Brett Ballard was a walk-on at Kansas prior to the 2000-01 season. Just over a year later the guard found himself playing on a Jayhawks squad that reached the Final Four.
Ballard is coming off his first year as the head coach of the Washburn men’s basketball program after spending the prior three seasons as an assistant coach with Wake Forest under head coach Danny Manning. Ballard also spent the first seven years of his coaching career at his alma mater on Bill Self's staff.
As No. 1 Kansas takes on No. 1 Villanova this weekend, we caught up with Ballard over the phone to discuss the deep tournament run he was part of, playing for Roy Williams versus coaching alongside Bill Self and whether he thinks this is Kansas’ year to win another national title.
JXW: It’s been almost a year since you were hired as the head coach of Washburn men’s basketball program and you lead them to a 22-10 record… What's the transition been like from going from an assistant coach to head coach?
BB: It’s been great. I was really fortunate to inherit a really good group of guys. They were really coachable, allowed me to coach them hard on the basketball court, but also just great people off the court. Fun to be around - bright, funny, good people. So from that standpoint, it was great. You know my staff, my administration has been terrific. So I've been really lucky to come into a good situation and I really enjoyed it. We had a good year,a solid year in general. It's been very, very positive.
JXW: You’ve now played for Roy Williams, coached under Bill Self and Danny Manning — who gave you the best basketball advice or what is some advice you use now when you’re coaching these kids?
BB: You know I think I learned so much from those guys so it's hard to pinpoint, you know, necessarily one or two things. But I think from playing for coach Williams I was a walk-on and I just appreciated how they treated me even though I was a walk-on initially. I got a scholarship, but I was a walk-on and you know he coached 'guy 1' just as hard as 'guy 15.' But he also cared about guy number one as much as he cared about guy number 15. And I think that that showed me that every member of the team is important. He really, really cares about his players.
From Coach Self there’s so much you can take from him. I think the biggest thing from Coach Self or maybe one of the biggest things I should say is just he's not afraid to coach his guys really, really hard. Not afraid to coach the best players, really, really hard and challenge them. But he's also really, really good at letting it go and turning it off away from the court and building those guys back. He's terrific at it.
You know, those times those guys don't like him very much at all when they’re playing for him. But he does a great job at joking with them, laughing with them and getting away from the basketball side of it and I think that allows those guys to trust him and allows him to coach them pretty hard for when he needs to.
JXW: How was the Roy Williams era different from the Bill Self era different, because you have this unique experience that you were there for both…
BB: Yeah, you know there's a ton of similarities. People ask me all the time, you know, what's the difference between Coach Self and Williams, you know, the way I answer that is I think there are so manysimilarities between them and that's why the programs have been able to sustain such a level of success over the last 25 years or so.
Both of them are extremely driven. Both of them work extremely hard at what they do. Both of them are phenomenal recruiters. Both of them get their guys, their teams to play unselfishly. I think there's maybe a little difference in Coach Williams has always played at a very, very fast tempo and in a transition, you know — offense type of coach. Coach Self — not that he plays slow, but there's probably been a little bit more of an emphasis on the defensive side of the ball. Maybe a little more methodical with their approach. But again, in general, there's just a ton of similarities.
JXW: You graduated in 2003… when did you join Bill Self’s staff?
BB: I got done playing in 2002 and I graduated in ’03 that next year. I joined Coach Self’s staff as a volunteer, sat out a year — Coach Williams’ last year and finished my degree. The first year Coach Self came to Kansas, I volunteered for him that very first year. That’d been 2003-2004.
JXW: You were part of Bill’s Self’s coaching staff when Kansas won the 2008 National Championship… where does that rank in terms of career moments for you?
BB: For me, when we won the 2008 championship, it was the highest of highs and the best moment of my basketball coaching career for sure. Especially just the way we won it because there was a point with about two minutes left in that game where it felt like it was over. We were down I think eight and we couldn’t get anything going. Our guys were zapped. You know attitudes were staying pretty constant, but it just felt like we weren't going to quite get it done.
You know, I've grown up in Kansas…
JXW: Right, you’re from Hutchinson?
BB: Yeah, I grew up in Hutchinson, I grew up in Kansas. One of my first KU games, I went and saw them play when I was eight years old/nine years old — they played Kentucky and beat them a 150-95.
So I grew up a KU fan and for so many years we've had great teams and dominating teams — and we just couldn't get it done in the tournament.
So in the back of my mind, I'm thinking, man, this is another one of those years we're just not going to get it done. Those last two minutes just kind of felt that way. And then, you know, one play turned into two, two turned into three—then Mario [Chalmers] makes that shot to send it to overtime… so not only just winning it, but the way we won it was definitely a surreal feeling.
JXW: You know, it’s funny — you use the word surreal and it's pretty kind of crazy when you look at your career from being a walk-on to going to a Final Four to being part of a staff that coaches your team to a national championship. When you’re looking back… what do you remember the most about that Final Four run?
BB: You know what’s interesting is — that was incredible — but I probably got as much satisfaction when we won the Big 12 that year. You know, we went 16-0 and when we clinched the Big 12 Championship — that feeling for me was almost on par with going to the Final Four because you know, people put a lot of onus and a lot of stock on the tournament and I get it and that's the pie in the sky. But you know, as a player grinding through the difficulties and ups and downs of a conference season — for us to win that, that was probably just as euphoric as going to the Final Four.
But you know, there was an incredible run. We had a really, really good team — a great group of guys. We could really score with the ball and we were tough to stop on the offensive end. We just had so many weapons. We had guys who could score inside and perimeter guys that could make shots and make plays. So it was fun. We buried a lot of teams. We won a lot of games by 20-plus points that year and we just had a team that, you know, if we got up on you — for the most part, we’d put you away. So that was fun to be a part of.
JXW: No shame in falling to the eventual champ that year either.. who do you still keep in touch with from that team?
Actually just last Friday we went to an Oklahoma City Thunder game and saw Nick Collison who has been on that team since he started playing in the NBA. So we went down and I got to spend some time with him — got tickets to the game.
So I keep in touch with him. Hinrich just retired or he didn't play this last year, but I keep in touch with him. Jeff Boschee who was on that team is actually a coach in our league [MIAA]. So he's in the same conference as me and we're both head coaches, so we see each other and stay in touch. So yes, it's a small world. Aaron Miles is a G League coach right now for the Golden State Warriors. So a lot of guys on that team had a lot of success and I stay in touch with almost everybody from that team.
JXW:Yeah, I saw on Twitter you posted a picture from the OKC game. During some of these tournament games this year, are you guys texting back and forth? Have you been talking a lot of Kansas hoops with them?
BB: When we see each other. That's the first topic of conversation. “How’s the team doing? What kind of year we’ve had.” You know, it's definitely a bond. I think when you play at a place as special as Kansas — not only do you feel a bond with the guys you played with, but there's a bond with even with the current guys because you want them to carry on that legacy. So you take great pride in success they have.
And I think that's part of what drives and motivates the current guys is when they first get there — they don't understand it. And then they start to feel that they're part of something bigger than themselves and they're representing everybody that ever played at Kansas.
So it's fun to keep up with the current team and the guys that I played with.
JXW: Of this year’s roster — who is THE guy to keep your eye on?
BB: I had summer camps last summer, so I had Devonte’ [Graham] came over and worked with the camp a little bit and then Malik Newman.
JXW: It’s awesome they did that…
Yeah, I was so impressed with those guys as people. Just well-spoken, well-mannered good people. They were great with my campers. I think you can tell a lot about how players treat young people.
And they were, they were both phenomenal.
I think Devonte’ is the biggest key. He is an unbelievable leader. He can score the ball, but he's also the guy that sets up all of those other guys with shot opportunities.
So he's an obvious answer, because he's an All-American but I think Devonte’ is probably the biggest key to their success and he's certainly carried them for the most part of the year.
JXW: Alright, before I let you go I gotta ask you how deep do you see this Kansas team going?
BB: You know, Villanova — I've got a lot of respect for them. We played them last year when I was at Wake Forest early in the year and I saw firsthand how good they were.
Listen, they've got maybe the best overall culture in college basketball right now. Plus they've got really good players. So, at the end of the day, Kansas is going to have to play really, really well. But I think that it's kind of interesting — Kansas usually goes into these things and they're kind of the hunted and I think in some ways that, you know, now that they're the ones kind of hunting Villanova, who is probably more of a favorite.
So I think they can go in and play loose, play free. I know it's going to be tough, but I think they can get it done. And then who knows for the championship game. But I think if they get past Villanova — whoever wins that game, has a great chance to end up winning at all.