When I moved to Champaign, Illinois I became a fan of University of Illinois athletics. I just wasn’t a big fan previously. I had gone to a few football games and saw a few concerts at Assembly Hall (now the State Farm Center), but I wasn’t an alum and I didn’t follow the athletic program.
In 2001, I became a fan of Illinois athletics and basketball in particular. I was gifted tickets to a couple of home games and fell in love. I really liked Coach Bill Self and the players. Of course, he left for Kansas and Illinois became the National Championship runner-up to the cheating Tar Heels of North Carolina in 2005.
Subsequent years were up and down, but unfortunately more down than up. Bruce Weber and John Groce coached the team from 2003 to 2017 to mostly mediocre success.
Enter new Director of Athletics, Josh Whitman. He took it upon himself to change the culture. He hit the ground running with his “We Will Win” motto and so far he’s exceeded expectations.
On his first day, he fired Bill Cubit as the football coach and two days later hired Lovie Smith. That was an unprecedented move by Whitman. John Groce was given every opportunity to succeed as the basketball coach, but he just didn’t get the wins and was fired. Over the weekend, Whitman managed to snag a new basketball coach that was on no one’s radar – Oklahoma State’s Brad Underwood.
He’s an extremely good coach. Will Leitch outlined the hire beautifully in his piece for Sports On Earth, but I liked these excerpts the most:
Underwood coached Stephen F. Austin for three seasons, in which the Lumberjacks lost a total of 14 games. This season, under his replacement, they lost 15. In 2015-16, before it hired Underwood, Oklahoma State lost 20 games. In 2016-17, the year it Underwood (with essentially the same players), Oklahoma State won 20 games and reached the NCAA Tournament (losing by one to Michigan on Friday). That’s quite a track record.
This was the best possible hire. Where would Underwood have been on Illini potential coaches lists if anyone had been aware he was available? Probably at the top, right? You don’t think Indiana – a better job than Illinois that just came open – would have kicked the tires? The Illini weren’t getting Tony Bennett, or Archie Miller, or Gregg Marshall, and they probably wouldn’t have been the right fit anyway. This hire surprised people, and it instantly gives Illinois a coach who plays an exciting style and has been wildly successful everywhere he has been.
I’m excited again for Illinois basketball. It’s been a long time.