Newly Promoted Assistant Coach Geoff Alexander Key In Cockburn’s Return to Illini

Geoff Alexander will be hard pressed to top his first ever recruiting victory as an Illini assistant - bringing Kofi Cockburn back for a third season.

By Matt Stevens - IlliniGuys Staff Writer

July 21, 2021

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- While it’s well known assistant coaches never get credit for wins and losses in a athletics program, Geoff Alexander may have been instrumental in getting Illinois’ biggest victory before the summer ended.

Every sales and marketing team needs a closer and Alexander, who was officially promoted on May 21, was given the nod by Illinois head coach Brad Underwood Wednesday for being instrumental in delivering Kofi Cockburn back to Champaign for another season - even when Alexander’s boss was convinced Cockburn was solely focused on the NBA.

“We kept communication lines open and Geoff Alexander did a tremendous job of doing that,” Underwood said. “I truly thought that he would stay in (the draft) and yet, you always know that there is that chance. Very similar to Ayo (Dosunmu) last year where I didn’t think he was coming back until the last moment.”

After keeping communication open throughout the summer, IlliniGuys.com learned Alexander had serious face-to-face dialogue with Cockburn last week while he was on a recruiting trip in the Southeast portion of the country. Alexander was able to walk the Illini center through the preliminary steps of the new name, image and likeness regulations allowing college athletes to profit while they were a student-athlete. Alexander was also able to talk with Cockburn, who is expected to be a preseason Naismith Player of the Year candidate, about the impact of his legacy with the Illini program. It was those conversations that led to Underwood have dialogue with Cockburn before the final decision was reached.

“(His return to Illinois) speaks volumes from Kofi about what is important to him and his legacy,” Underwood said. “I think what is going to be different in terms of basketball going forward is having a place to come back to and call home. We know how former greats are revered here. Kofi’s jersey will hang in the rafters (at State Farm Center) as an All-American and he’s a wonderful human being, not just a wonderful player. And when you start putting all that together, it starts being a wonderful big picture.”

Alexander was given the responsibility for being the direct point of contact for Cockburn, his family and those in Cockburn’s inner circle after the 7-foot, 290-pound center pulled out of the draft process and entered the transfer portal. Not exactly easing in Alexander, who had four years of experience as an off-the-court Illini staff member that followed five years at Evansville working for then-head coach Marty Simmons. Prior to his tenure at Evansville, Alexander spent one year as an assistant coach at Eastern Illinois in 2012. That followed five years as an assistant at Idaho State from 2007-11, where he also served as the Bengals' recruiting coordinator. Alexander’s first task as an assistant coach at Illinois that would be graded by Illinois basketball fans everywhere was bringing back a potential first-team All-American to the Champaign campus for a third year.

“(Alexander) was one of the main reasons I came back here just by him being around him and showing me this is home,” Cockburn said. “He was really giving me a lot of support throughout the process and I’ve built a really solid relationship with him.”

Alexander is a likely candidate to work closely with Cockburn and the rest of the Illini forwards and bigs this season as the son of a Illinois High School Athletics Association Hall of Fame high school coach at Lincoln High School, has been working with Cockburn on his game development throughout this summer in individual sessions.

Cockburn, who averaged 17.7 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.3 blocks while shooting 65.4 percent from the field this past season, announced his official return to the Illini program on Friday. In his first in-person interview since announcing his return to Illinois, Cockburn said Wednesday that former Illinois assistant Orlando Antigua “gave me some great advice” about where he should play this upcoming season signaling the current Kentucky assistant didn’t push to bring the All-American center with him to Lexington.

“He’s always been there for me and I just felt like I needed to give him the opportunity to recruit me,” Cockburn said. “I owed him that.”

When Underwood got the call from Cockburn on Friday, he knew Alexander, his promoted right-hand man, had done the job specifically asked of him.

When Cockburn rolled back into campus Tuesday afternoon and participated in his first summer workout at Ubben practice facility Wednesday morning, Underwood finally got that sense of relief throughout a hectic offseason.

“I was on a plane for a recruiting trip and I had a really nice bottle of wine,” Underwood said about getting the news Cockburn was returning to Illinois. “I don’t do social media. My daughter texted me and said ‘he’s back’.”

In a similar way to 2021 first-team All-America selection Ayo Dosunmu carving out a place among great players to ever wear an Illini jersey, Cockburn said Wednesday he recognizes he can accomplish similar things in his third year at Illinois.

“I feel like I created great relationships with people here on and off the court,” Cockburn said. “This is where I want to cement my legacy.”

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