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 this was 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 performance-based 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.’’