Matt Stevens, IlliniGuys Staff Writer
January 28, 2022
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Look, I get the impulse. Everybody does.
Illinois basketball fans are passionate about the team they love and that is, for the most part, a wonderful thing. And guess what? The passion, the excitement and the win expectations which go along with that are why Illinois athletics director Josh Whitman was able to get off the private plane on March 18, 2017, with Brad Underwood behind him to complete a perfectly executed steal of then-Oklahoma State’s head coach. It’s all of those things and more why Whitman was easily able to secure a three-year contract extension for Underwood announced last September.
The idea that in the middle of December there was an announced crowd of 15,544 for a non-conference home game against Arizona and that fact alone is not seen as a big deal around this program is why Underwood isn’t lying when he tells people he has a great job in the pantheon of college basketball. He embraces fans' hunger for wins as part of the job description. For comparison, Auburn is ranked No. 1 in the country and after defeating Kentucky at home in a Saturday afternoon game on CBS the first words out of Bruce Pearl’s mouth to sideline reporter Gary Parrish were “we’re a football school”. On Nov. 12, Baylor handed out 2020-21 national championship rings, raised its first title banner and defeated Incarnate Word 87-60. And on that night, there were 1,389 empty seats in its home arena. For the record, Illinois (which didn’t do any of the things Baylor celebrated on its opening night) announced a crowd of 14,302 for its season opener three nights earlier against Jackson State.
Please don’t confuse this message to suggest Illinois fans should care less. Your expectations are shared. Your passion is appreciated. However, your suggestions to the head coach are very much not. And they’re almost always ill-advised.
As harsh as this is going to sound, Underwood didn’t get to the spot where he stands right now by listening to you, the fan who has season tickets in Section (fill in the blank). He doesn’t care if you might have played in high school, college and/or coached some elementary school/high school/AAU team.
Let there be no misunderstanding to whomever is reading this column right now. Bradley Cole Underwood knows the men’s basketball program at the University of Illinois better than I, you and all God’s children could. It’s why we, in the media, ask him questions so he’ll (hopefully) provide answers of things he understands, knows and is currently in sync with to you, the loyal consumer of all things Illini related. Without that objective and understanding, those media conferences would just be a giant waste of everybody’s time.
The one thing fans always fail to understand and properly expect in their minds is sports fandom doesn’t come with democratic liberties. Nobody is going to a fire station, elementary school or local YMCA to cast a ballot to elect the next University of Illinois men’s basketball head coach. You don’t get to have that power. And thank God, fans don’t because on the off chance we lived in a world where Underwood did every single thing Illini fans wanted him to do, the program would be most definitely worse off than it is now. Why?
Underwood has been doing the job he currently holds for the better part of 33 years of his life since taking over the program at Dodge City Community College in 1988. Underwood and his coaching staff consume more film throughout a season than any human should ever stare at a television screen. They have graduate assistants break down the analytics of the last practice session to gauge player development. Yes, that’s right, analytics of practice. Truthfully, a lot of this work of the staff and players behind the scenes was brilliantly brought to the public via IlliniGuy Brad Sturdy in his four-part series (please go back and read those, you won’t regret it - Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Final).
So, I even understand Illini fans have personal gripes with how Underwood and his staff do certain things. Quite frankly, you taking those gripes to a site like ours is why we’re in business in the first and last place. And perfection is unattainable for any human, so Underwood isn’t immune from having an off night. However, I do sometimes wonder the answer to this exact question over any message board complaint that pops up: “You do understand that Brad Underwood is going to coach this team however he wants and that’s probably for the best, right?”.
So far, here are some of my favorite Illini fan gripes so far: “Underwood refuses to adjust in a game!”; “Da’Monte Williams is awful and Underwood needs to cut his minutes!”; “Underwood never plays the freshmen enough!”; “Underwood grinds his players too much through the season!”
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, by all accounts the dean of head coaching in the Big Ten Conference and a future College Basketball Hall of Famer, said this Tuesday following the Illini’s 56-55 win over the No. 10 Spartans when the home team was without Kofi Cockburn and Andre Curbelo.
“I think Brad is a hell of a coach and he’s doing a hell of a job. He outcoached me tonight.”
After 25 years of trolling through the junior college world and being an assistant coach, Underwood got his shot at being a Division I head coach just four months after his 50th birthday (way, way later than most in his profession) at Stephen F. Austin. Once he finally got his shot, Underwood proceeded to lead that program to an 89–14 overall record over a three-year stretch where he lost ONE conference game and ONE home game.
Now at Illinois, Underwood has the program on pace to for a third consecutive Top 4 finish in the Big Ten Conference (which is a stronger league than it's ever been since possibly the late 1980s or early 1990s) in this 2021-22 campaign - a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since Bruce Weber did it (primarily with players initially recruited by Bill Self’s staff) from 2004-07.
If these are examples of the results from Underwood’s stubbornness, I have a suggestion for you the loyal Illini fan, to consider. Why not sit back and admit to yourself, this harsh truth? “You know what? That Brad Underwood might have a plan and might just know what he’s doing more than I do.”
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