Somewhere in heaven, former longtime McPherson High basketball coach Jay Frazier is sitting in a chair, his legs as always crossed and arms folded, and looking down with a smile.
One of Frazier’s prized pupils, Brad Underwood, has finally reached the pinnacle of his coaching career.
It was announced on Monday that Underwood, who starred as a player under Frazier at McPherson High in the early 1980s and later played for the late Jack Hartman at Kansas State, will be the new head basketball coach at Oklahoma State of the Big 12 Conference, arguably the country’s most competitive as seven of the 10 teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
Underwood has certainly paid his dues, from his beginnings as an assistant coach to head jobs at Dodge City Community College and Daytona Beach Community College. He got his big break when Bob Huggins hired him to help to inspire the basketball renaissance at Kansas State, which continued under Frank Martin. He then joined Martin at South Carolina for a year, before getting his first NCAA Division I shot at Stephen F. Austin.
All Underwood did there was compile one of the greatest three-year starts to an NCAA coaching career by winning 89 games and losing 14, going an astounding 55-1 in the Southland Conference.
Underwood reportedly was a finalist for the Kansas State job when Bruce Weber was chosen. Weber’s first year resulted in Kansas State tying Kansas for the Big 12 championship with Martin and Underwood’s players, but the success has been lukewarm at best since then, including this season when the Wildcats missed postseason play entirely.
Kansas State fans, predictably, are none too pleased that one of their own is going to be coaching at an opposing Big 12 school. They’re not blind, they’ve seen what Underwood has accomplished at STA and they long for that success. It also doesn’t help that Steve Henson, another McPherson High grad, is the top assistant at still-alive and national power Oklahoma. Or that former K-State coach Lon Kruger is head coach at OU or that former KSU coach Dana Altman has Oregon in the Sweet 16 as one of the four No. 1 seeds.
Underwood will be given the customary honeymooon season. The Cowboys, who had been perennial contenders in recent years, slumped to 12-20 in Travis Ford’s eighth and final season. Gallagher-Iba, home of the Cowboys, was littered with empty seats this year, but when filled to the brim is one of the loudest venues and toughest places to play in the country.
I think OSU fans are mistaken to believe that Underwood will immediately duplicate his STA success in his first year. But there are some good pieces to work with and now the question is can Underwood recruit the type of athletes that can compete with the Bill Selfs or Krugers night-in and night-out. It’s not to say the players he recruited to STA can’t play in the Big 12, but certainly there’s more of a focus on higher-rated players.
Underwood’s teams play a relentless style as they have counted on their defense to spark their offense. He preaches physical play and mentally wants to break an opposing team’s spirit. That should go over well at Oklahoma State, since Hank Iba used to be the godfather of defense during his legendary career.
If Juwan Evans and Phil Forte both come back, Underwood’s backcourt will be set. It’s finding bigs that will be a top priority and given his connections now in Texas and longstanding ties to the jucos, I’m sure he’ll roll up his sleeves and get to work.
Underwood has made McPherson proud and you can bet there will be a new legion of Oklahoma State fans in town, not to mention those already here. McPherson’s Chad Alexander played on a Final Four team for the Cowboys and MHS grad Katelyn Loecker is a member of the women’s team.
Here’s to hoping Underwood can vault the Cowboys back to prominence. He’s deserving of the opportunity.