Don't blame Brad Underwood. He was in a good situation. He had an athletic director that ended up in a mess of a contract with his last coach. Now, he was still willing to pay him more, but not as much as Illinois and when loyalty is more determined by the color green than the color of the school then business wins out.
What a difference a year makes, last year at just about this time Oklahoma State fans were loving their new basketball hire as athletic director Mike Holder plucked just the right guy. Brad Underwood, removed less than 24 hours from seeing his Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks lose a buzzer beater in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Notre Dame, was accepting the job at Oklahoma State and sounding like it was his basketball version of nirvana.
"There's not enough adjectives to describe how excited I am for the opportunity to coach where some of the greatest coaches in the history of college basketball have cut their teeth," Underwood said after just taking the OSU job. "Oklahoma State has unparalleled tradition, history and culture. The fan support, the noise and the home court advantage is what I remember most about Gallagher-Iba Arena, and I couldn't be more excited to be a part of that now. I played in Gallagher-Iba back in the Big Eight days, and then going back as an opposing coach, I can tell you that it's one of the best venues in the nation. We're going to have a lot of fun, and I'm excited as heck about the opportunity to get to know the community of Stillwater, and the OSU family."
Now, a year later, here comes the grim reality of the high stakes, big money college athletics business; as Illinois crashes in after firing their unsuccessful coach and fired coach John Groce by taking Underwood to take over the Fighting Illini.
"Coaching basketball at the University of Illinois is a once-in-lifetime opportunity," Underwood said in a statement after accepting the Illinois job right about 24 hours after Oklahoma State lost to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament. "The players, fans and administration at Oklahoma State have been absolutely incredible, and I want to thank them for the support they've given me and my family over the last year. However, during my time at Western Illinois, I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation."
The quotes seem so similar, but that is what happens in this business. Now for the behind the scenes story, the one where you see how the sausage is made or how the coach escapes. Underwood was a great fit, he came in during his one year and survived a summer tragedy with the death of center Tyrek Coger of a heart issue after a late afternoon July training session, the team got off to a tremendous start in non conference, and then swooned with an 0-6 start in Big 12 play, only to bounce back with 10 wins in the next 11 games to secure an NCAA invitation.
Oklahoma State fans liked Underwood, he seemed like one of them, drank coffee with them, watched baseball with them, he pressed the flesh, and kissed the babies. He was on the Iba coaching tree, had midwestern values, and seemed the perfect fit. In the last two weeks he was in negotiation with Holder on a raise, even a new contract. In fairness to Holder, he saw this before, albeit, a little different. Travis Ford had a great first season and here came other schools calling. This time Holder had to be convinced he had a firm grip on his coach. Underwood's contract had a buyout, a serious buyout. It would cost a Big 12 team $6-million to come in before March of 2018 and steal Underwood. For Illinois the price was $3-million and apparently, they felt Underwood was worth it.
Holder was victim of an over steer, an over correction, after being burned by a contract with Ford that caused the school to keep the coach that most fans showed they didn't care for (by their absence) for at least two years more than they would have liked. Hey, I've oversteered on the highway, and honestly, I believe it is why I'm here and alive to write this story.
What hurts the most is that Underwood seemed like he was one of us. He seemed like he would take less money and be willing to stay with us. It doesn't work that way. You can trash that video opening where the coach speaks of re-energizing the tradition of Oklahoma State basketball and Iba and Sutton and etc. He is still like most coaches in the business, a mercenary that comes in and works for the check. I don't mean that so harsh, I believe coaches love their players, but they are capable of quickly loving players at another school that writes a bigger check.
If you believe the word out there, Illinois got Underwood for the buyout and $3.1-million for next year. He was scheduled to make $1.1-million on his current contract, but sources have said that Holder offered $2.2-million instead.
Look at it this way, Holder and Oklahoma State will be getting a huge $3-million check from the University of Illinois in the mail to use for hiring the next Cowboy basketball coach.
A lesson here, you wonder why head football coach Mike Gundy has stayed at Oklahoma State despite periods of criticism from Boone Pickens and his own contract issues. Check John Smith and Josh Holliday as they are worth more on the open wrestling and baseball coaching markets than they are making in Stillwater. They will all tell you and have often, this is their school.
That kind of loyalty is about the only thing that truly combats the business. Gundy, Smith, and Holliday, thankfully, are moved by the color of orange, the lure of Stillwater, and the love of Cowboy fans. Even in the media, I know that a reporter with OU ties or at least a solid record of being unbiased can make more at a television or radio station or media outlet than one that has shown orange to be his color. I know having lived "in the collegiate closet" for over a decade at Channel 4. Hey, I'm guessing that Gundy's, Smith's, and Holliday's closets are like mine, stacked with orange and absent of crimson.
It's okay, because that kind of loyalty is special. Now, Holder will have a choice. Use that $3-million check from Illinois for another good mercenary that fits and can coach man-to-man defense and exciting offensive basketball or look for an alumni that will trade being in Stillwater for some of that business of coaching.