Underwood cleared in probe, but faculty questions remain

Underwood cleared in probe, but faculty questions remain

CHAMPAIGN — Complaints about Coach Brad Underwood's language and treatment of men's basketball players prompted an internal investigation by the University of Illinois last summer, but it concluded the accusations were unfounded or did not violate UI policies.

Two faculty members of an athletic oversight committee later received a similar complaint, however, and argued that the accusations called for an outside investigation — like the one conducted in 2015 following allegations of player mistreatment in the UI football and women's basketball programs.

Athletic director Josh Whitman said comparisons to 2015 are "misplaced" and defended the UI's review, saying it followed standard protocols and was led by two faculty representatives, Tiffany White and Chris Span, and the department's chief integrity officer, Ryan Squire, who worked with the chancellor's office and campus legal counsel.

The allegations against Underwood, raised after the 2017-18 basketball season, accused the coach of "verbal abuse, racial harassment and punitive use of physical activity," according to a summary released by the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics following media inquiries.

In an interview with News-Gazette Media, Underwood and Whitman refused to provide more details or say whether it was a former or current player, parent or someone else who lodged the complaints, in order to protect the identity of those involved.

Six players left the Illini team following the 2017-18 season, Underwood's first at Illinois.

"Needless to say, the allegations were sufficiently concerning that obviously we thought it was appropriate to take immediate action and to look into the matter more carefully," Whitman said.

The month-long review, which concluded in September 2018, found that Underwood's coaching style, "while intense and challenging, was not abusive" and did not violate applicable university or DIA policies, according to Whitman. He said claims of racial harassment and punitive physical activity were "discredited."

The interviews with remaining players, coaches and support staff demonstrated "a strong consensus that the program was moving in a positive direction," with many praising the team's culture and Underwood's leadership, according to the athletic department's summary.

However, Whitman also said he had spoken to Underwood before the allegations surfaced about ways to improve his "use of language" and his interactions with players.

"I saw notable changes in the way he interacted with the team this year," Whitman told News-Gazette Media. "He coaches in a certain way, and I don't expect him to change the way he coaches. He's intense, he creates an environment where he makes his players uncomfortable to get them to go places they didn't think they could go. I think that's important for our program to grow and improve.

"I think the difference this year, there was I think some understanding that that can still happen, and he can still be true to that identity and do it in a way that is more relatable to the students," Whitman said. "Emotion can be a very effective tool. I saw him using it in a much more effective way."

(NOTE: Beat writer Scott Richey and host Scott Beatty analyze the report during Friday's 'SportsTalk' on WDWS 1400-AM, starting at 5 p.m.)

In December, UI Professors Michael LeRoy and Michael Raycraft, who serve on the UI Athletic Board, heard similar allegations from another source about Underwood's conduct toward student-athletes during the 2017-18 season, with photos and other documentation, according to emails released by the university.

The allegations involved "verbal abuse, racial harassment, medical mismanagement and punitive use of a treadmill," according to their Jan. 10 memo to Whitman. The professors, who met with the unnamed source, were also told that Underwood repeatedly taunted the unnamed victim with profanities and "for not playing with pain." Identifying information about the source and some other details were redacted.

"We found the information ... credible and disturbing," the professors wrote.

"This report sounded familiar to us. We heard similar accounts during the early part of our terms on the Athletic Board regarding Coach Tim Beckman. What appeared to be hearsay in the form of tweets from a disgruntled former football player proved later to be accurate and part of a pattern of medical mistreatment of players," Raycraft and LeRoy said in the memo.

That 2015 investigation by the Franczek Radelet law firm found former head football coach Tim Beckman (above) deterred injury reporting and influenced medical decisions that pressured players to avoid or postpone medical treatment. He was fired by former Athletic Director Mike Thomas, who was later fired himself in the fallout.

Whitman said the new allegations against Underwood were similar to those investigated and resolved during the earlier review, and stemmed from the same time period. The only new aspect involved the potential misdiagnosis and mistreatment of a player's injury, he said.

He said he reached out through LeRoy and Raycraft to try to communicate directly with the source, with no success.

"That entire scenario was brought to us through an anonymous source," he said, making it difficult to investigate.

In a follow-up letter to LeRoy and Raycraft this month, Chancellor Robert Jones also said the student-athlete involved had not raised any related concerns in an exit interview, "so unless additional details are forthcoming from a legitimate source, we have no information to act upon."

Whitman emphasized that all medical decisions about players are made by independent certified medical personnel, without involvement by any coaching staff.

"When it comes to medical opinions, decisions about who will play, who will not play, all of our coaches, Coach Underwood included, understand those decisions rest solely with our medical staff," Whitman said.

With 500 athletes and 50-plus coaches, he said, complaints surface on a regular basis. Standard practice is to do an internal review and, if serious, then refer the matter to outside investigators, Whitman said. In this case, reviewers felt it wasn't warranted, he said.

Based on last year's review, Jones said in his April 2 letter that he was "confident there was no serious or repeated misconduct by any University employee."

But in their memo, LeRoy and Raycraft said allegations of medical mistreatment are a "clear example" of problems that should be automatically referred to an outside, independent investigator.

Raycraft declined to discuss the memo or other related issues Friday, saying "that's a student issue and I don't talk about my work on the committee." LeRoy could not be reached for comment.

Whitman said he was dismayed about the allegations against Underwood, given the issues raised in 2015.

"That was obviously a prior chapter in our history. I wasn't here during that time. Coach wasn't here during that time," he said. "But I am very frustrated and disagree vehemently with any suggestion that this echoes what we'd seen previously."

He said he put in place several policy changes and "environmental changes, expectations, structural changes" since then to ensure that those problems weren't repeated.

"I feel very confident in the culture that we've created here, with our staff, within our individual sports programs."

Whitman said he decided to release the professors' memo and other documents related to the inquiry, as well as a summary of its findings, because some information had been shared with the media and he was going to have to respond to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The six players who left the program last year were not interviewed as part of the Underwood investigation, a point that LeRoy and Raycraft strongly criticized. Asked why, Whitman said they had all done exit interviews before graduating or leaving the university, a standard practice.

Four of those six players — Mark Smith (above), Michael Finke, Te'Jon Lucas and Greg Eboigbodin — transferred. Leron Black, who had already earned his bachelor's degree, opted to start his professional career, and Matic Vesel decided to return to his native Slovenia.

"We had just spoken to each of those individuals and felt like we had a good pulse on their experience," Whitman said, "and nothing had been brought to our attention that resonated with any of these allegations."

But he conceded that they weren't asked specifically about the allegations against Underwood, which came up later.

"Players leave or move on for a lot of different reasons," Underwood said, declining to discuss individual cases.

"Traditionally in a coach's first year you see a little more transition," he said, noting there are no players leaving the program this year.

Smith received a waiver from the NCAA to play at Missouri this year, which Whitman signed off on. Whitman wouldn't comment on whether the waiver was related to the allegations against Underwood.

"I had a chance to work with Missouri on the substance of the waiver for Mark, and I felt comfortable with the contents of that waiver. I felt comfortable with the justification that they provided. I would not have supported the waiver for Mark if the justification was something that made me feel uncomfortable or was inaccurate," Whitman said.

Underwood said he saw the review as an opportunity for improvement, acknowledging the environment around the program is "intense and challenging." He said the process helped him recognize that there were times when he could be a more effective communicator.

He said his philosophy focuses on players' accountability and responsibility, not just to themselves but to their teammates.

"We talk about consistency, being able to maximize every day your effort mentally and physically on the court. Sometimes in the heat of the moment, I may say something that I look back on" and want to change, he said.

Asked how his behavior has changed, Underwood said he's made "adjustments" in his approach.

"We all make mistakes. No one's perfect. I try to learn from those all the time, whether it's a basketball-related play or issue or whether it happens in everyday life," he said.

Whitman said it takes time to build trusting relationships with employees or players, and Underwood has been able to develop deeper relationships with his team this year, "not just on the court but off the court."

"A big part of success for us is those personal relationships, whether at Irwin Center, or my house on Monday night watching the (men's NCAA) national championship game, or hanging out in the locker room eating breakfast," Underwood said.

Asked if he still swears at players or gets emotional, Underwood said, "in certain situations."

"I think one of the things that I have a knack for, or a gift, is to find out what the pulse is of a team," he said. "You get that when you get to know them personally. Sometimes you have to call them on the carpet. Sometimes, me providing a little emotion helps them gain some emotion. Sometimes after a tough loss calling them on the carpet isn't what they need. They need a pat on the back."

Underwood (above, with Lou Henson and Josh Whitman) said he "absolutely" coached differently in his second season, which just concluded in March. He said he will probably make more changes next year, as he does for each team based on players' experience and leadership abilities.

But he said his underlying coaching philosophy remains the same. That philosophy has been at least partially shaped by the coaches Underwood has worked for, including Bob Huggins and Frank Martin, who have similarly emotive sideline demeanors.

"Every individual is different. We have players from all over the world who grow up in different cultures. We have players who react differently to things. Sure, I changed that part of it," he said. "But who I am as a person and the compassion that I have and the passion that I have proved to be very successful. I'm proud of the young people I've touched."

Whitman said it wasn't any "single moment" or specific instance that prompted him to suggest changes to Underwood at the end of his first season. He said he has conversations with all Illini coaches about ways they can "grow and develop."

"It was just more general observations about how he could interact ... more effectively with the people around this program, particularly student-athletes, having an awareness of not only what he was saying but how it was being received.

"To his credit he was incredibly receptive to that feedback, and showed tremendous progress and growth over the course of most of this most recent season. He's a very self-reflective person, and cares a lot about personal growth and development," Whitman said.

News-Gazette Media's Scott Richey contributed to this report.

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