COLUMN: Chester Frazier’s Return Part of Underwood’s Quest to Make Illini Basketball Great Again

In discussing the hiring of his new assistant coach, Brad Underwood once again put on display arguably his best attribute: Placating a fanbase that desperately needs nostalgia.
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In discussing his newest assistant coach hiring for the first time with local and statewide media, Brad Underwood once again put on display arguably his best attribute.

Throughout his four seasons as the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Illinois, Underwood continues to prove he can consistently placate a fanbase that constantly feeds in nostalgia.

Underwood spent three years building Illini basketball back to where fans think he should be and, maybe more importantly, seem to remember in their own mind it always being. The Illini’s fifth-year head coach knows fans will likely remember the 2020-21 season (minus, of course, the abrupt ending in the national tournament that has historically puzzled the orange and blue) as a reminder of how men’s basketball at the University of Illinois was and could be.

Illinois was ranked in the top five, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs and hung a championship banner. More than anything, Illini basketball fans got to, once again, find reasons to remember when they recall times were great. Underwood knows his self preservation, along with the obvious of winning lots of games, could lie a single pitch idea. Forget MAGA. Illini fans desperately want MIBGA: Make Illini Basketball Great Again.

“We're a Top-10 program (and) we should act like it,” Underwood said. “I’ve said it since the day we got here. We’ve got to continue to build on that momentum, and we’ve got to continue to act like the Duke’s and whoever you want to talk about. That’s my goal, that’s why I wanted to be here.”

The attitude of the common Illini basketball fan on May 6 was one of disappointment, confusion and anger due to the reaction of the program losing arguably its two most important assistant coaches to a Kentucky program, which even after an embarrassing 9-16 season, got to reestablish its identity as a national powerhouse in case anybody had forgotten.

Illinois fans hate this.

They hate being reminded the program they passionately root for isn’t a blue-blood college basketball program. Whether it is Bill Self, the parade of highly-touted prospects who scoffed at playing for John Groce’s Illini or fast-forwarding to decisions by Adam Miller, Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman to leave for what they perceive is a better situation, Illini fans are sensitive to decisions when they’re left at the altar. They hate being reminded they aren’t considered by many as fans of college basketball royalty. To use Underwood’s words, Illinois isn’t yet a Top 10 program.

So, what did Underwood and the folks inside the Illinois athletics communications office do on May 6? A really smart thing. They announced not only the hiring of a new assistant coach but the return of a beloved two-time captain in the form of Chester Frazier. The PR spin was simple. All is well everybody. The prodigal son has returned to Champaign.

All jokes aside, Frazier has put together quite the coaching resume in his decade-long career as an assistant coach at what is now three different Power Five Conference schools (Kansas State, Virginia Tech and now Illinois) and should be seen as somebody who more than deserves this opportunity.

Regardless of whether you think Underwood made a quality on-court coaching hire or not, Frazier, who served as both Bruce Weber’s loyal lieutenant as both a player and a coach, has a personality which has always been a lightning rod for things Illini fans love.
And so, like feeding red meat to a starving fan base of folks, Underwood rolled out the talking points that he knew would go over extremely well to a biased base of supporters.

Let’s go over the checklist.

  • Mention Frazier’s “sweat equity” in an Illini program where he was a two-time team captain. 
  • Make sure we talk about the passion that the former three-year starter at point guard still has for his alma mater.
  • Talk about Frazier’s tough mentality as a former two-time Big Ten All-Defensive team selection.
  • Oh, and just for a mic drop moment, Underwood needed to make sure to praise the two-arm shove Frazier gave a confused then-Indiana guard Eric Gordon on the night of February 7, 2008.

“Hey, damn, the half court handshake with Eric Gordon, are you shittin' me? I mean he blasted that dude,” Underwood said with the smile of a mischievous young boy on the 56-year-old’s face. “You don't think that didn't fit with me? We're rockin' right there now.”

After he uttered that R-rated line, it almost felt like Underwood was waiting for an applause that comes from sign-holding folks at political rallies.

Yes, Frazier loves the U of I. He’s passionate about his involvement in the history of the program and now, his involvement in the program’s future. None of that can be denied and quoting Underwood in his Zoom conference today “you’d have to be blind and incoherent not to have his passion resonate”. However, let’s be very clear. None of those things have very much to do with whether Frazier will be a quality assistant coach under Underwood at Illinois and you know who knows that better than anybody? Brad Underwood. The same man who four years ago brilliantly put together a staff of quality assistants and off-the-court analysts, none of which graduated from the U of I. Now that same man wants you, the nostalgic Illini fan who lives to still villainize one-time Illini commit Eric Gordon for something that happened over 12 years ago, to now believe that bringing a beloved former player back home was critical.

Is Frazier going to be a quality assistant coach? I’d bet on yes but I honestly have no earthly idea and neither do you.

What I do know is on a day where he couldn’t be judged to win or lose a basketball game as a coach, it is perceived Underwood, the politician, had a winning media conference. Why? He knew to use memories of the past that Illini fans longingly still feel they need to emotionally conduct, by definition of the word, a rally.