CHAMPAIGN — Illini icon Dee Brown is back in college basketball, this time as an assistant coach at sister school Illinois-Chicago.
Brown is joining Steve McClain’s staff and will be a full-time assistant coach, allowed to recruit off-campus.
It’s an interesting and sensible move that gets Brown his first college assistant coaching job and should give him a chance to recruit Chicagoland and beyond as he cuts his teeth bringing his boundless energy to the college game.
Brown is one of the most popular athletes in Illini history, having helped lead Illinois to the 2005 national championship game. He was “The Sporting News” national player of the year as well as a consensus All-American and the Big Ten player of the year.
He played for three NBA teams and had a lengthy professional career overseas.
In 2015, Mike Thomas named him as his special assistant, arguably the most popular move Thomas made during his tenure as Illini AD.
In April of 2016, new AD Josh Whitman moved Brown specifically to the basketball operation, naming him director of player development and alumni relations.
In truth, Brown appeared to be warming up in the bullpen for the time when John Groce had a vacant assistant coaching job. Groce praised Brown’s passion and his work ethic while learning about the operations of the program.
But in October of 2016, Brown resigned, citing family issues and asking for privacy while he addressed them.
Since then, he has stayed in involved in basketball, training players in the Chicago area while continuing to profess his desire to find a role in coaching.
That role has come to him at Illinois-Chicago and Illinois State University is a part of the toppling coaching dominos that created the opportunity.
Vacancies on John Beilein’s staff at the University of Michigan were filled when he hired two Illinois State assistants – Luke Yaklich and DeAndre Haynes, who took a job at Illinois State in May before leaving in July to accept Beilein’s offer.
Illinois State coach Dan Muller then hired Brendan Mullins from Illinois-Chicago to fill one of his coaching vacancies and that opened the spot Dee Brown is filling.
While in Chicago at the Illini Hall of Fame ceremony, Brown told people that he eventually sees himself coaching at his alma mater. I do, too.
This move allows him to get some hands-on coaching experience, to recruit in Chicago and beyond, to experience the business of operating with NCAA rules and to find out what a season is like from the perspective as a coach. He has much to share and has the communication skills to do it well.
In time, one of Brad Underwood’s assistants will move on, perhaps to claim their own head coaching opportunity.
I don’t know if Underwood and Brown have a relationship. But when I was at the Ubben practice gym recently, Dee was on the floor putting up shots with his son. So the door is open to him and I’m told he and Whitman still have a friendly relationship.
Following Dee Brown’s retirement as a professional player (necessitated by hip replacement surgery), the path to a role with Illini basketball has included some unexpected twists and turns. Here’s another one. But it’s still a path that could lead him back to Champaign in the future.
As he has told me many times, “I’ll always bleed orange and blue, you know that.”