The hiring of Steve Alford to run the UCLA men’s basketball program has been met with mixed reactions. To those hoping for a marquee name like Stevens, Smart, Pitino or Donovan, the hiring was obviously disappointing.
The knocks on Alford, aside from the fact he isn’t any of the coaches listed above, are his lackluster results in the NCAA Tourney, his underachievement at Iowa (including controversy involving a player named Pierre Pierce), his teams’ offensive style and the fact he’s a Bob Knight disciple. Enough time has passed for us to take a rational look at these topics.
To be sure, Alford’s NCAA Tourney record is unspectacular at 5-7 overall, and 2-3 at New Mexico. His performance at Iowa was pretty pedestrian as he struggled to produce results where Lute Olson and Dr. Tom Davis had already demonstrated a coach could succeed. This a valid beef insofar as his teams’ performances in the tourney have been underwhelming. Look no further than the Lobos’ recent loss as a 3-seed to 14-seed Harvard in the 2013 Big Dance.
Still, there’s an underlying belief that Alford has gotten the maximum out of his teams, and that the cobbled together talent he puts on the floor gets exposed when March rolls around. This had better change at UCLA. He shouldn’t be fighting for scraps in regards to talent. If he can get the local talent pipeline fixed, he should have a good chance at succeeding in the tourney. Obviously a key metric, but we’re going to stipulate here that his teams’ past performances may not be prologue.
Alford’s record at Iowa was a modest 152-106. His tenure there was marked by teams that often struggled in the regular season, but flourished in the Big Ten Tourney. Alford never really found a rhythm with the Hawkeyes. He succeeded Dr. Davis who was the all-time victory leader in Iowa history. Alfords’ conservative style was substantially different from Davis’ full-court pressing, run-and gun-style, and never really caught on with the Iowa community. Alford struggled to recruit effectively due in part to his style, but also because he was perceived as an “Indiana guy.” Later in his tenure, Alford was also attacked for his handling of the Pierre Pierce situation, which also cut down on his popularity in the state. Recruiting being the life-blood of any program, Alford floundered. However, as we’ve discussed, recruiting should not be an issue for Alford at UCLA.
Alford’s biggest “error” in Iowa was in steadfastly believing in and supporting Pierce publicly. Perce was infamously accused of sexually assaulting a female Iowa student. The Hawkeye community decided that Pierce must be guilty, which he may well have been, but no proof of his guilt was ever actually realized in the case. Alford’s effort to stand by Pierce and to resolve the matter privately was roundly condemned. Pierce subsequently got into trouble again a couple of years later and was immediately kicked off the team. There was no doubt as to his guilt in that second instance, and Alford acted quickly and decidedly. Some have chosen to over blow this situation to dramatic proportions, but the reality is Alford was never found guilty of any wrong-doing.
Another issue is Alford’s teams’ offensive style, which has been raised as a concern since the hiring. Curiously, most of the teams in the NCAA Tourney play much the same style, though success settles questions of style for those expressing concern here. Incidentally, Alford is known as a players’ coach. It’s hard to imagine he’ll not open things up a bit for the higher-caliber athletes UCLA will most assuredly continue to attract. Alford has also shown a great sense of home-court advantage. His teams at UNM were a collective 98-16 at home, including two seasons where they went 18-1 in The Pit. It would seem that defense of Pauley Pavilion is about to be taken a lot more seriously under Alford.
Regarding Alford as a Bob Knight disciple, where does it say that’s a bad thing? Knight was a very successful college basketball coach who led the last perfect college team, won three national championships and set the pattern for motion offense and intelligent help man defense that many adhere to today. Knight is considered a great basketball mind. We’re not sure how being a disciple of that is bad. Knight was certainly tough on, and in some cases abusive of, his players. While Alford does have a record of being tough as a coach, there has been zero record of him being abusive. Knight, a fan of Pete Newell, is often cited as being dismissive of Coach Wooden’s legacy. Believe it or not, Coach Wooden had many detractors. What’s relevant here is that Steve Alford has not been among them. Alford is his own man.
The bottom line is this: Steve Alford is the new head coach at UCLA. There is enough grist in his past and pedigree for zealous hand-wringers to get their collective panties in a bunch, but the reality is he has some makings of being the right coach at the right time. What’s needed by fans at this point is maturity, patience and just a little bit of faith.