Big Ten

Like he did with Lovie Smith and football, Josh Whitman's hire of Brad Underwood brings a new identity to Illini basketball

Like he did with Lovie Smith and football, Josh Whitman's hire of Brad Underwood brings a new identity to Illini basketball

Most folks in Big Ten Country might not know exactly what to expect from new Illinois head basketball coach Brad Underwood.

But it looks like Josh Whitman has done something similar with the basketball program to what he did with the football program when he hired Lovie Smith a little more than a year ago.

The football program was floundering under Tim Beckman and Bill Cubit, seemingly rudderless with a whole bunch of losing going on down in Champaign. Smith's hiring brought instant credibility and a jolt of energy to a program that desperately needed it, but most importantly it gave the Illini an identity.

Anyone who watched Smith's NFL teams, be they Bears fans or not, knew instantly what kind of football he liked to play. He was a defensive guy who made his Bears teams some of the best defensive squads the league had seen in a long time. The turnover-driven defensive mentality followed Smith from Chicago to Tampa Bay, and while it might take him a little while longer to implement it in Champaign, there's no doubt that's what he's trying to do at Illinois.

Even if you didn't watch Oklahoma State or weren't familiar with Stephen F. Austin outside of a couple NCAA tournament games, it doesn't take much digging to know what Underwood likes to do. He likes to score a whole lot of points.

So say hello to Illinois basketball's new identity.

The Cowboys were the No. 6 scoring offense in the nation this season, averaging 85.7 points a game. Illinois, in case you were wondering, averaged 72.1 points a game, good for 198th nationally.

But the difference between Smith's arrival and Underwood's might be that you won't need to expect a football-style waiting period for the new identity to take root. Underwood spent just one season in Stillwater. The year before he got there, the Cowboys averaged 66.5 points a game and ranked 303rd out of 346 Division-I teams. Meanwhile, his Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks averaged 80.2 points a game and ranked 23rd in the country.

So, while Underwood might run into some more challenging defenses in the Big Ten than he did in the Southland Conference or even the Big 12, there's a good reason to believe that Illinois can change into a very different team overnight.

And isn't this what Whitman was trying to do? That was his goal with his football hire, bringing in someone who could put a definitive stamp on a program that had lost its way or didn't have one to begin with. John Groce is a good man who couldn't win many meaningful basketball games at Illinois, and while he frequently repeated his "toughness and togetherness" line, those intangible concepts don't resonate as much as more than 80 points a game would.

Underwood might not be the guy Illinois fans expected. Though no one expected Smith, either.

Again Whitman acted fast and acted to define one of his school's major programs. And whether success comes or not, he's made a bold statement once more.

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Pat Fitzgerald, Lovie Smith in top 10 of an intriguing college coach list

Northwestern and Illinois’ college football programs are ranked in the top 10 this year.

Kind of.

One esteemed name in the college football ranks has placed Wildcats head coach Pat Fitzgerald atop the list of the all-time greatest college coaches…ranked as players. Illini coach Lovie Smith ranks at No. 10.

Rich Cirminiello, Director of College Awards for the Maxwell Football Club, compiled the list and he is an excellent follow on Twitter. He has several other noteworthy lists of interest, including the top college football players who are now coaches in the NFL. Psst…spoiler alert: several local connections are on that particular list as well, including Saints head coach Sean Payton (QB, Eastern Illinois) and Ron Rivera (LB, California).

But back to Coach Fitz, who bleeds purple and has emphatically put the NU football program on the map since the mid-90s. He was a two-time All-American in addition to receiving consecutive Bronco Nagurski, Chuck Bednarik and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors as a linebacker (1995-96). He helped guide the Wildcats to the ’96 Rose Bowl. Since becoming the team’s head coach in 2006, he has led the program to nine bowl games (four wins).

We all know Lovie Smith’s coaching legacy with the Bears and his rebuilding of the Illinois football program, but did you know how much he dominated as a college player? He played for Tulsa from 1976-79, racking up 367 career tackles primarily as a safety. He was a three-time All-Missouri Valley Conference award winner and earned a second-team All-America mention in 1978. He was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after he tallied 90 tackles as a freshman.

[MORE: Lovie Smith, Mike Tirico discuss systemic racism 

Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh, who passed for over 11,000 yards in seven seasons as a Chicago Bear, ranked No. 2 on Cirminiello’s list. In a follow-up tweet, Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck, who dominated as a wide receiver at NIU and at nearby Kaneland High School, came in at No. 20. Western Michigan’s Tim Lester —a star player at Wheaton Warrenville South HS— is in at No. 7.

Who said that the Land of Lincoln didn’t have top college football talent?

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Northwestern Wildcats athletic department begins phased return to campus

Professional, collegiate and prep sports have been on hold in Illinois since mid-March but it looks like there may be more light at the end of the tunnel. This time, in Evanston.

Northwestern University announced Thursday that a phased reopening of the athletic department, in tandem with NU’s overall policy for a return to campus, will include student athlete workouts on Monday June 22.

The relaunch of athletics at Northwestern during the COVID-19 pandemic comes as the state of Illinois is progressing in its own planned reopening, as dictated by Gov. J.B. Pritzker.

The sports medicine staff, athletic trainers and student-athletes with post-injury needs were welcomed back earlier this month and other select groups will be admitted back to campus next week.

Athletes will be required to complete a full physical upon arrival in Evanston on June 22. They will be screened before entering on-site facilities by means of a wellness check and a no-touch temperature scan.

Facility access will be managed through one entrance and exit. Locker facilities and lounges will remain closed, though, along with dining centers.

[MORE: Shortened NFL preseason puts big group of players at a disadvantage]

The Wildcats football team, along with both the men’s and women’s basketball programs, are penciled in to begin those voluntary workouts a week from Monday. Each unit should have plenty of motivation once they hit the playing surface.

Head coach Pat Fitzgerald and company are eager to put last year’s 3-9 mark behind them. On the hardwood, Chris Collins’ group needs a quick bounce-back after an 8-23 mark last season while the women’s team, under the tutelage of Big Ten Coach of the Year Joe McKeown, are looking to build off a stellar 2019-20 campaign. They won the their first conference championship since 1989-90 and boasted a school record 26 wins.


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