Illinois Gets It Right With Brad Underwood Hire

Maybe Brad Underwood wanted to leave Oklahoma State all along. Maybe not. But Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman pulled a stunner, one that breathes life into the Fighting Illini program.

There’s no harm in making a phone call, Josh Whitman thought. Might as well give it a shot.

After uninspiring names like Monty Williams and Cuonzo Martin already were rumored to have been offered the job, a here-we-go-again feeling sat uneasily with Illinois fans who just suffered through the last four NCAA Tournament-less years of the John Groce experiment.

Little did Whitman know, it’s a call Brad Underwood hoped would come. One that will change the course of the fledgling Fighting Illini basketball program, and one few – if anyone – expected Whitman would make.

“We just didn’t think we had a chance to get him, to be very frank about it,” Whitman said during Monday’s introductory press conference. “Last Wednesday, we picked up the phone for the first time and talked with Brad’s representative. We were thrilled to hear that Illinois has long been a destination location for Brad.”

Less than a week after Underwood reportedly had a falling-out with Oklahoma State athletic director Mike Holder over the vision and expectations of the Cowboys’ program, Underwood spoke to an AD with a “We Will Win” motto and an offer that would triple his $1 million salary.

New Illinois Fighting Illini head coach Brad Underwood. (Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports)

Maybe Underwood planned to leave all along. A decision could’ve been made even before Oklahoma State lost to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. And if Whitman didn’t make that call, perhaps Underwood would’ve left Stillwater for another opening. Plenty of other schools were interested.

But Whitman’s bold approach to a job he’s held for a little over a year won out. He already made one unexpected hire when Lovie Smith agreed to take over the football program. Now he’s made another, and this one needed to be made.

Whitman knew it. So he reached out to a man who viewed Illinois basketball in a light that had darkened to many in recent years. A man whose son, redshirt freshman Tyler, will now play for the Illini after once asking for a Brian Cook jersey as a child.

“Sometimes the unexpected happens,” Underwood said Monday.

What should be expected is a better brand of basketball at the State Farm Center. This hire not only makes sense because of Underwood’s unabashed love affair with the state after previously spending 10 years as an assistant at Western Illinois, but it makes business sense, too.

Underwood’s Oklahoma State team is fresh off finishing No. 1 in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rating, a metric that has Illinois 114th. Underwood says analytics play a large role in what his teams do offensively, which is unfamiliar modern talk for a program recently relegated to discussing the good ol’ days.

Underwood also employs an in-your-face, aggressive defense much like mentors Bob Huggins at West Virginia and Frank Martin at South Carolina. It’s exciting basketball, something that hasn’t been seen in Champaign for some time.

And give credit to Whitman thinking outside the box and going after Underwood despite his reservations. I personally didn’t think he would, and I’m not ashamed to admit I was wrong for doubting him.

Of course, Underwood’s results on the court will determine the success of this hire, but right now it looks to be a home run. Whitman lured in a coach that views Illinois’ basketball potential as he does.

And the program needed Underwood – badly. Luckily for the Fighting Illini, Whitman had the mind to make the initial call.

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