The Main Thing
The man behind the novelty Twitter account @FauxPelini wrote an article for SB Nation a few years ago in which he gave ‘advice’ to college coaches on not getting fired. This was all done in a football context, but it applies equally well to basketball. The main takeaway from the article is that understanding and fulfilling your school’s ‘Main Thing’ will go a long way to buy you benefit of the doubt and margin for those years when the wins fall short of expectations.
The “Main Thing” is a central tenet or belief that each school has about itself, its program, and its place in the broader NCAA landscape, and a successful coach is one that validates and affirms that belief.
For example, for Nebraska Football, the fans need to be assured that the 1990s CAN (not necessarily will, but can) return and that they have not been passed by as the sport has evolved. For Florida Football, exciting offenses with dynamic skill players are the calling card, and coaches that struggle to move the ball in an entertaining or impressive fashion (Will Muschamp, Jim McElwain) will find their leash rather short.
The “Main Thing” for UCLA Basketball is a secret, and that is our insecurity that we don’t REALLY belong among the blue bloods of the sport, that our nation-leading 11 championships are more a historical anomaly and testament to the singular greatness of John Wooden than an indication of the enduring strength of our program.
I would argue that the 1995 title is the most important one because it validates the other ten, having come under a different coach in a different era. Without it, it’s been 43 years and counting since Wooden last hung a banner, and that puts us more in the company of Marquette and Loyola and Cincinnati than Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky.
What we expect from our coach, with regard to the Main Thing, is to behave and perform as if this were an elite, blue blood program. It’s not about titles. Kansas is undeniably in the top tier of the sport, and they’ve won three: 1952, 1988, 2008. But they are (and we want to be) a perennial conference contender, making regular deep tournament runs, constantly in the Top 25, and frequently in the Top 10. A UCLA Basketball coach needs to perform at that level, reference and value our tradition, and involve as many of the prominent alumni as possible.
Steve Alford, though, comes from a different tradition, an Indiana program that would like to make its own case for inclusion among the sport’s elite and co-equal status with the likes of Kentucky and UNC. Additionally, Alford played under Bobby Knight, outspoken critic of John Wooden. As such, he’s never bought into this program, its history, or the picture we paint to ourselves about our place in the landscape of the sport.
He still calls Bobby Knight the greatest coach in the history of the game, which – I get it, it’s his coach; not everyone has to bend the knee and acknowledge John Wooden as the GOAT. But the head coach of UCLA Basketball does. It’s kind of part and parcel of the gig. If you can’t or refuse to acknowledge that, then don’t be surprised to find your leash that much shorter.
Alford has never acknowledged that a job at this level comes with expectations and a level of scrutiny that you just don’t encounter at Missouri State or New Mexico. And a worthy coach reacts to those expectations with accountability and ownership. Instead, Alford repeatedly shifts goalposts, defines success down, makes excuses, whines about tough circumstances, and (with alarming regularity) blames his players for their lack of effort and focus. In Alford’s world, he never gets enough credit, he’s criticized unfairly, and he’s always being let down by his players. A few examples: