In the long history of Kansas basketball, Wayne Simien will have a special place. In his first two seasons, he played for two Final Four teams under Roy Williams. When Williams left for North Carolina, Simien was the first great player of the Bill Self era, reaching the Elite Eight in 2004.
In 2004-05, Simien was the Big 12 Player of the Year and a consensus All-American, but more important he was the leader of Kansas’ Big 12 championship team that year. That Jayhawks’ squad started a run of 12 consecutive conference titles. If KU wins a Big 12 title next season, the Jayhawks will tie John Wooden’s UCLA teams for the record of 13 consecutive titles.
Simien played two seasons in the NBA before returning home to Kansas when he quickly became involved in the Called to Greatness ministry. A transformative meeting during his sophomore year led him on a path that now sees him as the campus director of Called to Greatness back at his alma mater.
Before Kansas plays in the Sweet 16, Athlon Sports talked to Simien, who appeared on our College Basketball preview cover in 2004-05, about his call to ministry and his connection with Kansas now.
I understand you’ve been traveling for mission work earlier this week.
I was gone six days. Now I’m getting my feet under me and getting caught up on emails and messages. Of course, we’ve got the NCAA Tournament and we’re alive in it. The Madness isn’t just happening on the basketball court. It’s all over.
Where were you for your mission?
We took a group of 50 students who are involved in our campus ministry and took them to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region. We were doing some campus outreach there at the University of Northern Kentucky and then we were doing some service projects in the Cincinnati area.
What kind of organization is Called to Greatness and how did you get involved with them?
It’s a campus ministry. We do ministry mentoring and leadership development with college students. I had something like that really impact my life when I was a college student here at KU. That was something that gave me and my wife an affinity to do that sort of thing. We’ve been doing that the last seven years since transitioning out of professional basketball. Our main focus is here at the University of Kansas, but we also have some chapters at some other college campuses with in the Midwest.
What happened in college that led you down this path?
I really had someone when I was in a difficult time at the end of my sophomore year to come alongside me and mentor me and shared the gospel with me about who Jesus is and what he’s done for life and how that impacts every part of our life. I had someone mentor me, not just in faith-related things but in character and how to handle responsibility and how to walk as a leader in every part of my life. My wife had a similar kind of experience at Florida State where she went. That gave us an excitement and passion to see those kinds of things happen in the next generation.
Was faith a big part of your life before that sophomore year in college?
It was all new. I would say prior to that basketball was my god. It was the No. 1 priority in my life. I came to a point where I had everything that the world says should make you happy as a 20-year-old big-time college athlete at one of the top programs in the country. I had it all, but I was bored and broken and looking for something greater to live for than myself and basketball. It wasn’t until someone shared the gospel with me that I was able to recognize that. It was also an identity transfer. I used to get so much of my identity in how I performed and what people what people would say about me and future potential. Really finding my identity in the opinions of others led me on a roller coaster ride. I was looking for something that was steady and stable and would anchor my life and emotions and motivations beyond the game of basketball.
Was this a goal to get into ministry when you were in your final years at Kansas or in the NBA?
I would say it happened more than when I was in the NBA. My passion changed. My competitive nature changed. I would come back during the offseason and come back to Lawrence and train, but I would be working and doing things on the college campus. When that became more exciting to me than putting a ball through a hoop, I knew that’s when it was time to make that transition full time.
Is Called to Greatness athletic-focused?
No, we serve all students. There’s an athletic niche to it because we have some guys with collegiate and professional athletic backgrounds, but we serve regular students, international students, graduate school students. It’s not exclusive to athletes.
Was it also a goal to get back to Lawrence?
I’m from Kansas. I grew up not too far away from here. I have a lot of relationships here. I would say it was the relationships that brought us back.
Obviously, this has been another big year for Kansas. It looked like their streak of Big 12 titles would come to an end, and they ended up winning by two games. You were at the started of that run under Bill Self. What does that mean to you that Kansas is on this streak of Big 12 championships?
It’s something that’s unprecedented. I don’t think that anyone, myself or coach Self included, would have thought that this run would have been sparked in 2005. We’re certainly glad it has. It’s just a real testament to coach Self and his coaching staff and they’re vision and core values and continuing to bring in guys who play the game the right away, tough and unselfishly, and really value all the things this program has had to offer.
What were your initial impressions of Bill Self when he got there? You were recruited by Roy Williams and played two years for him. Self before he got to Kansas was an established coach, but not to the degree of Williams. Was there a little bit of anxiety with the new coach?
Of course, I didn’t know him. Coming off a tremendous amount of success with coach Williams, back-to-back Big 12 championships, back-to-back Final Fours, it’s one of those things were if it isn’t broke, why fix it. Why do we have do things different? It was pretty jarring at first. Quickly we came to realize that he’s great coach and that he does care about his players. It was an honor to play for two Hall of Fame coaches and usher in a new generation of KU basketball which is still being played at a high level. [Williams was inducted in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame 2007. Self is not yet in the Hall of Fame, but likely to be inducted once eligible.]
I’d image the list of guys who played for two Hall of Fame coaches in their college careers is pretty short. How much did you recognize that it was part of your college experience?
I got a chance to play for coach Self for two years, but once he started bringing in his own guys and sustain the winning culture here and winning a national championship in 2008 and getting to the championship game in 2012 and winning coach of the year honors and pumping out All-Americans, you can’t argue that. If anything, it’s made me appreciate him more.
You mentioned watching the NCAA Tournament coming up. What is your experience watching Kansas? Do you get nervous, do you have watch by yourself, are you pacing around?
I watch it in a variety of settings. Sometimes I’m with my family. Sometimes I’m with college students. Sometimes I’m by myself. I don’t have a ritual or routine. My experience is different in that I grew up a fan. I had a chance to play here and experience the highs and lows of March, and now I’m back to being a fan. I just enjoy it like anyone else.
When you’re around the Kansas program, do the players know who you are and that you were there at the start of this run?
I’m around quite a bit. One of the things I appreciate about coach Self is that there’s no one player or one coach that’s bigger than the entire program. He’s constantly having former players around, former coaches and letting the current guys now that they’re stewards of things that were built before they got here. He reminds them of things I did when was there back in the day. There’s an understanding. He even orchestrated it this year that once they clinched the Big 12 championship, they had myself and a few my other teammates from 2005 that started the streak hand the trophy to the guys.
Did you every have an experience like that at Kansas, where you met someone from an earlier time who made an impact on you?
I can remember meeting, after I signed a letter of intent and was coming to games as a high school player, Raef LaFrentz, Jacque Vaughn and Paul Pierce when they came back over All-Star Break. It was up to me to carry the baton. Meeting guys like that is pretty cool for 17-year-old at the time, especially growing up in Kansas. There’s a lot of generational transfer that happens at Kansas. We make an effort to make it a family environment, to have former coaches and players to be encouraging and challenging the next guys coming up.