Jim O'Donnell: Fighting Illini's extension of Underwood comes with predictable risk to program

  • Illinois coach Brad Underwood disagrees with a call in the Illini's loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament March 20 in Pittsburgh.

    Illinois coach Brad Underwood disagrees with a call in the Illini's loss to Houston in the NCAA Tournament March 20 in Pittsburgh. Associated Press

Updated 3/30/2022 9:58 PM

FIRST, BEGIN WITH a clear acknowledgment:

Few "Fan Nation" bases in America -- students, alumni, former co-op record store owners still living in Champaign -- deserve an NCAA men's basketball championship as much as those of the University of Illinois.


They are ardent. They are ferociously loyal. Within the confines of a home court, few anywhere can rival The Orange Krush for energy and the mad-pack generation of good, creative fun.

THEY ALSO DID NOT deserve the news Wednesday that university decision-makers showed a horrible blind spot and had tendered a six-year contract extension to head coach Brad Underwood.

When executed, the deal from hell will bump the annual salary of "The Ferret" to an estimated $3.7M -- with accelerators -- and run through 2027-28.

Read and save:

The day will come when university President Tim Killeen, chancellor Robert J. Jones and athletic director Josh Whitman rue the moment Underwood was retained.

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It is administrative folly in the first degree.

IN PREVIOUS D-I HC STOPS at Stephen F. Austin (2013-16) and Oklahoma State (2016-17), the history of "The Ferret" was notable for three consistencies:

• He can win a lot of marginally meaningful basketball games;

• He can beat posses and leave proud universities holding the bag; and,

• Come the madness of March, he is as relevant as Lizzo singing "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

AT STEPHEN F. AUSTIN, a "clerical error" uncovered during an NCAA investigation prompted no fewer than 57 of Underwood's 89 victories to be vacated.

The NCAA probe extended across multiple sports.

Underwood was long gone by the time NCAA sleuths completed their work. He bolted for Oklahoma State.

There, he coached one season (20-13) before desperate Illinois scramblers stole him away.


Three years later, the Cowboys faced numerous NCAA sanctions stemming from Underwood's one non-shining winter. Among the penalties, they were banned from postseason play in 2021.

IN CHAMPAIGN, NO NCAA POSSE of record has come calling.

But the propensity of "The Ferret" to be overwhelmed by the prime-time pressures of March have been clearly evident.

In five seasons, the Illini are 2-2 in the NCAA Tournament under Underwood and have not gotten past the Round of 32.

That includes last year's memorably quick exit at the hands of Porter Moser and 8-seed Loyola.

All the Illini had was a No. 1 seed, Ayo Dosunmu, Kofi Cockburn and a well of talent deep enough to irrigate the tracts of the university's College of Agricultural Sciences for a few semesters.

Two weekends ago, it was Kelvin Sampson, Houston and all of that Tilman Fertitta "boosterism" that waylaid No. 4 seed Illinois in the second round.

IT'S A SHAME THAT Killeen, Jones and Whitman are not more familiar with the investigative techniques of classic thoroughbred racetrackers.

Inside of every Daily Racing Form is a compilation of assorted data on the ponies called "past performances."

Subject to the variables of independent interpretation, "pp's" can be a handy indicator of future things to come.

Instead of insightful reading of available history, what the Illinois administration did on Wednesday was extend a window of acute risk to its men's basketball program with predictable March emptiness.

The Orange Krush and their extended emotional allies deserve so much better.

STREET-BEATIN': CBS would give its Fisheye teeth for Tiger Woods to start in the Masters. Caddy Joe LaCava told SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio that it's not a question of desire or drive; it's a matter of whether Woods' battered bones can get through the week at Augusta. (Tiger is an amazing 5-for-23 in Masters starts.) ...

Most intriguing movement regarding point spreads for Saturday's Final Four games is that there has been no movement at all. Duke (-4) over North Carolina, OK. But Kansas holding at -4½ against Villanova despite the Wildcats losing No. 2 scorer Justin Moore to a torn Achilles? Deep Vegans must have a bankable degree of April love for Jay Wright. ...

TBS/CBS analysts Bill Raftery and Grant Hill held a pre-FF Zoomer with media and absolutely nothing of consequence was said. Raftery's been through this NCAA men's ringer for close to 35 years; Hill -- one of the grand gentlemen in the game -- has always been about as quotable as Mike Tirico at a bachelor party. ...

With ancient arms including Jesse Chavez (age 38), David Robertson (37) and Wade Miley (35) set to head North with the Cubs, maybe they can schedule a few late-season games after their Aug. 20 playoffs elimination out at Sun City in Huntley. (BENGAY could sponsor.) ...

And Northwest suburbanite Joan Lasky -- whose daughter Emily is a senior at Kansas -- reports that Bill Self told an electric Allen Fieldhouse last weekend: "Tonight, it's all right to treat this Sunday night like a Saturday." (That's why parents pay tuition.)

• Jim O'Donnell's Sports and Media column appears three times weekly, including Thursday and Sunday. Reach him at jimodonnelldh@yahoo.com.

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