PMP 2023: Underwood's Coaching Style

May 18, 2023

Hoo boy. When I decided to do a fundraiser this way, I was aware that some of the questions might be difficult. This one is a "hey Robert, please go on the record with this controversial subject" kind of question, but Thomas donated $200 to the scholarship fund (twice the requested donation amount), so I have to give his question the full-go treatment.

His question:

Since coaches reflect on its university, should the demeanor & antics of Coach Underwood should be managed or limited in anyway by Illinois?

~Thomas E. Wilson

First off, thank you, Thomas, for your generous donation to the scholarship fund. Second, hoo boy, what a question. My thoughts:

This debate surfaced again last month when an assistant professor of sociology from the University of New Brunswick in Canada sent a letter to Josh Whitman (and tweeted the letter) asking that Underwood be censured for his behavior in this clip:

It should be noted, this professor is writing a book called "The End Of College Football", co-hosts a podcast called "The End Of Sport", and recently recorded a pod titled "Florida, Fascism, and Athletic Resistance". It's a free country (well, not his country), and he's entitled to his opinion, but I think it needs to be acknowledged that writing a letter like this is part of an overall campaign to end college athletics. He has come not to bring peace, but a sword.

It's still a fair question, though. The behavior in that video clip. Over the line? Right up to the line? Well behind the line? That's what Thomas is asking in his question here. Should these "antics" (his word) be managed in any way?

My first reaction to that is to note that they have been. As part of an investigation and report following allegations from a player's parent during Underwood's first season in Champaign. A full investigation took place at the time, and in April of 2019, the University released its findings. I was going to clip this and just give you highlights from the statement but it's probably best to cut-and-paste the entire thing:

CHAMPAIGN, IL - The Division of Intercollegiate Athletics today released information related to an internal review of the Fighting Illini men's basketball program following receipt of a complaint stemming from events during the 2017-18 season. The allegations focused on head coach Brad Underwood's behavior and language. The review, concluded prior to the 2018-19 season, confirmed that Underwood's coaching style, while intense and challenging, was not abusive or in violation of applicable University or DIA policies.

The review, initiated by Director of Athletics Josh Whitman, followed DIA's standard protocol for investigating claims against any member of its coaching staff, including adherence to strict confidentiality guidelines. Two members of the University's faculty led the review, which was conducted in tandem with two members of DIA's Executive Staff, including its Chief Integrity Officer. The review, which included interviews with team members, coaches, and support staff, was prepared, executed, and concluded with the full knowledge and support of the Chancellor's Office and the assistance of Campus Legal Counsel.

"There is nothing more important to us than the experience of our student-athletes," Whitman said. "With approximately 500 men and women competing in 21 sports, it should come as no surprise that we occasionally receive information pertaining to potential problems between student-athletes and coaches. In these situations, the DIA has developed a standard, comprehensive review protocol.

"In this case, the system again worked as it has been designed," continued Whitman. "The allegations we received were concerning, and we acted swiftly to ensure that the environment within our men's basketball program was constructive, appropriate and reflective of our University's values. I was pleased to learn that our players, staff and coaches have a strong affinity for each other and, in particular, appreciate the leadership provided by Coach Underwood.

"Without question, Coach Underwood creates an intense, challenging environment where he routinely pushes people out of their respective comfort zones," said Whitman. "As evidenced by feedback we received, the people associated with our program believe that growth often comes from such an atmosphere. Nonetheless, the focus of my conversations with Brad after his first season was his need for improvement in his use of language and in his interactions with student-athletes. I have always been impressed with Brad's willingness to self-reflect and his interest in personal improvement, and our discussions again showed his commitment in these areas."

The collective interviews demonstrated a strong consensus that the program was moving in a positive direction. Due to the nature of the allegations and the visibility of the men's basketball program, Chancellor Robert Jones was kept apprised of the review from its outset and ultimately closed the matter following the review's conclusion and consultation with the faculty members and Whitman.

"Josh prioritizes integrity above all else and, as a former student-athlete and Illinois alumnus, will never sacrifice the experience of our student-athletes, which was so meaningful in his own life," said Jones. "Since Josh's arrival, we have developed robust procedures for reviewing claims of this kind, including a prominent role for the objective voice of our faculty. I have great confidence in the process undertaken and the conclusions we reached, and I look forward to supporting Coach Underwood and our men's basketball student-athletes as they progress toward a successful future."

Coach Underwood participated fully in the review and saw it as an opportunity for self-reflection and improvement.

"At heart I'm an educator, and I ask my players to continually strive to better themselves, and I take great pride in doing that as well," said Underwood. "Even before this situation arose, Josh and I had spoken, and I had taken a step back to think critically about how I interact with my team. Without question, our environment is intense and challenging, and I want players in our program to thrive in that atmosphere. But there are moments where I can be a more effective communicator and leader, and this process helped me recognize that.

"Just as I saw growth in our team during this most recent season, I hope our team saw growth in me," continued Underwood. "Every day we come to the gym to work together and push one another to improve. I am excited about what we have started and look forward to continuing our journey together."

To protect the identities of the involved individuals, the review was conducted under strict confidentiality guidelines. DIA is choosing to release these materials now because an unidentified third-party shared information to the media, resulting in several inquiries.

We don't know the specific complaint, nor do we know what Josh Whitman is referencing there when he says "the focus of my conversations with Brad after his first season was his need for improvement in his use of language and in his interactions with student-athletes." It feels like it somewhat aligns with what was being discussed here in 2023 (yelling at, and perhaps using certain language towards, his players). But we don't know if that 2019 letter is referencing something beyond all of that.

Still, University faculty investigated, and the result of that investigation was that "Underwood's coaching style, while intense and challenging, was not abusive or in violation of applicable University or DIA policies." If we can apply that to the 2023 video, the answer from the University would likely be the same: "what is seen in that video does not violate University policy." Intense and challenging, not abusive.

And I believe that's the focus of Thomas' question. Should Underwood's actions be limited in any way? It's a debate that happens everywhere. If we just stay in the Big Ten, remember Tom Izzo and Gabe Brown?

Or Izzo and Aaron Henry? (Different Aaron Henry.)

Each of these incidents plays out the same way. The clip will spread on social media, the debate will ensue, and then, usually, a current or former player says something about how the intensity of the coach helped him get where he wanted to be. That usually ends the Twitter debate, but I'm sure it's not a satisfying answer, especially for our Canadian professor friend. He believes that the video clip of Underwood above, in his words, "can only reasonably be characterized as bullying and abusive."

So that's the debate we see play out when these clips are discussed on social media. Someone will say that the world has gone soft if a coach can't yell at a player, someone else will mention that the coach gets millions and the player gets nothing, a third person will say that this kind of coaching might have worked in 1983 but it's 2023 now, and we're off. Everyone believes their own line is the correct line.

That's this entire debate, right? It's a threshold. A line. To the Canadian professor, the line was crossed by Underwood wayyyy back there. To your buddy in the Army, there's so much more Underwood (and Izzo) could do before they're anywhere close to the line. These debates are as simple as one thing: my line is drawn here, your line is drawn there, and we both are beyond convinced that we placed our line in the correct spot.

All that really matters in this case, though, is Brad Underwood's employer's line. In 2018 and 2019, the University had an entire faculty-led investigation of the line and determined that Brad Underwood had not crossed it. And with no action taken after a viral video during the Northwestern broadcast, we can assume that they don't believe anything in this video crosses a line either.

What are my thoughts? I'm uncomfortable watching that video, but I'm also pillow-soft. It's why I'm writing about sports, not playing sports. I mean, I couldn't even check golf scores on Monday because I was too nervous that my college golf team - ranked #3 in the country, by the way - would somehow fold and miss the NCAA Championships despite overwhelming evidence that there was nothing to worry about. If a coach yelled at me after I screwed up on the court, I'd probably burst into tears.

But I find my answer in the recognition of that. Excellence demands an intensity that I could never reach. Any raised voice is uncomfortable -- a parent trying to prevent a child from sticking a fork in an outlet, a coach trying to get a player to snap out of it and focus, or, in the extreme, a Navy Seal trainer trying to create a soldier who is fazed by nothing -- yet sometimes, I believe it to be uncomfortably necessary.

And I know that because of my own incompetence. Were I cut from a different cloth - the type who could take intense instruction and thrive - I know I could reach a higher level in life. But for whatever reason, I don't have it in me. I'm one of those "to be truly brave is to be tender" guys, and we don't last very long during a 30-second timeout.

Anyway, for me, that's where I draw the line. If the purpose is to challenge and grow the player, I'm fine with volume and intensity. If the purpose is to belittle (I can't find it right now, but I once wrote about how RichRod's screaming at players while at Michigan was on the "seeking to belittle him" side of the line and it made me uncomfortable), then I'm not OK with it. An impossible line to define, yes, but that's where I think it lives.

So to answer the question here, no, I don't believe "the demeanor and antics of Coach Underwood should be managed or limited". Underwood is a coach who will try nearly all motivation techniques, from getting in player's faces (as seen above) to the silent treatment...

...and because of that, I see all of this as motivation-based. My read is not "he can't control his anger so he flipped his lid and bullied Terrence and Coleman." My read is "he knows that Terrence and Coleman aren't focused and that it will require a certain volume level to get their heads back in the game." (And, in the case of that last video clip, he was using "why did coach leave the locker room after only 30 seconds?" as an attempt to accomplish the same.)

There's clearly a line. Brad Underwood clearly got too close to that line in his first season (by his own admission in the above statement). The DIA has watched that line every year since. And in their estimation (and mine, in my limited view), he has not crossed it. The intensity of sport often leads to public outbursts between player and coach (see Pep Guardiola and Kevin De Bruyne screaming at each other mid-match yesterday in the Champions League semifinal), and even though I'd fold under that intensity, I can recognize its necessity.

(But, like, nobody yell at me like that, please. Instant tears.)


Efremwinters84 on May 18, 2023 @ 05:43 PM

Very nicely done, Robert. I agree 100%.

And I grew up playing competitive school sports with highly-successful (yet tough, hard-nosed, yelling coaches) --- particularly in basketball. For me, personally, this started in 6th grade and lasted through all four years of high school. We didn't think much about it at the time......nor even now as my teammates and I look back.

It's certainly not the only recipe for coaching success, but it is widely practiced even today. As a volunteer coach, I see it all the time in today's basketball world.

And with all of that being said, I'd still argue that Brad is in the top 5-10% when it comes to coaching intensity and demeanor --- as evidenced by the referenced investigation.

As Terrance Shannon said recently, "If you don't like it, don't come."

bkenny on May 19, 2023 @ 10:15 AM

"If you don't like it, don't come".

That's the issue though. I hope that BU's behavior isn't preventing certain recruits from considering Illinois and/or having players transfer out once they see it up close.

If said behavior is doing that, that's a problem. on May 18, 2023 @ 06:48 PM

Thanks for taking this question "head-on", Robert--appreciate it!

larue on May 18, 2023 @ 08:08 PM

I played in high school for one coach who couldn't put three words together without including a profanity and another who occasionally liked to provoke fights between players, so I don't think I'm that soft. But I think Underwood in the first video clip is clearly over the line. It looks like Geoff Alexander thought so too.

I don't think we saw Underwood quite that animated again last season, so maybe he thought so too.

Giovantischixstripz on May 18, 2023 @ 09:01 PM

You hit it with "if its done to challenge and grow its ok, if its done to belittle its abusive". To take it a step further, if the players UNDERSTAND its done to challenge and grow its ok. Some coaches yell thinking its what they need to do, but their players dont have the baseline relationship with them that they know it is coming from a place of wanting the best from them, and they take it the wrong way. Why Izzo has been successful for so long is that he gets enough players who understand that he wants whats best for them. Underwood clearly has had plenty of guys who have understood that as well, but perhaps it will be a different struggle in the transfer portal world.

Dix on May 19, 2023 @ 11:53 AM

Bingo. Kids come in as freshmen and aren't here long enough to understand the coach and where he's coming from and can't have that moment where it clicks like I'm sure guys like Trent had. Any motivational technique from yelling to benching can be met with "I'll just go somewhere else, then!"

OR someone comes in as a 5th year senior from another successful program and tunes out the yelling/shuts down because "this coach doesn't know me" or "I've been treated better by x coach who has won # games/championships, how dare Brad yell at me." (Thankfully, TSJ seemed to embrace it. Others...maybe not so much).

Either way, I agree the question is whether 1a. the employer think it crosses line...but 1b is whether it impacts recruiting.

Giovantischixstripz on May 19, 2023 @ 12:30 PM

I think he just needs to be selective. He still has guys Goode sticking it out, and Sencire and Ty seem to be culture fits as well. As far as transfers, he had success with guys like Grandison, Feliz, Plummer and obviously Shannon. This offseason has been a little less explosive as far as the top end transfer targets, but perhaps (assuming they land Rayj) he will find guys who fit together better.

larue on May 19, 2023 @ 05:30 PM

There aren't many situations where we think it's acceptable to scream into someone's face. Sports is obviously one of the few, I'm not sure it will be for that much longer.

I also doubt the effectiveness. The least likely reaction to someone screaming in your face is to listen to what they are saying. Mostly we would scream back, pop them one, or walk away. Players can't do any of that, so I expect they mostly just tune it out and go to their happy place for a brief time, then maybe refocus when they are addressed normally.

Chief4ever on May 25, 2023 @ 01:48 AM


ktcesw on May 19, 2023 @ 07:29 AM

I have major problems with coaches that are just having tantrums. That is exactly what many coaches feel that they are entitled to do. BU throws tantrums sometimes but, many times he is just trying to get a point across. Not close enough to the situation to be able to determine what he is doing each time. Maybe, a little of both. Remember that coaches have to yell sometimes to be heard over the crowd. Just don't yell because you are in the midst of a two years old's tantrum.

pwillits on May 19, 2023 @ 07:41 AM

Do high-level recruits feel like BU's behavior is over the line?

cmi2phx on May 19, 2023 @ 11:17 AM

How’s our recruiting been the past 5 years, compared to the previous 10?

pwillits on May 21, 2023 @ 07:58 AM

If those years are the bar to clear, then we are doing amazing.

IlliniJoe81 on May 19, 2023 @ 10:09 PM

I think the tantrums were a symptom of the poor team chemistry and not the cause of it.

I like your thing about whether it’s a tactic or whether the coach is just out of control.

IlliniJoe81 on May 19, 2023 @ 10:12 PM

I also think that first clip resembled Matt Foley and his “van down by the river” a little too much for comfort.

illinois81 on May 21, 2023 @ 06:42 PM

Robert, you are absolutely wrong when you argue that you cannot achieve excellence, you demonstrate excellence so here every day. My guess is someone along the way understood how to mentor you without the abuse. Good mentors understand the personalities of their mentees, and adjust accordingly. The same must apply in sports. I am a loyal Illinois fan, and am excited about the direction of the basketball program, but also concerned about the behavior of the coach.

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