Underwood's hiring adds to recent UI positivity
CHAMPAIGN — The stigma is gone. Or, at least, fading fast.
In 2015, Illinois fired its football coach and its athletic director. There were pending lawsuits. The chancellor resigned.
It was not an easy time to be involved with the school's athletic program. Each month seemed to bring more negative news.
"We had a lot of different things that didn't go well in a lot of areas in the entire university," Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb said. "That was tough on everybody. Not just in the department, but the faculty and staff and the leadership. There were a lot of things that happened that were tough on all of us."
The mood swing started with the hiring of former Illinois tight end Josh Whitman as athletic director in February 2016. He quickly brought in football coach Lovie Smith.
"The culture is very, very good right now," Hartleb said. "It's fun to go into work and have a good atmosphere and a winning environment, an open environment.
"I think people right now look at us in a positive manner. We went through that stint where they didn't."
The positive feelings continued Monday with the formal introduction of Brad Underwood as the new men's basketball coach.
"He's got a great track record," Hartleb said after listening to Underwood's opening press conference at State Farm Center. "Everything he talked about at the podium are things that, in our program, we believe in: Having integrity and playing hard, and having an identity and creating a culture. I'm excited to watch his teams. It will be fun to have him as part of our family."
Hartleb likes to drop in on practices of different Illinois teams "just to see how coaches handle their players. See how they get them to play at a high level. See what their personalities are like when they win and when they lose."
Hartleb plans to take a look at Underwood's practices.
"All the coaches here have been impactful on what we try to do in our program," Hartleb said. "This will be another person I hope I can learn from."
When Hartleb first arrived at Illinois, Lou Henson was the basketball coach.
“I’ve seen a lot of coaches go through, a lot of really good coaches,” Hartleb said. “Everybody that I’ve seen that coached here, there are things I’ve taken from them.”
Hartleb and his players try to attend basketball games whenever possible.
"I love to come to games," Hartleb said. "I try to go to every football and basketball game that I can go to. If we have an opportunity to plan practices so our staff and players can go to football and basketball games, we always do that. I think it's important for us to support other programs. I think it's important for our players to see others compete."
Offensive line coach Luke Butkus represented the football staff at Monday's announcement. Most of that team's coaches, including Smith, are out of town before the recruiting crunch starts.
Butkus roots for the basketball team.
"I grew up an Illini fan," Butkus said. "My whole family are Illini. When football and basketball are going, this place is an awesome place. It's an awesome place regardless, but you always want to see them do well."
Success in basketball helps football recruiting. Butkus and the staff will take prospects to State Farm Center during visits.
"It's always fun to come in and bring recruits to the basketball games and have us blow out opponents," Butkus said.
He has always been a fan. Butkus followed the Flyin' Illini in 1989.
"They were huge for me," Butkus said. "I was 10, 11 years old.
"Kendall Gill grew up kind of where I grew up. There's just something special about that team. There's an image implanted in my head of Lou Henson and that team behind the old Assembly Hall. When I think of Illinois basketball, I think of that."
Butkus is a former teammate and longtime friend of Whitman.
"It's an exciting time for Illinois right now," Butkus said. "There are a lot of great things going on. The head guy (Whitman) is doing some great things here.
"He made a great decision. I'll back him as long as the day is long."
"We all have great trust in Josh and his leadership," Hartleb said. "It's important to have good leaders."
Underwood is an early hit with the Illinois administration.
"We're happy to have him and excited," UI associate chancellor Mike DeLorenzo said. "A great process to get him here. I think Chancellor (Robert Jones) is thrilled."
Underwood meets the criteria set by the school.
"We want somebody that's professional and wants to win," DeLorenzo said, "and has the same philosophy that Josh does. That came across very well. They're going to make a great team together."
Whitman's ties to the school help with his hirings.
"Josh is very proud of his alma mater, and that comes through," DeLorenzo said. "That's something that we think is very powerful to attract people here."