By Seth Gruen–
(CBS) I’ve never been one to care much about the optics of a coaching hire. That’s like walking into a restaurant, saying something “looks good” and proclaiming it should have a Michelin Star before even tasting the food.
In the world of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, I understand that we’re all required to immediately react. It’s the nature of this business. So while the notion that the hiring of Brad Underwood by Illinois to a six-year deal was surprising is certainly true, it’s equally as meaningless.
Just ask Texas fans, who watched their basketball team go 11-22 this past season under Shaka Smart, considered the hottest coaching candidate at the time of his hire.
Talk to Michigan State fans, who may have scratched their head when the program promoted an unknown assistant named Tom Izzo. We all know how that has turned out.
No one will care about the fanfare associated with Underwood’s hire when November rolls around and the Illini take the court under their new head coach. Coaches are defined by just this: winning and losing.
What’s most important to examine now is concrete information that explains why such an individual has arrived at his current destination.
We have that with the 53-year-old Underwood: In one season at Oklahoma State, he managed to win 20 games and lead the team to the tournament after the Cowboys missed it the previous season. He took an ailing Oklahoma State offense and crafted it into the best in the country.
The Cowboys led the nation in offensive efficiency playing a style that will be attractive to any potential recruits. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a style that could re-ignite interest in the Illinois program within the fertile Chicago Public League.
Prior to his one-year layover in Stillwater, Underwood coached for three seasons at Stephen F. Austin. His teams went 53-1 in Southland Conference play, and Stephen F. Austin went to the NCAA Tournament all three years. By comparison, John Groce hadn’t finished higher than third in the MAC as the Ohio coach when he was hired by Illinois in 2012.
That Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman went out and poached a coach from a high-major program was vitally important. Dayton’s Archie Miller and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall would have been great hires, coming with much more fanfare.
But Illinois shouldn’t be a program that has to look to the mid-major ranks to hire a basketball coach, either. As Underwood emphasized on the Mully & Hanley Show on 670 The Score on Monday morning, it’s an “elite” program.
That means high-major coaches should seek out the Illinois job as Lon Kruger did when left Florida to take the post in 1996. That Underwood bolted Oklahoma State after one season to move to Champaign speaks to the quality of the job.
And Underwood’s outstanding coaching history likely says that Whitman, in making another bold hire after bringing Lovie Smith in to coach the football team, may have gotten the right coach.
If that ends up the case, I think that would be the least surprising thing of all.
Seth Gruen is columnist for CBSChicago.com, focusing on college sports. You can follow him on Twitter @SethGruen.