He enjoyed being a head coach at the junior college level, living near the beach and working for people who never told him no. But he left that all behind to become the director of basketball operations for the Wildcats in 2006. The new title wasn’t as glamorous, but he was heading home (the McPherson native is a K-State alum) and he was getting the chance to work with Bob Huggins and Frank Martin. Ultimately, he thought the move would help him reach his dream of becoming a head coach at the Division I level.
Seven years later, his plan paid off. Underwood is the new head coach at Stephen F. Austin, a mid-major team that won the Southland Conference, beat Oklahoma and went 27-5 last season.
Underwood was introduced at a news conference earlier this week, and has been working around the clock since. But he was nice enough to talk about his new gig during a short lunch break. Below are the highlights of the conversation.
How excited are you about becoming a head coach at the Division I level?
I’m excited. It has been a 25-year journey for me, and I’m thankful for the opportunity. I feel like I have been ready for some time. I had different opportunities at different stages of my career to become a head coach at this level, but the older I got the more selective I became when looking and applying for jobs. This was put in front of me now, and I couldn’t be happier. I found one in a college town with a winning culture. It’s a place that I’m excited about. To be a head coach at the Division I level … There are only about 360 of them. It’s something that intrigues me and excites me a lot.
How many other schools have approached you in the past few years?
Not a lot, just simply because I haven’t had a lot of interest in certain jobs. It’s been more important for me to find the right fit. I enjoy college towns. I told Frank this, I told (athletic directors) this, I told job search guys at search firms this — I have a family. They mean the most to me. I want to put them in an environment where they can be happy and grow. I’ve been spoiled being in places like Manhattan and Columbia. They are towns we really enjoyed. Nacogdoches is a town very similar to those. My wife was down here for the press conference and she just fell in love with the place. There is a culture of winning here. Not every place has that. They have great pride in the program and have had success within their conference.
Was it difficult for you to leave Kansas State for South Carolina last year?
Yeah, I wear my heart on my sleeve. I’m a Wildcat through and through. I left with my head very high. I was very, very proud that I was able to do something there and be a part of something that impacted a place that I love. I have friends for life there. It is amazing how many people I stay in contact with and how many people flew out to Columbia to see games. That’s what is special about that community. We had a lot of success on the basketball court, but we had a great life away from basketball. I was sad that I had to leave. It is a place very close to my heart. I am a Kansas State fan. I miss the people. I was very, very happy in Manhattan, Kansas. It was a time I will never forget.
Did you consider joining Bruce Weber’s staff when he was hired, or were you totally committed to Frank Martin at South Carolina?
I was with Frank the whole way. We had something pretty special there that doesn’t always happen with college athletics, and it was one of the hardest things about leaving to come here: chemistry. We had unbelievable chemistry as a staff, and I think that is why we won. It’s why it worked. We understood each other. From (video coordinator) Dylan Lockwood to (strength coach) Scott Greenawalt, it worked. That was difficult for me to leave coming here, but it is the reason I left Kansas State, because I knew it would work at South Carolina. Not for one second did I take that for granted. That part of the decision was easy. It was sad from a personal note, but from a professional standpoint it was easy.
Last question: Do you have any interest in scheduling a game against Kansas State?
Sure, if they pay me enough money. That would be fun. That’s an elite program, and I would be honored to play them. Hopefully we have a couple Big 12 teams on the schedule next year. Scheduling, I’m finding out, is one of the more difficult tasks I’m going to have to handle. We’ve got a reputation and people don’t want to play you. I would love the opportunity to get back to Manhattan, though. Being a head coach and coming back there to K-State would be pretty special.