TULSA — It was fun while it lasted, but the Brad Underwood era is over at Oklahoma State after just one season.
Maybe now OSU will get serious about hiring someone who’s qualified to do the job.
Not the men’s basketball job.
The athletic director job.
Mike Holder just outdid himself by letting Underwood get away to Illinois on Saturday after just one promising season, going beyond even the ridiculous 10-year contract he gave Travis Ford.
Oh, it was so important to put people back in the seats at Gallager-Iba Arena, wasn’t it? It was so important to “Bring the Rowdy Back” and “Pack the House,” right? It was so important to hire a legitimate basketball coach and have a contender again, huh?
It was — until it came time to pay that coach what he’s worth.
What an embarrassment for Oklahoma State.
That’s the bottom line. Holder and the OSU administration were unwilling to pay Underwood what he’s worth, or at least get serious about moving forward in negotiations, and Underwood left because he felt financially disrespected.
Underwood and Holder didn’t reply to multiple interview requests. But both men issued statements.
“We are saddened and disappointed in Brad’s decision to leave Oklahoma State after one year,” Holder said. “We are trying to digest this news. We wish Brad and his family well. In the meantime, we will consider the situation and move forward.”
“Coaching basketball at the University of Illinois is a once-in-lifetime opportunity,” Underwood said. “The players, fans and administration at Oklahoma State have been absolutely incredible, and I want to thank them for the support they’ve given me and my family over the last year. However, during my time at Western Illinois, I always saw the Illinois coaching job as one of the truly best in the nation. I want to thank (athletic director) Josh Whitman for the opportunity to join the Fighting Illini family and look forward to working with him to build a championship program. I can’t wait to get started with our team. Next season can’t get here fast enough for me!”
To be fair to Holder, Underwood was a great hire from Stephen F. Austin, where he led the mid-major Lumberjacks to outrageous success in just three seasons. Underwood was given a Power 5 contract commensurate with his experience level (his SFA salary was just over $400,000). But Underwood also was promised he’d get a raise if he won and elevated the program. He did exactly that, and negotiations for a new deal, although slow, actually had begun.
But Holder apparently didn’t move with any urgency, and now the program has egg on its face.
Yes, the season just ended yesterday. But as CEO of a multi-million dollar corporation like OSU athletics, Holder should have anticipated this. He should have been proactive. He should have been aggressive, and he should have given Underwood assurance — absolute, rock-solid assurance, but without the shortsightedness of a burdensome 10-year contract, like the one he gave to Ford — that a heartfelt and very appreciative raise would be soon headed his way.
Among Big 12 Conference coaches, Underwood’s 2016-17 salary of $1 million ranks last, 10th out of 10. Underwood was down to make $1.1 million next year, $1.2 million in 2019, $1.4 million in 2020 and $1.6 million in 2021.
After taking OSU to a 20-13 record and a return to the NCAA Tournament this season, after building one of college basketball’s most prolific offenses (the Cowboys ranked sixth in the nation in scoring this year after ranking 303rd last year), Underwood and his camp thought he’d done enough — with Ford’s roster, don’t forget — to merit a salary boost that would take him closer to the conference average of $2.7 million a year.
In today’s market, that’s not asking too much to “Bring the Rowdy Back,” is it?
Apparently, in Holder’s way of thinking, it is.
ESPN’s Jeff Goodman, who first broke the news of Underwood’s departure Saturday afternoon, reported that Illinois would pay Underwood north of $3 million a year. That’s not unexpected. Why should Underwood stick around Stillwater waiting for Holder to open his wallet?
Holder should be applauded for the overall growth of the OSU athletic department under his watch. Just look at the magnificent facilities OSU has built from Boone Pickens’ pockets. Seeing Pickens’ generosity, other donors have followed suit and taken O-State athletics to a place it never dreamed of.
There’s no doubt the former national champion golf coach and OSU alum knows how to raise money. But as an athletic director, Holder’s failings are otherwise stark.
Holder’s previous nadir came in 2009, when he gave Ford a 10-year extension after just one season. As Ford’s future NBA players labored in his system, as losses piled up (he was 63-80 in Big 12 play over eight seasons), and as OSU crowds dwindled to an embarrassing level, even Holder admitted his decision to lock up Ford long-term had become a burden to the program.
Consider also Holder’s ongoing dustups with football coach Mike Gundy.
Gundy authored the program’s only conference championship in the last 40 years, has taken OSU to its only first big-time bowl games since the Eisenhower administration, and has won more games than anyone in school history, and yet Holder can’t get Gundy — a proud OSU alum and record-setting quarterback, for Pistol Pete’s sake — on the same page.
After flirting with jobs at Arkansas and Tennessee in recent years, Gundy last season somehow took a look at the dumpster fire at Baylor.
Gundy currently has a contract extension on his desk, but he refuses to sign it, apparently because of irreconcilable differences in the language of the contract.
Gundy leaving over a petty power struggle with his boss would rightly cost Holder his job.
But this one — low-balling a talented coach like Underwood into taking a middling job like Illinois — is the new reality. This one is now. It happened, and for Holder, it takes the cake.
Jawun Evans was apparently considering returning for his junior season. But with Underwood gone, does Evans want to play for his third coach in three years? No way. He’ll be in the NBA come this summer. That’s too bad. One more year with Evans and Underwood’s incoming recruits could have been special. Now OSU hoops must start all over.
Kansas coach Bill Self is preparing his team to face Michigan State in a Sunday afternoon game at the BOK Center. I asked Self during his press conference on Saturday to weigh in on his alma mater (OSU) losing a coach after one season to his previous employer (Illinois).
“It shocks me,” Self said. “I think it would shock most people, because obviously, Brad was on a roll, I thought, in Stillwater, and a lot of great things had transpired in the short time he’d been there. … Certainly the program is in better shape than it was a year ago.”
And what of Illinois? Self coached there for three years after leaving Tulsa following the 2000 season, and he took the Illini to two co-Big Ten championships and three NCAA Tournament appearances, including one Elite Eight and one Sweet Sixteen before heading to Lawrence.
Weber, the K-State coach currently under fire in Manhattan, guided Illinois to a 210-101 record, two Big Ten titles and six NCAA trips in nine seasons, and John Groce went 95-74 with one NCAA bid in five seasons before he was fired this year. Weber and Groce’s combined conference record was 126-118.
Underwood left OSU for that?
“Well, Illinois is a great basketball job. I was there,” Self said. “There’s no other way to look at it. It’s one of the better jobs in the Big Ten if you look at recruiting base and institution location, exposure, budget. There’s a lot of things about it that are very, very attractive.”
Yes, OSU fell on hard times under Ford. And yes, Illinois may be a sleeping giant.
But is Illinois the type of job an up-and-coming coach takes after just one good year at a school like Oklahoma State?
No, it’s not.
This is strictly on Holder.
Holder is a terrific fundraiser.
But without a home run hire to replace Underwood, this episode significantly calls into question Holder’s competence as an athletic director.
Columnist John E. Hoover is co-host of “Further Review with Hoover & Rew” and can be heard every weekday on The Franchise in Tulsa from noon to 3 p.m. with co-host Lauren Rew. In Oklahoma City, catch him Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings at 10:25 and every Friday afternoon at 4:05. Listen at fm107.7 in OKC, fm107.9/am1270 in Tulsa, on The Franchise app, or click the “Listen” tab on The Franchise home page.