Tate | Underwood's challenge evident in probe aftermath

Tate | Underwood's challenge evident in probe aftermath

Just because you are floored with a black eye, that doesn't mean you can't win the fight.

It makes the task more difficult, that's all. And that's where coach Brad Underwood finds himself today, having long since put the Oklahoma State brouhaha behind him (an FBI probe caused his assistant in 2016-17, Lamont Evans, to plead guilty to bribery), and now being absolved of wrongdoing in an internal investigation of his handling of 2017-18 basketball team members.

Perceptions, true or false, carry weight, so it doesn't help that Underwood's harsh language and aggressive treatment — typical of many veteran coaches — are making headlines just four days ahead of Wednesday's intended signings of two or three recruits.

Here are 12 thoughts on the matter.

(1) As we saw with Virginia’s Tony Bennett, it’s possible to win at the highest level without excessive swearing and sideline ranting. In Underwood’s first large Rebounders meeting in 2017, a fan displeased with the style of previous UI coaches, asked about his sideline demeanor. A huge roar of approval followed as he reached out from the dais, picked up a chair and sat in it. He did not follow his own advice when the season started.

(2) Underwood comes from the coaching tree of West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, labeled “the coach you would least like to play for” in an April poll of 110 NCAA players. Huggins has had successful though inconsistent tours at Cincinnati and West Virginia, this year’s 4-14 Big 12 team losing James Bolten, Wesley Harris and Esa Ahmad during the season and three more transfers at season’s end. Huggins, when apprised last year of his unrelenting style, was quoted as saying, “I’m not nearly as tough as Brad Underwood.”

(3) Tough approaches and crude language are normal in the business. Lou Henson was unrelenting even though he never swore. Lon Kruger was a stern tactician without going too far. Bill Self and Bruce Weber were harsh in the extreme at times. That’s the nature of the brute. Check out Tom Izzo and Fran McCaffery. Bennett is the exception.

(4) When we see 1,900 football players enter the new transfer portal, and hundreds rushing to enter the basketball portal, there are reasons beyond playing time. Not all modern basketball players are willing to accept insulting treatment from coaches whose primary job is influencing them to perform basketball functions that they would rather not do.

(5) The story broke here Friday because an unnamed third-party brought it to the attention of a media source, which in turn was seeking collaborating information from the UI. AD Josh Whitman moved quickly to “get out ahead of it.” The inference, not confirmed, is that someone associated with one of four transferring players — Mark Smith, Michael Finke, Te’Jon Lucas and Greg Eboigbodin — was the source of the complaint.

(6) Underwood was found not in violation of UI policies, but it’s nevertheless true that Whitman recognized a first-year problem and held private discussions with Underwood about lightening his approach. Underwood appeared receptive, and now states that he “took a step back (after 2017-18) to think critically about how I interact with the team. This process helped me realize I can be a better communicator.”

(7) Underwood’s tight relationship with Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili is well known. And from walk-on Drew Cayce to sub Alan Griffin to rising junior Trent Frazier, current Illini players rallied in support Saturday. Freshman reserve Anthony Higgs called the charges “blasphemous ... a great man (who) exceeds his coaching career by far.”

(8) Six players left a year ago, all with eligibility remaining. However, Whitman said exit interviews did not reveal unhappiness. Of course, bland responses on exit interviews are probably normal, even though Whitman insists that probing questions were asked. But it’s apparent that Smith, in transferring to Missouri, gained immediate eligibility there by claiming some sort of inappropriate treatment in his petition.

(9) Whitman was satisfied that wording in Smith’s application for eligibility “did not make me feel uncomfortable or was inaccurate.” But surely, in that instance, Whitman must have realized that the Smith case could have been handled better.

(10) Whitman said DIA integrity officer Ryan Squire and his internal investigators followed protocol in checking into claims of misconduct. Feedback from this group convinced Whitman that an outside investigator, as was used in the 2015 case, was unnecessary. Whitman saw no comparison between the 2015 football and women’s basketball cases.

(11) Questions about thoroughness were raised because none of the six departing players was interviewed beyond their non-specific exit interviews. Confirming this Friday was Champaign Central coach Jeff Finke, father of Michael Finke (who played his final year at Grand Canyon). Jeff said neither he nor Mike was contacted by Whitman, Squire or any member of the investigating group.

(12) UI Professors Michael LeRoy and Michael Raycraft received the original harassment complaint from an unidentified third-party — and found it “credible and disturbing” — which raises a question as to why the internal committee didn’t turn their investigation directly toward the departed players. Whitman repeated that he was satisfied with the internal review. As for charges of racial harassment, this drew the attention of UI Chancellor Robert Jones, two faculty reps and Keiko Price, all respected African-Americans. They found the charge unsubstantiated.

Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at ltate@news-gazette.com.

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