New coach feels good at Illi­nois

Un­der­wood says Illini can vie for NCAA ti­tles

Chicago Sun-Times - - ILLINOISBEAT -

CHAM­PAIGN — Brad Un­der­wood is back home.

While Un­der­wood was born in McPher­son, Kansas, Illi­nois be­came home when he served as an as­sis­tant coach at West­ern Illi­nois from 1992 to 2003. It was then that he matched wits with Lon Kruger and Bill Self and saw what it meant to play against Illi­nois. He wit­nessed the sup­port from the com­mu­nity and the stu­dents and was hooked.

Still, it was a sur­prise to Un­der­wood, 53, when his agent let him know Illi­nois and other schools had reached out to in­quire about his avail­abil­ity after only one sea­son coach­ing at Ok­la­homa State. He had taken the Cow­boys to the NCAA tour­na­ment, but he had been in Still­wa­ter for only a year and never let him­self think about the pos­si­bil­ity of coach­ing the Illini.

On Satur­day, he met with Illi­nois ath­letic di­rec­tor Josh Whit­man and got the job he thought he never would have.

‘‘ I felt thiswas an elite pro­gram,’’ Un­der­wood said dur­ing his in­tro­duc­tory news con­fer­ence Mon­day. ‘‘ I dream big, and I dream big­ger. Win­ning na­tional cham­pi­onships is some­thing that can hap­pen here, and I want to be a part of that.’’

The hir­ing came as a sur­prise — and not just to Un­der­wood and Ok­la­homa State. It was Whit­man mak­ing an­other ag­gres­sive move a year after bring­ing in Lovie Smith in a bid to turn around the mori­bund foot­ball pro­gram.

Whit­man didn’t use a search firm as he looked for a re­place­ment for John Groce, but he did rely on oth­ers in the bas­ket­ball com­mu­nity. After watch­ing game film, in­ter­views and other things, Whit­man knew Un­der­wood was his guy. With open­ings at In­di­ana, Cal­i­for­nia and Wash­ing­ton, he knew he had lit­tle time to waste.

Un­der­wood didn’t speak with Whit­man un­til Satur­day, but at that mo­ment it seemed to be a per­fect mar­riage for both par­ties.

‘‘[ Whit­man’s] a tremen­dous sales­man and so proud of his univer­sity,’’ Un­der­wood said. ‘‘ He didn’t have to sell me. The ‘ we will win,’ that’s what I’m about.’’

Un­der­wood boosted his salary for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year. He will av­er­age $ 3 mil­lion for the next six sea­sons and has per­for­mance­based in­cen­tives in his con­tract. He also will have $ 850,000 for three on- court as­sis­tants and said he’ll talk with in­terim coach Ja­mall Walker about stay­ing on his staff.

Un­der­wood also will need to main­tain the highly touted re­cruit­ing class he in­her­ited. The in­com­ing class is ranked among the top 15 in the coun­try, and Un­der­wood said he has spo­ken to the com­mits and wants to meet with them to talk about their po­ten­tial roles.

‘‘ This state pro­duces a lot of elite tal­ent,’’ Un­der­wood said. ‘‘ We want the best play­ers in this state to play for Illi­nois. Keep­ing elite play­ers is vi­tal.’’

After a whirl­wind week­end, the work doesn’t stop for Un­der­wood. With re­cruit­ing to do and a staff to firm up, he men­tioned bring­ing back old play­ers and coaches who made Illi­nois into what he con­sid­ers a top pro­gram while he puts to­gether a team that plays a fast of­fense and gritty de­fense.

‘‘ You will all be proud of what goes out there,’’ Un­der­wood said. ‘‘ We’re go­ing to play for the name on the front.’’

| JOHN DIXON/ AP PHO­TOS

New Illi­nois bas­ket­ball coach Brad Un­der­wood will earn an av­er­age of $ 3 mil­lion for the next six sea­sons.

Illi­nois ath­letic di­rec­tor Josh Whit­man ( left) shakes hands with new bas­ket­ball coach Brad Un­der­wood at a news con­fer­ence Mon­day in Cham­paign.

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