Brad Underwood

Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood speaks to the Decatur Illini Club at the Knights of Columbus Hall on Monday. Underwood believes the Illini need to restore the program's swagger. 

There’s never been a highly successful head coach who lacked the ability to honestly assess his own team.

It’s a job requirement.

Coaches who underestimate or gloss over weaknesses are doomed to fail. If a coach won’t recognize a shortcoming and work overtime to fix it, an opponent will be happy to isolate it and expose it for all the world to see.

Publicly, go ahead and say you’re proud of your point guard for making progress protecting the ball.

Privately, tell him exactly how Michigan will steal it from him, why he’s dangerously weak with his left hand and give him a regimen of drills to become better. Or play someone else.

There’s no point in lying about individual or team deficiencies.

So that’s why it was refreshing this week to hear new Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood make a sobering but accurate admission.

“I use the term 'swagger' a lot,” said Underwood, whose three Stephen F. Austin teams and one Oklahoma State team put together a 109-27 record and were four-for-four with NCAA Tournament appearances.

“We’ve lost our swagger,” he said, pausing briefly for drama. “Some of it. Maybe not all of it but we need to act like we belong. We need to act like we’re the 11th ranked program in the history of college basketball and now let’s not be satisfied with that.

“Let’s keep knocking people off who are in front of us. I’ve always said, ’Dream big.’ Why not us? Why not?

“We have so many positives in play here that can allow us to be great. We are doing that. We have to capitalize on that. We have to know that (the Orange Krush) is a powerful piece and a reason kids want to play here.”

The Associated Press recently updated its list of the top 100 programs of all time and Illinois checked in at No. 11, behind No. 6 Indiana but ahead of every other school in the Big Ten.

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So where has that swagger gone? After being ranked No. 1 in the country for most of the 2004-05 season, what happened?

It painfully slipped away when the program was unable to seize upon the momentum that should have resulted in banner recruiting classes in 2006, ’07, ’08 and beyond.

Who knew that after Deron Williams and his teammates from that 2005 national runner-up team had their run at the NBA, that only Meyers Leonard (in 2012) would get a taste of the big show thereafter?

Illinois’ absence of recent NBA success stories, its fall from contention in the Big Ten championship hunt and four straight seasons in which it failed to be one of the 68 NCAA Tournament teams have chopped that swagger off at the knees.

Swagger can’t be retrieved from the lost and found bin at the NIT.

Given that, Underwood recognizes the issue and knows this is a corner that can’t be turned easily or all at once.

“It’s not about one person,” he said. “It’s about formulating a program that so many can be proud of. We have our work to do. It’s not going to happen overnight.”

No, but Illini fans should start to feel the program pivot this fall and winter. That will be based on both Underwood’s teaching, improved returnees, an influx of newcomers and his playing style, which will give Illinois a new look and a different identity.

After Underwood is able to assemble a recruiting class of his own in 2018, they could be off and running.

Players were practicing in pain the first two weeks of this summer semester, pushed to use muscles they didn’t know they had. They’re doing it willingly because they are hungry to find that swagger, too, and with his success at previous stops, they believe Underwood can show them how to find it.

Swagger is an important element. Knowing it’s missing is a proper admission and the first step toward winning it back.

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​Follow Mark Tupper on Twitter: @MarkTupper


Sports Columnist

Sports columnist for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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