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Illinois’ Brad Underwood on wiping the tears, flattening the curve and trying to move on

A week after using the words “crushing” and “devastating” to describe missing out on the postseason due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Illini coach is taking advantage of family time and putting the pieces back together.

Brad Underwood was supposed to be coaching Illinois in the NCAA Tournament this week.
Brad Underwood was supposed to be coaching Illinois in the NCAA Tournament this week.
AP Photos

Brad Underwood was cleaning out a closet Wednesday afternoon when the phone rang. It was a heck of an exciting day at the Underwood residence in Champaign. He had already gone through all the bathroom medicine cabinets. What would be next, rearranging sock drawers?

“I’m waiting for the weather to clear so I can do the garage,” he said. “Everything else is being [thrown] out or taken to Goodwill.”

Instead of leading Illinois into the NCAA Tournament, the third-year coach was taking spring-cleaning instructions from wife Susan, whose voice could be heard in the background.

“There you go,” Underwood, 56, said with a laugh. “She just added to the list.”

A week after using the words “crushing,” “devastating” and “sick feeling” to describe missing out on the postseason as the sports world went dark due to the coronavirus pandemic, Underwood is at least taking advantage of some family time. He’s doing a 1,000-piece puzzle — of a beach scene at sunset, a mountain rising in the background — with daughter Ashley. He’s binge-watching the HBO series “Succession,” or trying the best he can, anyway, to sit through entire episodes with whoever else is watching.

He’s taking long walks for exercise and sensing an oncoming hankering for golf.

“I heard an expert on coronavirus say golf’s still OK to play if you wear two gloves, don’t share a cart, don’t pull the flags out,” he said. “So that sounds pretty good.”

Or really sad, depending on the moment. As the Underwoods do their part to flatten the curve by hunkering down at home, the Illini’s grinder-by-nature coach is finding it difficult to downshift, to let go of the program’s breakthrough season, to stop thinking of how special the last four months were and how wonderful the ensuing few weeks might’ve been.

“It’s really hard right now thinking about it,” he said. “The ending was so abrupt. There wasn’t the final chapter.

“I’m emotional. I get very, very invested. That’s what’s so hard about [this] ending. That team is not going to be together again, and that’s what really hurts.”

The Illini were practicing at Butler’s Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis last Thursday, a day before their scheduled opener in the Big Ten tournament, when Underwood learned that event had been canceled. His team was practicing so well, though, that he decided to let them keep going. Star Ayo Dosunmu was locked in and dominating.

“That practice was as good as I’ve ever seen Ayo play,” Underwood said. “I know we had a team that was built for March, and Ayo is built for those games.”

By the time the team bus arrived back in Champaign, the entire postseason had been called off, with players receiving the news via social media. Underwood wasn’t on the bus with them. Driving his own car back from Indianapolis, he choked up thinking about what he was going to say to his players.

“We [gathered] in our locker room and there were a lot of tears,” he said. “Theirs and mine.”

Underwood isn’t entirely sure what to do with himself these days, though he has some ideas. One thing he’s eager to do is work the phones for some much-needed commiserating with fellow coaches. In a typical offseason, coaches pick one another’s brains in gyms. In this case, Underwood isn’t going to be shy about reaching out.

Virginia’s Tony Bennett, whom he admires greatly but hasn’t gotten to know, is No. 1 on his list. Baylor’s Scott Drew and Northwestern Missouri State’s Ben McCollum — winner of two of the last three Division II national titles — will be receiving calls, too, as will a handful of NBA guys. Last time Underwood was in his office at the Illini’s basketball facility, he grabbed three large legal pads for note-taking purposes.

He’s also calling donors and boosters and, you know, did we mention cleaning out closets?

“The most difficult thing,” he said, “is learning to slow down a minute and not have to be on to the next thing.”

But then he corrected himself.

“The most difficult thing is the emotional part,” he said. “But you know what I mean.”

To some degree, we all can relate. These are discomfiting times. In sports and in life, the puzzle pieces are scattered. All one can do is try to put them back together.