On Thursday, the University of Illinois athletic department announced that Brad Underwood signed a contract extension through 2026-27. This was Underwood’s second extension in the last year — in 2020, he signed through the 2025-26 season.
The contract extension is pending approval by the UI Board of Trustees.
What It Means for the Athletic Department
This extension is more of an administrative maneuver for Josh Whitman and the athletic department than it is a coronation for Illinois basketball. After all, Illinois is currently paying two head football coaches, including a big chunk of change given to Bret Bielema at the end of 2020.
Whitman likely knew that the end of Lovie Smith’s tenure was near in early 2020. His great victory was extending Underwood for four years without having to sign a major deal, while still being able to get to bring in Bielema. Presumably, extending Underwood gradually made it more palatable for the Board of Trustees to approve Bret’s contract.
And of course, no one who makes their living in sports wants to negotiate a contract during the middle of the season. In all likelihood, the Board of Trustees will approve the deal on Sept. 23, almost two months to the day before the season’s first major game against Cincinnati.
What it Means for the Team
As I mentioned, this may be more of an administrative victory for Whitman than it is for the program, but it does ensure one more year of Brad Underwood that we might not have otherwise had. And that’s good! Brad has been an excellent head of the program, and he’s shown that he’s highly capable of adapting to change in two key ways.
First, Underwood and his staff have proven that it can recruit traditionally, as well as attract transfers to the program. This is extremely important given the changes in the college sports landscape due to COVID-19 and NIL, as well as the inevitability of lean recruiting years.
Underwood has also shown that he can adjust his style of play to his roster. He came to Illinois with a full-court press that led to a ton of turnovers but exposed major holes in the defense. Once Kofi Cockburn came to campus as a freshman, Brad and his staff restructured their whole defense around Kofi, leading to the best record in the Big Ten over the last two years.
Beyond Underwood’s ability to adapt, it’s clear that he has the admiration of his players. Despite the loss of heavy hitting recruiters Orlando Antigua and Ron Coleman this offseason, Brad’s players have remained loyal. The Illini kept all of their 2022 commits, lost only lost one player to the transfer portal (Adam Miller), and got two key transfers in Alonso Plummer and Omar Payne.
Putting it in Perspective
Overall, the 2020-21 season was a smashing success for Illinois basketball, perhaps even more so than Josh Whitman had imagined. Underwood was already a rising star in college basketball, and now he’s one of the top-10 paid coaches in the country. And he’s locked in for six more years.
Underwood could always leave early and pay the university his buyout. However, if he stays through the term of this extension, he’ll be the longest tenured Illinois basketball coach since Lou Henson.
Think about that.
Lou Henson made the NCAA Tournament 11 times, including eight straight, and had a Final Four appearance in 1989. But he only won a single Big Ten championship in his 22 years. Bill Self and Bruce Weber both won two Big Ten titles, and Lon Kruger won one also.
So what does this all mean? To me, it means that Brad Underwood has the opportunity to do something truly special here. He won’t break Lou’s record of 423 wins, including 214 in Big Ten. However, he could win more Big Ten titles than Lou, and he could go to more Final Fours.
Underwood’s already tied for the most Big Ten Tournament championships in program history, with one. I bet he’ll get another one, but let’s hope for bigger things and bigger rings.