Brad Underwood introduced as Illinois men’s basketball head coach


Ryan Fang

Josh Whitman, director of athletics, introduces new Fighting Illini coach Brad Underwood on Monday, Mar 20 2017. Javon Pickett requests release from his National Letter of Intent.

By Stephen Cohn, Staff Writer

Tyler Underwood’s next jersey will say “Illinois” on the front, just like the first one he wore growing up in Illinois.

The difference will be on the back. This one will say “Underwood.” The last one said, “Cook.”  Former Illini star forward Brian Cook was a childhood favorite for Underwood.

The redshirt freshman and son of new Illinois head basketball coach Brad Underwood will transfer to the University from Oklahoma State alongside his father.

Tyler Underwood played basketball at Nacogdoches High School in Nacogdoches, Texas, the home of Stephen F. Austin University. SFA was the first head coaching stop of Brad Underwood’s Division I career.

The head coach called his son a cerebral and heady player and a good shooter at his introductory press conference inside the State Farm Center last Monday afternoon. Illinois Director of Athletics John Whitman introduced Underwood as the 18th head coach in basketball program history.

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“We are taking an unbelievable step in Illini athletics today,” Whitman said.

Whitman relieved fifth-year Illinois head coach John Groce of his duties March 11, two days after losing to Michigan in the team’s first game of the Big Ten Tournament.

The University did not hire a search firm to assist in the hiring.

Oklahoma State fell to Michigan 92-91 in the First Round of the 2017 NCAA tournament. Underwood said he has a policy that he does not talk to other teams during the season, but a conversation with Whitman opened upon elimination.

Underwood said Whitman’s enthusiasm for the University — and signature phrase “We Will Win” – made his choice easier.

“Whitman’s pride is incredible, and it exudes,” Underwood said. “He didn’t have to sell me, but ‘We Will Win’ is what I’m about.”

Winning has clearly become what Underwood is about at every head coaching stop. He has made the NCAA tournament each of his past four seasons, reaching the Round of 32 in 2014 and 2016 with Stephen F. Austin. Underwood’s Lumberjack teams went 53-1 in Southland Conference play, winning the regular season and conference tournaments each of his three years.

Oklahoma State lured Underwood away from SFA after the 2015-16 season. The Cowboys finished 9-9 in the Big 12 after going 3-15 the previous year.

The Cowboys promoted Mike Boynton, an Underwood assistant at SFA and OSU, on Friday.

Underwood, 53, played college basketball from 1981-1986. He started at Hardin-Simmons before transferring to Kansas State. Underwood’s coaching career began as a graduate assistant at Hardin-Simmons in 1986.

He was an assistant at three schools, including Western Illinois and Kansas State, before being named Stephen F. Austin’s head coach in 2013.

The Leathernecks visited Assembly Hall several times during Underwood’s tenure, and he said he learned the importance of “Illini Nation.”

“To come in here as an opponent made tremendous memories for me,” Underwood said. “I felt this was an elite program.”

Underwood is under a six-year, $18 million deal with the University. He will be paid $2.75 million in 2017-18 with a $100,000 increase each year. There is a budget allocation for three on-court assistant coaches of $850,000.

Jamall Walker, an assistant under Groce, will be one of those on-court assistants. Walker served as interim head coach during the Illini’s NIT run. He finished 2-1, and Illinois lost to Central Florida in the quarterfinals.

Illinois has the No. 11 recruiting class in the country, according to Forward Jeremiah Tilmon and point guard Trent Frazier headline the class, which currently has four commits.

Many college basketball pundits thought the firing of Groce would cause some to decommit from Illinois.

Underwood and Walker were reportedly on the road Sunday to visit and recruit Edwardsville point guard Mark Smith, who was recently awarded Mr. Basketball in the state of Illinois.

“You’re not winning here, or at this level, without good players,” Underwood said. “We want skilled players. You have to put the ball in the basket.”

Underwood attended Illinois’ second-round NIT game against Boise State at the State Farm Center last Monday night as a spectator. He did a first half phone interview during the ESPN2 broadcast of the quarterfinal loss.

Now that the season concluded, Underwood is prepared for a successful reign in Champaign.

“I dream big,” Underwood said. “It’s a cliché, but I do. I dream big. Winning a national championship is something that can happen here.”

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