Every head coach needs to be surrounded by coaches who are supportive, but not blindly so. An effective staff is one that feels empowered to speak up, to disagree, to present an alternate viewpoint that forces the head coach to explain his reasoning and consider a different approach.
The three assistant coaches who are allowed to recruit off-campus fall into this boat. But the one person who is in an unique position to make sure the head coach has at least thought about every alternative is the person new head coach Brad Underwood hired this past week: the assistant to the head coach, Geoff Alexander.
You never know where a local kid will end up. But it was a safe bet to believe the sons of longtime Lincoln High School coach Neil Alexander would veer hard toward coaching.
“I’ve wanted to be a coach for as long as I can remember,” Alexander said this week. “There’s never been a question. There’s never been anything else.”
Underwood could see this when he was an assistant coach at Western Illinois, formulating his own coaching game plan under longtime mentor Jim Kerwin. One of the players for the Leathernecks was Alexander and Underwood could clearly see a coach-in-the-making.
Even as a player, Alexander knew Underwood was itching to break out on his own, to put his own ideas into motion. And that began to happen at the end of his Western Illinois tenure when Kerwin unofficially designated Underwood as his offensive coordinator.
While some players can’t immediately grasp a complex concept, Alexander apparently did.
“This offense that we’ll run at Illinois, he envisioned it then,” Alexander said. “Then when I was his assistant for three years at Daytona Beach, this was our footprint. And then he ran it at Kansas State, at Stephen F. Austin and Oklahoma State. It’s been awesome. It’s a pro-style offense.”
Alexander calls Underwood’s offense — which has been studied by coaches nationally — “the spread.” Sometimes it’s referred to as a spread motion offense, but the halfcourt component requires constant movement, sharp passing and the ability of every player to shoot and dribble.
No doubt, there will be some growing pains in this first year. And that’s where Alexander could be challenged to help pitch ideas and thoughts at Underwood.
The assistant to the head coach can’t be a “yes” man. Underwood sees Alexander as the perfect person to present those challenges.
“That’s why I hired him,” Underwood said. “I want that from all my staff. I’m secure enough in who I am. I don’t need ‘yes’ men. I need guys who will challenge me every day.
“I also need guys who will throw ideas at me from a creative standpoint. There’s a lot of ways to skin the cat. It’s possible that 80 percent of those ideas I may not do, but they need to keep coming back with them.
“Geoff is a wonderful basketball mind and he knows me personally. He’s been around me. He has worked with me before. There’s a tremendous comfort level I have with him and him with me. And I appreciate that. It’s made me a better coach.”
Less than a week on the job, after five seasons as a recruiting assistant at Evansville, Alexander seemed at ease in his new role, which will not include off-campus recruiting.
“I love the recruiting side of it and I’ve been doing that at the D1 level for 11 years,” he said. “But a chance to do this with him at this university, that was an absolute no-brainer.”
That’s why Alexander said he wasn’t surprised when Underwood left Oklahoma State after just one season to take over at Illinois. “He knows how special this place is,” Alexander said.
Alexander could write his own job description because he perfectly matches what Underwood is looking for.
“I want to make him think,” Alexander said. “It goes back to playing for him, coaching with him and understanding what makes him tick. I want to make him think on a daily basis, leading up to film, leading up to practice, leading up to games, then evaluating practice and the games. Just bringing new ideas, things that can help, things we can do to get better.
“When you get into the middle of the season, people find new ways to guard you and you have to find ways that can complement your system.”
Underwood is not like the paranoid football coaches who are forever worried that someone will find out about their game plan. Underwood has told people he’s willing to hand his play sheet to the opposing coach before the game.
“I don’t care if they know what we’re going to do,” he has said. “They still have to stop it.”
Back in Lincoln, Neil Alexander is excited that his son now sits at the right hand of the Illini head coach. If nothing else, free tickets await.
“That and the fact that he has his grandkids around,” Geoff Alexander said. “I’m excited about that, too.”