CHAMPAIGN — Brad Underwood moved out from behind the podium on the small stage set up in the conference room on Thursday at the Holiday Inn in Champaign as soon as he grabbed the microphone.
Better to engage the room full of fans at the Illinois Quarterback Club luncheon following football coach Bret Bielema’s weekly update ahead of Friday night’s game against Maryland. Like Bielema before him, it didn’t take much for Underwood to capture the crowd’s attention.
Murmurs rippled through the room when Underwood discussed Utah transfer guard Alfonso Plummer. That Plummer might knock down 11 three-pointers in one game or score 23 points in 7 minutes like he did for the Utes seemed to excite the fan base. So did the idea of Florida transfer big man Omar Payne being able to jump and touch the top of the backboard.
The biggest burst from the crowd, though, came when Underwood was discussing the 2021-22 schedule. Particularly that first Big Ten road game and his expectations for what Illinois would do to new heated rivals Iowa in Iowa City.
“I’m looking forward, truly, to settling down with this group of guys and hunkering down,” Underwood said.
That means getting through the rest of what is a busy September for Underwood, his coaching staff and the team. Workouts will continue before the official start of practice. And the Illini coaches have been on the road recruiting.
“September is our busiest month,” Underwood said. “We’ve got a lot of young people on campus (Thursday). Monday was a fun day. I got to play golf in a donor outing. Tuesday and Wednesday, I’ve been in Michigan, Ohio, New Jersey, Baltimore and Pennsylvania. I spent the last two days recruiting, got back late (Wednesday) night and had a workout at 8 o’clock (Thursday) morning.”
Underwood couldn’t mention specifically which recruits he went to see this week given the NCAA violation he would be committing. But the trip to Michigan got him together with four-star Class of 2022 wing Ty Rodgers, and he saw another four-star 2022 wing Otega Oweh in New Jersey.
Rodgers is one of three recruits set to visit campus this week. He’ll be on campus alongside fellow 2022 recruit Sencire Harris, who is already committed to the Illini, and Class of 2023 guard Jeremy Fears Jr.
Underwood’s recruiting pitch is different now. He’s got success at Illinois to sell. Not to mention a secure future given Thursday’s one-year contract extension that will keep him in Champaign through the 2026-27 season. But mostly the success. Winning the most Big Ten games of any team in the conference the last two seasons is an angle Underwood didn’t have when he took the Illinois job nearly 4 1/2 years ago.
“That was our biggest challenge in the recruiting game,” Underwood said. “We hadn’t won. I’ve got a young man on campus (Thursday) who was born in 2003. So you start bringing up Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Do you realize how long ago that was? They have no idea. In their lifetime, they didn’t know success at Illinois.”
The success of the past two season — 45 total wins, 29 in the Big Ten and year-end rankings in the Associated Press Top 25 both times — is only part of the pitch. Underwood has always hammered home Illinois’ status as an elite university. That renovation and expansion of Ubben Basketball Complex is only one of the facilities upgrades underway in Champaign is a new wrinkle.
“That’s progress,” Underwood said. “Everybody wants to be a part of that. I don’t care where they’re from. We’ve got a lot to offer, and we’re proud of that. I mentioned all those states I was in, and those are Big Ten states.
“We’re attractive as heck to all of those people because of that. We feel like we can go anywhere and we can compete against anybody. I don’t care if they’re the best player in the country or they’re somebody we really like that’s not ranked. I don’t care. If they fit us, we’re going to take them. We’ve got a lot to offer, and I’m proud to go sell that to everybody.”