CHICAGO — Brad Underwood’s first head coaching job was leading the cross-country program at Hardin-Simmons University in Abilene, Texas.
Instruction amounted to “run as fast as you can from here to there.”
The role was thrown into his lap and certainly was not his forte, but it allowed him to work as a graduate assistant for the basketball team. An added bonus: Because Hardin-Simmons was short on resources and employed only one full-time assistant, he had the opportunity to recruit.
“I would have to drive the cross-country team to meets,” Underwood recalled. “But I was eager to get on the road (for basketball).”
Inglorious stories like this fill the first 20 years of Underwood’s coaching profile.
He scanned bar codes on electrical equipment in academic buildings before basketball practices as a Dodge City Community College coach in Kansas. He worked early-morning shifts at a rec center front desk at Daytona Beach Community College. Short on gas money, he occasionally bummed a ride to work from his athletic director.
It’s safe to say Underwood didn’t start out as a hot-shot coach. Nobody in the blue-blooded echelon hand-picked him as the next up-and-comer.
No, Underwood’s arrival to the big leagues took time, perseverance, confidence and simply loving the job.
Twenty-six years passed before he landed his first basketball head coaching job, laboring and grinding at the junior college and mid-major levels for 18 seasons. Underwood, 57, spanned six states and nine universities.
Now he coaches at Illinois, the No. 5 team in the nation. The Illini (16-5, 12-3), who routed Minnesota,94-63, Saturday, are tied with Michigan for first place in the Big Ten (heading into Sunday) and are fighting for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
He has two of the best players in the nation in Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn, and Illinois is on the brink of its best season since 2005.
Underwood’s career climb has influence on Illinois’ present.
“I think it’s important, Brad starting out at Dodge,” said West Virginia coach Bob Huggins, who hired Underwood onto his Kansas State staff in 2007. “You have to deal with personalities. There’s a lot of layers to figure out, and he navigated those. People like Brad do a better job of coaching because of their background and what they’ve dealt with in the past.”
The rare point of skepticism greeting Underwood when Illinois hired him in March 2017 was a resume that showed moves from Stephen F. Austin to Oklahoma State to Illinois in three seasons.
Reviewing his CV tells the more complete — the more arduous — journey to becoming a potential coach of the year award winner.
“It’s all those struggles that make it worthwhile now,” Underwood said.
The son of a Kansas insurance salesman, Underwood prepared to follow in his dad’s footsteps.
After playing as a freshman at Hardin-Simmons and finishing at Kansas State, he couldn’t imagine being around basketball but not playing. Underwood was uber-competitive, so recreational games with buddies were frustrating because winning seemed to mean so little to them and so darn much to him.
He had to get back in the game.
Underwood mailed a letter to almost every coach in the directory, looking for a gig in 1988. Hardin-Simmons welcomed him as a graduate assistant.
Graduation, a stab at insurance sales, marriage to his college girlfriend, a quick honeymoon to Mexico and moving to Texas came in quick succession.
“I made more money in my first month in the insurance business than I made for about the first 10 years in coaching,” he said. “But I didn’t enjoy (working in insurance). I was miserable, so off we went. We threw everything in a U-Haul. What a way to start a marriage.”
Underwood’s stipend was $300 a month, he said. Rent was $299.
His wife, Susan, had a teaching degree but not yet a teaching license in Texas, so she worked as a J.C. Penny cashier. Their apartment kitchen — “What kitchen?” she said — was so small, they had to put their microwave in the living room.
But Underwood loved coaching, getting his feet wet recruiting and learning on the fly.
In the junior college and mid-major ranks, Underwood’s style and tough-love coaching style endeared him to similar coaches who ultimately helped alter his career.
It’s where his path crossed with Huggins, who then was coaching at Cincinnati and recruiting a Dodge City player. Frank Martin coached at Northeastern and Underwood as a Western Illinois assistant when they met on the recruiting trail and later coached together on Huggins’ Kansas State staff.
“Neither one of us made any money,” Martin said, “but he wasn’t one of those assistants sitting around criticizing his boss. He was raving about his job and the challenges and recruiting. Brad just loves what he does.”
But those early years — decades, rather — weren’t easy for Underwood.
A love for country music, Mountain Dew and sunflower seeds developed at Dodge City (1989-93), where he was an assistant for one season before becoming the head coach at 24.
“I was probably too ignorant (to feel intimidated),” he said. “You feel like you have all the answers. How quickly you realize you don’t. I wanted to do everything myself, to prove to myself I could recruit.”
A rule in Kansas stated only five players could be from out of state, making in-state recruiting especially cutthroat. Twice a week, he traveled three hours to Wichita or 5 1/2 hours to Kansas City, Mo. competing with 19 other community colleges for the same players.
“That’s where I learned to recruit,” Underwood said. “It was cassette tapes for music. After midnight all the radio stations were nonexistent in western Kansas.”
Underwood said basketball accounted for only 25% of the job.
“You’re helping with everything: You’re a financial-aid director, you’re helping with housing, you’re monitoring the study tables, the roster is changing constantly,” he said. “But it taught me how to work. It’s where I learned to work at basketball in every aspect of it.”
His Dodge City teams improved each season, and Western Illinois coach Jim Kerwin plucked him for an assistant role. Underwood signed his first contract, making $22,000, and served 10 seasons — his longest with any program.
“It was kind of the next step,” he said.
Western Illinois was in the thick of the Mid-Continent Conference, a mid-major giant at the time, and went from a seven-win season to 20 wins when Underwood joined as an assistant. The Leathernecks never could get past Bryce Drew and Valparaiso. But they were good.
And Underwood was busy, crisscrossing the country for the conference that recently had expanded.
“We had Troy State on Thursday and Central Connecticut on Saturday,” he said. “I was flying to Birmingham or Atlanta for a two-hour drive to Troy. Sunday we’d be off but we’d get home at 8 at night because we had to fly to St. Louis and then bus three hours to get home to Macomb.”
His three children were born there, and Susan taught elementary school.
Money was still tight, half of it going to daycare, and Underwood felt pings of regret about the job’s demands. He said he watched only one quarter of his son Tyler’s middle school basketball games.
“Those years were hard,” he said. “I was really an absentee father. I have regrets about this business a lot.”
Susan cherishes memories of toting the kids to games and Tyler’s thrill of being a ball boy, and the family invested in Underwood’s dream.
“Coaching was a passion, and Susan let me chase that,” Underwood said. “There was never any external pressure from her to go do something else.”
Kerwin resigned in 2003, and Underwood headed to Daytona Beach Community College as the head coach. It was a well-funded and successful junior college, and Underwood thrived.
“He’ll do things just for the challenge,” said Geoff Alexander, an Illinois assistant who played for Underwood at Western Illinois and was his lone assistant in Daytona. “He went to a new region, an area he hadn’t been in, recruited it and recruited it well. He’s as competitive a person as I’ve been around — in golf, on the court, in life.”
Scrimping was still part of life. He and Susan ate lots of eggs and skipped Valentine’s Day presents to save money. But they were enjoying life and believed in Underwood’s abilities.
“Our family knew what Brad was capable of,” Susan said. “We had so much fun along the way. It made us a very tight-knit family. We could be happy wherever we were.”
Another opportunity came soon.
“All of a sudden, Bob Huggins calls and you’re back at your alma mater.”
While a high-level program was theoretically a move up, it was still a risk. “I was an ops guy,” Underwood said. “I was off the road (recruiting). I dreadfully missed being on the floor coaching.”
He made the best of it, using the task-oriented staffing role to make connections in the Big 12 office and learn about scheduling. It improved time with his family, and Underwood finally made a decent salary.
“We could actually afford to go to a movie or a restaurant where you can sit down to order,” he said.
Martin was elevated to head coach after Huggins left for West Virginia, and he promoted Underwood to assistant and then associate head coach. “Easiest decision I ever made,” Martin said.
The Wildcats advanced to the NCAA Tournament every season with Underwood on staff, including an Elite Eight run in 2010. Martin credits Underwood for his loyalty to coach Martin’s offensive system, but when it wasn’t working, he trusted Underwood to install his spread system, turning around their 2010-11 season.
“I saw what his values were,” Martin said. “We sat around and talked late into the night about how to fix problems.”
After a season with Martin at South Carolina, Underwood finally got a chance to run a high-level Division I program when Stephen F. Austin hired him in 2013. Even though Underwood wasn’t on then-athletic director Robert Hill’s initial list of candidates, Underwood blew him away in an interview with his ideas for offensive schemes, defensive toughness and coaching style.
His background was considered a positive.
“He understood mid-major basketball,” Hill said. “He’s a small-town guy. He understood the dynamics.”
Stephen F. Austin competed in three NCAA Tournaments in three seasons under Underwood.
“It was one of those, ‘Oh, (shoot)’ moments,” he said. “It took 26 years to become a Division I head coach. It’s what we’ve been working for, to get in that position. The ball was in my court.”
He moved to Oklahoma State and led them to the NCAA Tournament in 2017 before he was lured to Illinois.
Underwood received a contract extension running until 2026 with a base salary of $3.4 million, rising to $4 million in the final year.
His son, Tyler, is a walk-on on the team. Daughters Katie (Illinois) and Ashley (Miami of Ohio) also are college students. He relishes memories made during COVID-19 shelter periods.
They enjoyed family yoga nights, watched movies and ate dinner together.
“It sounds bad but I got to know them again,” Underwood said. “I missed a lot with them.”
His rigorous journey also influenced his relationship with assistants.
“His family is super important to him,” Alexander said. “He expects my family to be the most important thing to me. We’re very vigorous in our profession, but he will not allow you to neglect your family.”
Underwood said he feels rooted in Champaign. His days of moving on and moving up, he said, are over.
“It was not all that long ago, I’m sitting there as a junior college coach watching Tom Izzo win a national championship or I’m watching Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) in 1986 build a program at Duke, and now I’m walking into Cameron Indoor and playing against him,” Underwood said, leaving out that the Illini beat Duke 83-68 in Durham, N.C., in December. “I don’t take anything for granted. I know how hard I’ve worked and how much my wife has sacrificed.”
The Illini are en route to their first NCAA Tournament bid since 2013. Last season, they appeared destined for a tournament run before COVID-19 concerns canceled the postseason.
Anyone who has seen an Underwood tirade on the sideline or a celebration in the locker room doesn’t doubt his fire. But there’s also a sense of calm, that feeling of finally getting out of the car after a long road trip.
“You can win here and I feel really comfortable,” Underwood said. “Where else would I want to do this? I don’t want to go rebuild anymore. For what? It’s a good feeling to be comfortable. I don’t feel like I’m chasing anything.”
Well, except one thing.
“I’m chasing the national championship,” he said.