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Brad Underwood Might Be a Great Coach, but There’s No Recent Precedent for It



Undoubtedly many of you will think this column is a response to my candidate (Doug Gottlieb) not getting the job at Oklahoma State. That’s fine. If I were you, I would think the same thing. But let’s try for a minute to put Doug Gottlieb over there [points off in distance] and think about this hire in relation to other available coaches. Gottlieb was always the radical, unorthodox hire. You can’t compare him to anyone else or anyone else to him. This is not about that.

According to my social media feed, Brad Underwood to Stillwater is the best college basketball hire since UCLA snagged John Wooden from Indiana State in 1948. And hey, maybe it will turn out that way. But the reality is that it wasn’t even the best hire made on Monday by one of the three Big 12 teams that missed the NCAA Tournament this year.

Think about that for a second. TCU got Jamie Dixon. Oklahoma State got a coach from the Southland Conference. The best team for three straight years in the Southland Conference … but still.

Carson has talked me into his fit and his background and his valuation of defense above all else. And really, I do think this could work and work well. He’s not the compelling figure a Buzz Williams is, but dynamic personalities don’t necessarily win basketball games. Basketball players do.

And Underwood has had basketball players who have won a lot of them.

But there are red flags for me. The foremost of which is this is sort of unprecedented.

The last coach to come out of Stephen F. Austin — you know, the one who recruited Thomas Walkup, won the Southland and went 27-5 before handing the reins to Underwood — yeah, he just had his third straight losing season at Texas State.

So that’s not great.

In fact, here are the coaches to come out of the Southland Conference and take over Power Five schools since 2000:

That’s all of them.[1. Interestingly, on the women’s side, Julie Goodenough just won Southland Coach of the Year with Abilene Christian. Goodenough, as you probably remember, was not good enough for Oklahoma State to retain after three losing seasons.]

Not take over and become successful. Just take over. Scour this page for yourself. Zero coaches have come out of the Southland straight to Power Five schools since 2000. The closest you can get is Billy Kennedy who went from Southeastern Louisiana to Murray State to Texas A&M.

Heck, more ex-players who were not coaching have come into the Big 12 and won 115 games in five years than coaches have come out of the Southland Conference and coached Power Five schools.

In fact, it has largely been a conference where coaching careers go to die. Billy Tubbs, Pat Knight and Corliss Williamson have all been on the wrong side of their own careers in that conference.

Brooks Thompson was in the Southland. He was winning 18, 19, 20 games a year. Then they moved to the WAC and then Conference USA and he got crushed. He went 5-27 last year. He’s out of a job. You’re not playing Incarnate Word anymore.

Speaking of Incarnate Word. They finished fifth in the conference in 2014 to SFA. They were a Division 2 program in 2013. They aren’t eligible for postseason play until 2018.

The other red flag is that Underwood was an assistant for 25 years. Twenty-five years and he never got a gig? There are two ways to look at that of course. Way No. 1: He’s not a good, dynamic coach. Way No. 2: He never caught the right breaks and was content just doing his job which Frank Martin alludes to here and also which I’m completely open to believing.

In fact, I love this quote from a column Gary Parrish wrote at the beginning of last season.

“I guess my old midwestern values kinda just always came into play, at some point, because I’ve always been a guy who thought, ‘Just do your job and you’ll get rewarded for it,’ said Underwood “I’ve never been big at self-promoting. I’ve always just believed that good things come to those who work hard. So I was always happy for other guys when they got their chances, and I never really lost doubt, even for a second, that mine would come.”

The third red flag is crootin. Is he good at it? “Thomas Walkup!” you say. Yeah, baller. He didn’t recruit him. Who he did recruit was a handful of transfers who scored a lot of points for him as seniors this year. I like that. He’ll need to do a lot of it to thrive amid the Bill Selfs and Shaka Smarts of the world.

But here’s the thing. If somebody is going to make the leap and have success, it’s Underwood. Nobody has ever had a better record in Southland Conference history. He went 53-1 in conference play. What else do you want from him? 54-0? Only Brad Stevens can match him win for win thus far. Granted, Butler was playing real teams. But still!

And I’m in on the discipline and values and all of that. But let’s not act like this was the grand slam everyone seems to be propping it up as. Underwood took over a juggernaut at SFA and improved it. That’s much different than what’s happening at OSU.[1. Although sometimes this is even more difficult to do.] So there are serious questions here just like there would be with any hire.

But you were touting Gottlieb and he’s never even coached a game much less won 89 of them.

I realize that, but again, this is not about comparing Underwood to Gottlieb. It’s about comparing Underwood to Gregg Marshall and Buzz Williams and all of these other coaches who were supposedly candidates.

Look, I think it was a fine hire. I think it could turn out quite well for the Pokes. I called it average on Twitter on Monday. That was probably a little unfair. It was better than that.

Brad Underwood can be successful in GIA because he’s riding a heater and he seems to be a legitimately good basketball coach and he’ll be given time to do his thing. But the question is not, “can he?” It’s “will he?”

And that remains to be seen. It hasn’t happened this century. But a coach with an 86 percent winning clip has also never been married to a crown jewel like GIA.

I’m fascinated to see what transpires.

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