CHAMPAIGN — Matt McCumber’s office was right across the hall from Chester Frazier’s at the Ice Family Basketball Center on the Kansas State campus.
Frazier’s door was always open. And there were always players stopping by to have lunch or watch film or debate Michael Jordan versus LeBron James, with Frazier taking up for the true G.O.A.T.
That’s what has stuck with McCumber nearly a decade later.
“Sometimes in college basketball, these kids, the last thing they want to do is go to the office and see their coaches,” McCumber said Thursday afternoon. “They wanted to be around him. That’s what I’ll always remember.”
McCumber and Frazier’s relationship dates back before they both worked for Bruce Weber at Kansas State in the last decade.
McCumber, then a student manager, was the one who picked up Frazier at the airport and got him to campus the summer before his freshman year at Illinois in 2005.
On Thursday, McCumber was celebrating Frazier’s impending return to Champaign. The former Illini guard will join Brad Underwood’s coaching staff for the 2021-22 season, with Illinois announcing the hire in a tweet from its official men’s basketball account just before 5 p.m.
“Chester is a leader, a competitor and a winner,” Underwood said in a statement. “His work ethic on the court and on the recruiting trail, combined with the strong relationships he builds with players, make him a tremendous addition.”
The 35-year-old Frazier, whose three-year contract is pending board of trustees approval later this month, will fill one of two vacancies on Underwood’s staff after Kentucky hired Orlando Antigua and Chin Coleman on Thursday morning to join John Calipari’s staff.
“He’s had an unbelievable rise and it’s because of his hard work,” McCumber said of Frazier, who spent the last two years as associate head coach at Virginia Tech under Mike Young after working with Weber for seven seasons.
“Just take his playing style and move it straight into an assistant coach role,” McCumber said. “That same exact passion and hard work. I think it’s a perfect fit for Underwood’s demeanor. I think he will fit in very well in that regard.”
Former Illinois guard Trent Meacham was just as supportive of the hire. Meacham and Frazier arrived at Illinois the same year, and after Meacham redshirted in the 2005-06 season, they played three seasons together.
“One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Meacham said. “Really, just a selfless guy. I’m not surprised that he’s done well in coaching. He’s as genuine as it gets.”
Frazier was a three-year starter and two-time captain in four seasons at Illinois from 2005-09 and finished his Illini career as a three-time Big Ten All-Defensive Team selection. Frazier played two seasons overseas — with a season as a graduate assistant at Illinois sandwiched in between — before starting his coaching career in earnest.
“I am honored and excited to get back to the University of Illinois, which I consider home,” Frazier said in a statement. “I have blood, sweat and tears invested there, met my wife there and deep down still bleed Orange and Blue. I am motivated to get to work and help our program win a Big Ten championship. It escaped me as a player — I finished second twice — so that is going to be what drives me every day, bringing a trophy home to Champaign.”
McCumber saw Frazier’s transition from player to coach up close at Kansas State. In those early years at Kansas State, it leaned more toward the player side still.
“Sometimes when ex-players get hired as coaches, they just kind of lean on their past as a player and don’t work as hard or are just there collecting a check,” McCumber said. “Chester’s an extremely tireless worker. He’s got a passion for coaching. He wants to help kids. The players love him.”
It wasn’t uncommon to see Frazier on the court well before Kansas State’s practices either working out players or, in the early years, playing them one-on-one.
“I think he missed playing to begin with,” McCumber continued. “I think he missed that competitiveness. He was down there an hour or hour-and-a-half before, and he was in it. He was playing with the guys. He was getting them better, but at the same time, he was competing with them and trying to make them tougher.”
Frazier coached during one of the more successful stretches in Kansas State basketball history during his seven seasons in Manhattan, Kan. The Wildcats won 150 games and two Big 12 regular-season titles with Frazier on staff and also made five NCAA tournament appearances, including a run to the Elite Eight in 2018.
Then came the last two seasons at Virginia Tech after being hired in April 2019 and five months later being promoted to associate head coach.
“If he’s still at K-State does he get this job?” McCumber said. “Probably, but I think it was the best thing for him. It’s always good to go and work for different people and different staffs and different personalities. It’s only going to make you better as a coach.”
Frazier’s return to Illinois comes in a transitory stage for the program.
Illinois just put together its best season in nearly two decades. The Illini posted a 24-7 record, won a Big Ten tournament title and finished as the No. 2 team in the country in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll of the season before a disappointing second-round exit as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. First-Team All-American guard Ayo Dosunmu declared for the NBA draft and won’t be back, and Second-Team All-American center Kofi Cockburn could do the same.
Antigua and Coleman’s joint departure just added to the turnover. But that did create the opportunity for Frazier to return to Illinois.
“It’s great to have a former Illini on the staff, but as Brad Underwood’s shown, you don’t have to have that to do well,” Meacham said. “I think it’s great to have him back. I’ll be clear, though. He’s not back because he’s a former Illini. I think Chester’s very much qualified and is deserving of this position. He’d be a deserving coach at any school in the country.”
Frazier’s history at Illinois, though, gives him different insight into the program. He has his own firsthand account to sell.
“This is my university, this is where I grew up (and) this is where I became a man,” McCumber said. “I think that it’s a story that he can really tell to recruits. He can look them in the eye and say, ‘I lived it every day.’ … I think it adds some legitimacy to it.”