If anyone is suited for a pressure job like this it’s Steve. He grew up dealing with pressure. Anything about Indiana basketball is pressure. In addition, the University of New Mexico takes their basketball seriously. He’s not the kind of guy who will shy away from what expectations are about at UCLA. He’ll handle this with dignity, class and he’s ready for this. -Dan Guerrero
Well, UCLA and athletic director Dan Guerrero hired a coach. Before dissecting the choice, I’d like to welcome Steve Alford to the Bruin family. We’ll do our best to give you the kind of patience that we showed Howland during his first few years, but the fact is that this is a fanbase that badly needs to win. You need to restore UCLA to where it belongs – as a top program in college basketball. A program that wins, year in and year out. A program that is a destination for the right recruits, especially from the West Coast. I sure hope you’re the right man for the job.
As a season ticket holder and lifelong fan trying to move on from the Ben Howland Era, this was a huge moment for my confidence in the UCLA athletic department. After watching football misfires with Karl Dorrell and Rick Neuheisel before (accidentally?) appearing to strike gold with Jim Mora, I was as interested in the process as I was in the outcome. Unfortunately, this looks like another suboptimal search for a once-proud athletic department.
To quickly summarize, Guerrero hit some resistance from his top candidates and quickly panic-hired Alford. Initially targeting Shaka Smart (from VCU) and Brad Stevens (from Butler), Guerrero didn’t know how to handle their public commitments to stay at their respective schools. So he hired Steve Alford, who had just signed a 10 year extension at New Mexico himself, and pretended he was their top choice. Word is that Stevens and Smart would have listened in private but were never really pressed. What’s worse is that UCLA failed to be patient and land one of the really big fish like Rick Pitino and Billy Donovan. Guerrero tried to bring in Phil Jackson to lead the process, but didn’t even give him a chance to prove his worth. UCLA needed to be patient here and they weren’t. Alford wasn’t going anywhere.
Now that we’re committed to him, who is Steve Alford?
The proud recipient of a 7 year, $18M contract comes in with plenty of basketball pedigree, but a mixed record as a coach. Alford was a star Hoosiers player under Bob Knight in the 1980’s, winning the national championship his senior year. Alford also won a gold medal in the 1984 Olympics under coach Knight before being drafted and playing four years in the NBA. Despite his relative youth, he’s been a college basketball coach for over 20 years. Prior to his post at New Mexico, he started at Manchester in 1992 before graduating to Missouri State and Iowa.
Most recently, he’s famous for giving Harvard its first-ever tournament victory (and I just threw up in my mouth a little bit), after ending the regular season ranked #10 in the country and securing a 3 seed for New Mexico. Still, his overall performance at New Mexico was solid – a 155-52 record, 22+ wins every season, and 4 conference titles in 6 years. He has made the NCAA Tournament three of the last four years, although he’s never made it past the round of 32 and has performed poorly in the NIT.
New Mexico certainly wanted to lock that down, signing him to a ten year extension the day before the Harvard game. Alford claimed it was “a pretty big commitment on my part, especially [with] the opportunities that are out there to show my loyalty.” Oops?
Coaching track record aside, it was time for new blood at UCLA. My friend Josiah put it perfectly this weekend, “Regardless of how you feel about the Steve Alford hire, all these comparisons to Ben Howland’s track record are irrelevant. Anyone who really follows UCLA basketball knows that Howland had lost SoCal recruiting, lost most of his players, and had a dismal last five years.” How does Alford change that? I’m actually kind of optimistic.
Most importantly, he brings name recognition and a fresh face for recruiting. He’s already bringing his son, a top 2013 recruit, and potentially a New Mexico center with him. Alford WILL (pains me to say this, but it’s definitive) be a better West Coast recruiter than Howland, who had to start spending a lot of money recruiting outside of California because of all the bridges he’d burned in UCLA’s local talent pool. Alford, on the other hand, had actually profited from Howland’s failures, securing Drew Gordon and Kendall Williams from the Bruins.
As far as the rest is concerned, it’s a big question mark. We know that he didn’t run the kind of up tempo offense Guerrero is craving at New Mexico, but he didn’t have the kind of horses he’ll have at UCLA either. It’s anyone’s guess how good he’ll be at the X’s and O’s, managing big-time recruits, and the sky-high expectations at Westwood. Upon signing with UCLA, Alford said, “I have been so fortunate and blessed in my life, and an opportunity to lead one of the greatest programs in college basketball history is once-in-a-lifetime.” There’s no question that Alford understand the expectations he’s facing, I just hope he’s up to meeting them.