The reaction to Illinois basketball’s hiring of Brad Underwood has been overwhelmingly positive, however it didn’t take long for some head-scratching comments to pop up.
Former Fighting Illini star Eddie Johnson shared his opinion on Tuesday afternoon, and it’s clear that he isn’t exactly thrilled with how the hiring process panned out. Specifically, he feels that athletic director Josh Whitman should’ve reached out to a number of old players for interviews.
Below is roughly what Johnson had to say. I had to make a few very minor edits because, frankly, it wasn’t making too much sense towards the end. While the main message remains completely unaltered, you can still obviously view the original version.
Dear Illini faithful,
When they hired John Groce I made a determined effort to support my school and him. Nice man, but I knew he would fail because he wouldn’t be able to get the attention of those five-star players we needed a few of to compete at the highest level. I let it be known to Mike Thomas that I had been spending my Summers working for Adidas training those players and had relationships with their parents. Those very players in Chicago that hoped would come as an All-American like I did in 1977.
I knew what made them tick and how he could get their attention at least. They needed a connecting link on that staff or coach who has a NBA pedigree. They want to hear that voice. Duke, UNC, Kentucky, UCLA, and Arizona involve their Alumni and that’s what keeps them [as blue bloods]. We have numerous basketball alumni scattered across this country who feel disconnected from the very school that showered them with attention to come there, but now when they knock on the door the response is who? If you give an alumni an interview it might not get him the job, but it gets the attention of other schools that puts your former players on the landscape. It’s called promoting your own who deserve.
Deon Thomas broke my scoring and rebounding record, and he wants to coach at any level. Where’s the help?
I am not looking to coach or become AD. I threw my hat in the ring a few years ago to test the response I would get from the school I attended and did major work for. The response I got was extremely low level. I motivate companies and people for a living that’s my passion in life now. Not coaching Illinois. You will thank me over the next few years because another coach at Illinois who talks and then walks will not lead me when another job opens. Bill Self should have taught you all that doesn’t work. All I know is our new coach walked one year after getting his ‘dream job’ to come here. I hear he is pretty good according to all you fans who have flooded my inbox. He will have to prove to me Illinois is where he wants to bring an NCAA title and not privately waiting for the next job opening.
OK. There’s a lot to digest here, so we’ll just start out with the few points that I actually agree with to a certain extent.
I agree that recruiting is primarily based on relationships, especially for new coaching staffs that don’t have tangible on-court results to sell. That’s why Missouri is about to hire the father of a consensus top-three prospect, for instance.
Additionally, a qualified candidate with NBA experience would’ve been great for Illinois because, yes, that’s appealing to the top high school talent. Josh Whitman attempted to do this by luring Monty Williams to Champaign, though he clearly did not have any direct ties to the university.
That’s it. Two common sense statements represent the only common ground I can find with Eddie Johnson.
I’d now like to touch on this irrational worry of Brad Underwood — or anyone without past experience at Illinois — potentially leaving for a bigger job in the near future.
Questioning Underwood’s long-term commitment is both laughable and embarrassing given the current state of Illinois basketball. You don’t need to have a degree from the school in order to win. Bill Self proved that.
Speaking of Self, he left for Kansas 14 years ago. Get over it. Here’s the thing about losing a coach to a better program: It means that your team is successful. So, honestly, I hope that Illinois eventually finds themselves in a position where they need to overpay to keep Underwood because this would indicate that the Fighting Illini are actually winning some damn games. Winning — what a concept!
Johnson also made known his desire to see more former players interviewed at Illinois.
Who exactly deserved these interviews for the head coaching vacancy? Unless I’m completely overlooking someone, Kansas assistant Jerrance Howard is the most qualified Fighting Illini in the college ranks. In other words, there are zero former players with anything resembling the desired experience of a head coach. Zero. This is not up for debate.
Now, if we’re talking about possible assistant coaching roles — which Johnson failed to make clear in his letter — a few names could make sense.
Jerrance Howard, while fairly maligned on this site, is probably at the top of that list. The Peoria native played in Champaign from 2000-04, and after graduating, he worked his way to a position on the Illinois bench for the 2008-11 seasons. A coaching change prompted an eventual move to Kansas in 2013, and Howard has since developed a reputation as one of the nation’s top recruiters under Bill Self.
Roger Powell is another option. The former Fighting Illini big man became an assistant at Valparaiso in 2011 following the conclusion of his professional career, and he has one season of high-major experience under his belt after following Bryce Drew to Vanderbilt.
Bruce Weber could even offer up another former player in Chester Frazier; the former Illinois point guard has been an assistant at Kansas State since 2012.
Deon Thomas is a name that Johnson specifically mentioned in his letter as “wanting to coach at any level.” That seems to be a rather curious statement because Thomas gave up an assistant gig at UIC after the 2015-16 season. In fact, Illinois already made a smart move by hiring Thomas as an analyst for the basketball radio team.
Illinois basketball is not a nepotistic job sourcing program. It’s a Power 5 athletic department that doesn’t owe anything to anyone. It’s time for Johnson and other players to start viewing it in the proper light.