Illinois named Brad Underwood its new basketball coach on Saturday, and the stunning hire was in some ways less important than the dynamics that brought it about. The school identified a widely respected tactician who was underpaid and unhappy because of that. It acted decisively, requiring just one week to fill a crucial vacancy. And it was apparently a cutthroat and cunning process that surely began before Underwood’s season was over at Oklahoma State. This is how big-boy departments operate. Welcome, Illinois, to college athletics. We’ve been expecting you for quite some time.
This is, simply, as good a result as could have been reasonably expected. The 53-year-old Underwood has won nearly 81% of his games as a head coach and should deploy an entertaining style that recharges the State Farm Center. Underwood spent less than one calendar year leading a power-conference program, yes, and he actually claims only eight years of experience recruiting to that level either as an assistant or the man in charge. These are quibbles, all things considered. Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman hopped aboard the coaching carousel and unexpectedly found Indiana as company, and he could not afford to be held hostage by any Champaign-wish candidates flirting with a more attractive gig.
So he and Illinois made a savvy decision in capitalizing on a bad decision by another school. This is commonly known as smart business. It’s understandable if Illini observers are unfamiliar with this tactic.
When it lured Underwood away from Stephen F. Austin, Oklahoma State more or less offered a hardline, take-it-or-leave-it pauper’s salary of $1 million a year to coach in the Big 12. Of course a coach from the Southland Conference ought not sneeze at that or turn it down. But the sensation of being held over a barrel never sat right with Underwood and his people. Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder seemed surprised at the end result of this, uh, thrift—“We are trying to digest this news,” he said in a statement—but he shouldn’t have been.
It’s understandable if Cowboys fans are incensed. Equally important is directing that ire in the proper direction.
Given all this, Illinois swooped in unapologetically and reportedly tripled Underwood’s salary (at least) and got itself a coach that is a more than acceptable fit. Any questions about Underwood’s ability to recruit—especially in the Thunderdome that is the Chicago-area high school scene—can be addressed at least partially through intelligent assistant coach hires. And Underwood’s Texas recruiting ties shouldn’t hurt; that sound you hear is thousands of Illini fans choking up at the memory of Deron Williams. Here’s guessing you can lure Lone Star State prospects to Champaign more easily than you can convince Chicago kids to matriculate to Stillwater. And if Underwood can compile a staff that farms both fertile recruiting grounds, well, terrific. (The more outlets, the better, after all. Illinois is unlikely to beat the likes of Duke and Kansas and Kentucky for elite city talent regularly, and it doesn’t have to in order to build a program that annually visits the NCAA tournament, anyway.)
Through about half the postseason results Saturday, Underwood’s now-former Oklahoma State team still ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. The defense ranked 156th, of course, which can be expected when you save a season by basically deciding to not play defense. And Stephen F. Austin wasn’t exactly asphyxiating opponents in the latter stages of Underwood’s tenure there, ranking 38th in efficiency on that end in his final season but 98th and 105th in the two previous campaigns. But Whitman wanted someone to energize his listing basketball program. A team that plays fast and puts the ball through the basket very often is one way to do that.
Brad Underwood is merely just one year removed from being another mid-major coach leaping into the big leagues, much like John Groce was back in 2012. But the upside should trump any cynicism at this stage. This was an encouraging hire by Illinois, which desperately needed one. The shrewd, assertive process that led to it was even better.