Brad Underwood spent the first 27 years of his professional career striving to become a head basketball coach at the Division I level.
It was a long wait, but it was worth it.
The McPherson native and former Kansas State player/assistant realized his dream last offseason when he was hired at Stephen F. Austin. Less than a year later, he is headed to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 12 seed with a team that has won 28 straight games.
“It doesn’t get much better,” Underwood said Tuesday by phone. “It’s something I will appreciate a little more once this ride is over with. All the records, all the winning streaks, that is something I haven’t put my arms around yet. That will be with a glass of red wine and sitting after it’s over with and you evaluate everything.
“Right now, you are so in the moment. All you are thinking about is the next game, the next practice. This is a special group of guys, but, for me, I know I probably wouldn’t have any of this success had I not gone through that process. I was mature enough to use my experiences and make decisions that positively impacted this team.”
He was also smart enough to walk into a good situation. Underwood has received countless job offers through the years, but after he gave up the position of head coach at Daytona Beach Community College to join K-State’s staff under Bob Huggins in 2006, he got picky. As the Wildcats blossomed into a NCAA Tournament team, and he was promoted to associate head coach under Frank Martin, he only wanted to leave for the right kind of job.
His requirements: A program with a winning history and quality resources in a town that cared about college basketball.
Stephen F. Austin, located in Nacogdoches, Texas, seemed like a perfect fit. The Lumberjacks won 27 games last season and beat Oklahoma on their way to the NIT.
He thought they could do more this year, and they have. Underwood has pushed all the right buttons in his debut season, leading the Lumberjacks to a 31-2 record, a Southland Conference championship and the second-longest winning streak in college basketball, behind Wichita State. Along the way, they won 14 road games and went undefeated in conference play. Friends back home noticed. He received 200 text messages after Stephen F. Austin won the Southland Tournament.
“You could take the best team in any conference and the worst team in that same conference,” Underwood said, “and if they play 28 times the best team is probably going to slip up at some point. There are a lot of ways to lose a game. What this group has done is special.”
Those accomplishments were rewarded with a No. 12 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where Stephen F. Austin will take on VCU at 6:30 p.m. Friday.
Underwood expects it to be the toughest game his team has played since a 72-62 loss at Texas. The Lumberjacks also lost at East Tennessee State, but the setback against the Longhorns still eats at him.
“I’m still mad about it,” Underwood said. “The game was tied in the final two minutes and we had led the whole game. There was a loose ball that cost us the game. We had four guys around it, but Texas came away with it and won. I still hate that we lost, but I also knew how good Texas was going to be and that our team would learn from it. That’s when I found out how good we were going to be.”
Stephen F. Austin got on a roll soon thereafter. Behind a veteran roster of three seniors and four juniors, it began playing so well that it began receiving votes for the top 25.
Desmond Haymon, Jacob Parker, Thomas Walkup and Deshaunt Walker all average more than 12 points, and the Lumberjacks spread the ball around, averaging 17 assists.
“We’re a team that has great leadership, great chemistry and we are far and away the best passing team I have been around in some time, maybe ever,” Underwood said. “We are a team that has a very high basketball IQ. That is something that is rare today. We have been able to make adjustments and coach this team the right way, because they have great pride and great work ethic.”
He hopes that translates into NCAA Tournament success. But he won’t change his coaching routine to obtain it.
“I’m a really simple guy who grew up in McPherson,” Underwood said. “One thing I told my team when I got here is: Dream big. Let’s go undefeated. Why not? Now I’m saying the same thing. In the tournament, why not us? Butler has done it. Wichita State has done it. We can win, too, if we play the right way. Why not us?”