hitman has his man. Again.
One year and 11 days after Whitman hired Lovie Smith to coach the football team — a move few saw coming — the school named Brad Underwood its new men’s basketball coach. This move was a large-scale surprise, as well, considering Underwood and the opening at Illinois had yet to intersect in Rumorville.
That it unfolded with an announcement from Illinois about an hour before rival Northwestern took the floor against Gonzaga got college basketball media across the country talking about the Illini. Coincidence? Probably not.
“Coaching basketball at the University of Illinois is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Underwood said in a statement released by the school. “I can’t wait to get started with our team.”
Underwood, 53, joins the Illini from Oklahoma State, which lost to Michigan in the opening round of the NCAA tournament Friday. The Kansas native led the Cowboys to 20 victories — and a six-win improvement in Big 12 play — in his only season at the school.
He had an outstanding three-year run at Stephen F. Austin before that, going 89-14 overall and compiling a stellar record of 53-1 in the Southland Conference.
“We were looking for a proven winner who would build upon our proud tradition while developing an unmistakable identity for Illinois basketball,” Whitman said. “Brad’s teams play a fast, aggressive style and show unyielding toughness. They have a tremendous energy.”
So, it seems, does Whitman. He fired Bill Cubit on his first day on the job and tabbed Smith two days later. This time, he clearly worked behind the scenes to secure an agreement with a coach whose team was still playing. Oklahoma State won’t appreciate that, but it’s not Illinois’ problem.
Meanwhile, the players Underwood left behind in Stillwater can’t be too happy with him. He rode home on the team plane with them Friday night, and by Saturday was out the door — only one year in.
“You see a lot of coaching changes across America, but very rarely do you see one after just one year,” Kansas’ Bill Self, a former Illini coach, said at the NCAA tournament site in Tulsa, Oklahoma. “But Brad is a really good guy and does a great job.”
Underwood made an undeniable impact with the Cowboys, who were 10-1 over a stretch of the Big 12 schedule that redefined their season. Moreover — and what should have Illini fans most excited about this hire — the Cowboys were a top 10 team nationally in scoring (85.7 points per game) and in offensive efficiency.
Illinois’ offenses were inconsistent and often bogged down under John Groce. If Underwood’s teams space the floor, move the ball with precision, find a multitude of open shots and make basketball beautiful again at State Farm Center, fans will be very happy.
After earning a little more than $1 million in his deal at Oklahoma State, Underwood will more than double his salary with the Illini. Assistant coach Jamall Walker has served as interim coach while the school searched for a successor and is said to be a strong candidate to be retained on Underwood’s staff.
Follow me on Twitter @SLGreenberg.