a very uncharacteristic season for head coach Bill Self’s team. The Jayhawks dropped winnable games to Kansas State, Texas and West Virginia, and the death knell may have been a 29-point drubbing at the hands of Texas Tech on Feb. 23. So, for the first time in 15 years, there will be a team besides Kansas atop the Big 12 conference tournament bracket when it starts today.
The program’s success over the past 15 years–this one included–has been astounding, and more than anything, should serve as a testament to the man in charge of it.
Bill Self took over as Kansas’ head coach in 2003, immediately after Roy Williams led the Jayhawks to a loss in the national championship game and promptly ditched the program to take over at the University of North Carolina. Under the cloud of nearly impossible expectations, Self led Kansas to an Elite 8 finish in his first season, the last one before Kansas started its streak of 14 straight Big 12 regular season titles. It took Self just one year to reload his roster, and once he did, Kansas never looked back; the team has won 30 or more games in nine of the past 12 seasons, including each of the last three years, where Kansas has reached the Elite Eight twice and the Final Four once.
Ironically, the main criticism of Self has been his inability to win big games. Aside from the team’s national championship victory in 2008, Self hasn’t been able to reach the top of the sport. Of course, this opinion reveals just how hard it is to win a national championship and how much luck goes into winning just one title. This is something Kansas knows first-hand after winning its most recent title on Mario Chalmers’ miracle three-pointer to force overtime with, and ultimately defeat, the University of Memphis.
Unfortunately, this says more about us as critical fans than it says about Kansas or Self. While Kansas has not been a great tournament team in recent years, their overall success and sustained run of excellence should say more about the program than a few losses at the end of the season. In a sport where teams overhaul entire rosters from season to season, Kansas has stayed consistent, and the Jayhawks have not done so in a weak conference. In fact, the Big 12 consistently has been one of the best conferences in the country over the past 15 years or so, with several programs rising to the top and falling back to the bottom.
Case in point is one of the teams Kansas lost to this year: Texas Tech. The Red Raiders, in the span of Kansas’ Big 12 supremacy, have finished as high as second and as low as 11th in the conference, all while cycling through six coaches in those 14 years.
Many teams are capable of stringing together an excellent season or two, as teams like Texas Tech have the past couple of seasons. Few teams can string together 14 straight years of winning a conference. That’s what Kansas did, and those 14 titles should outweigh their big-game failures and late-season disappointments.