Illini basketball

Brad Underwood is a human person

In the four months that Brad Underwood has been Illini coach, he’s offered more opportunities for personal interaction than John Groce allowed in five years.

Being human will come in handy when Underwood navigates the interpersonal side of the job, which is a lot of it. Remember Billy Gillispie’s ouster at Kentucky? He couldn’t mesh with the big donors. He detested social obligations.

Underwood seems to enjoy engaging with human people. Following Thursday’s media availability, he stuck around and chatted less formally. It was still mostly about basketball and college sports, at first.

When he wanted to say something off the record, he said “this is off the record” and then offered a mildly salty analysis. We laughed.

Since the Ford administration, Illini basketball has been led by men with quizzical speech patterns. Except for  three years under Bill Self, whose only verbal tic was that lip-licking thing, it’s been hard to listen to the head coach speaking.

Whether it was the gravely voice, the clichés, the lisp or the tremendous tremendous; it was hard on the ears.

Underwood speaks in a soft, smooth voice. He’ll answer a question philosophically, or with a single syllable. His answers can be glib, but they’re not canned. He isn’t continually hoarse because he doesn’t yell much. He’s very much aware of that distinction, and was eager to point out that he doesn’t use a whistle in practice.  [John Groce wore headset with a microphone.]

Yet Underwood exudes a quiet toughness, and the impression that he can instill toughness in others. He’ll do it without a wristband, and without spending any time talking about instilling toughness or employing a wristband to help him instill toughness.

If it seems as though I’m bashing on John Groce, hold your horses.

I’ve never felt the urge to bash John Groce, and I still don’t. But the fact is that John Groce was corny.  That’s not bashing. He knew he was corny. He showed up to a press conference in an awkward & dorky outfit, and then told the room that his wife insisted he not leave the house in that outfit because it was “awkward & dorky.”

Mark Titus got as much access to Groce as anyone over the last 15 years. Together they spent years sitting on Ohio State’s bench.  And Titus said — again not insultingly, just by way of observation — that he never had a conversation with Groce on a topic other than basketball. Recruits said they could talk to Groce about anything, not just basketball.  I asked if they could think of any examples. They demurred.

Whatever characteristics elevated Groce to the top tier of college basketball also make him a bit robotic with people. It may be the reason he clicked with some recruits, but whiffed on many others.

Groce joined a media luncheon once. He typically sped-walked out of the Memorial Stadium press box immediately following a regularly scheduled press conference.  But on this one occasion, he sat down at the table while everyone ate. The conversation was about running (the exercise), and Groce said a doctor once told him that anyone who’s a regular runner will have a knee replaced by the time he’s 50.

So actually, the topic veered only from basketball to kinesiology, a subject relevant to Groce’s professional concerns. Anyway, that was the time John Groce allowed access to John Groce. For the rest of those five years, the stonewalling bemused the media pool. We all enjoy farce, though, so we got a chuckle out if it.

For all the counter-espionage efforts, B1G coaches still seemed to know exactly what to expect. That wasn’t as funny.

Brad Underwood doesn’t believe in espionage. Or counter-espionage.  He’s already offered his playbook to opponents, in a moment of rhetorical levity.

That’s not to say Underwood doesn’t know about scouting opponents. He employs proprietary databases and software that other coaches employ. He knows which percentage of possessions they’ll play zone.

In fact, it’s probably because of all these databases and software that Underwood recognizes the futility of secrecy. It’s probably because of all this scouting that Underwood arrived at a simple, logical realization: The future of college basketball is creating & exploiting mismatches.

Since his arrival in Champaign, he’s been so busy fixing Illini Basketball that everything else got pushed aside, including the (non-basketball) fundamentals.

He hasn’t slept enough, for one thing.  That was especially apparent during the annual end-of-July AAU recruiting op in  Las Vegas.  It’s one of many mandatory events for coaches, but Underwood was uninspired by the 45 minute drives between gymnasia.  He doesn’t device while driving.

Finishing with scheduled duties each day, Underwood and his staff would realize it was nearing 2 a.m. with an upcoming event at 8 a.m.  No time for blackjack.

He never ate dinner before midnight.  For that matter, diet had been an issue as well as sleep.  Exercise too. He’d missed out on “Fletch Time”  during the summer recruiting season.

Back in Champaign-Urbana, Underwood named the number of pounds he’s added since this whirlwind began in March.  On his 6’4″ frame, it doesn’t show.  But it was a purty good number. If he were 5’4″, it would significantly diminish his Social Opportunities.

The interesting part about all this information is that you know it, because Brad Underwood shared it. He’s comfortable with you having information.  Brad Underwood is a human person.  He’s not an automaton or a sociopath. He’s genuine and he’s engaging. Those qualities should make Illini basketball more accessible to people who aren’t expert about basketball. It should engage people who are interested in people.

The transition stress is over now. The summer recruiting blitz wrapped. Underwood knows his players. He said summer workouts were great, not good, but great.

Yesterday, he left C-U, the Illini, the concept of college basketball, handlers & street people, and long drives through snarled traffic for the Caymans. Don’t try to call him. He turned his phone off.  He’ll check his email every other day, just in case something important pops up.