Steve Alford To UCLA: More Of The Same?Posted by AMurawa on March 31st, 2013
Less than a week after he removed Ben Howland from his job as the UCLA head coach and after taking on a couple of strikes with his top two candidates, athletic director Dan Guerrero dug in and roped a solid line-drive single in hiring former New Mexico head coach Steve Alford. It is in no way a home run hire, but it is a workmanlike chance at bat. Maybe it turns into a forgettable event if there are strikeouts and pop-ups down the road, but if Alford and UCLA play their cards right, maybe this single is the start of a big inning.
To begin with, let’s put this idea of “UCLA should have just kept Howland” to bed. That was not an option, a change had to be made; it was a matter of finding the best possible new coach for the program, not a matter of finding a better coach than Howland. But, there are plenty of areas in which Alford compares negatively with Howland. For instance, it is true that Howland had more success in his brief pre-UCLA career (four years at Pitt, five at Northern Arizona) than Alford has had in his 18 years at his three previous stops. Despite getting to the NCAA Tournament three times at both Iowa and New Mexico, the only time Alford has made the Sweet Sixteen was in his final season at then Southwest Missouri State (now just Missouri State). Even more disturbing, that record comes despite some regular season success that four times earned him a five-seed or higher. So yeah, for a UCLA program that prizes success in March far more than success in the regular season, Guerrero just hired a guy with a shakier postseason record than Howland or his successor, Steve Lavin, who was fired after reaching five Sweet Sixteens in seven seasons.
Further, one of the traits that Guerrero was supposedly looking for in a new coach was a more fan-friendly, up-tempo style. Hmmm. It has been nine seasons since an Alford team played at better than the 69.5 possessions per game that UCLA averaged last season. While last season was certainly an aberration for Howland, just browsing KenPom for a couple minutes you’ll find that Alford’s teams generally play at roughly the same tempo that Howland has played over the course of his career.
And then there are the personality traits that were supposedly a part of the reason that Howland was dismissed. Supposedly, Howland’s gruff attitude and prickly personality made it tough for him to earn a lot of close allies around UCLA and he mishandled some relationships with key AAU kingpins in the Southern California recruiting scene. Well, we’re probably not breaking a lot of news here, but Alford isn’t exactly a warm and cuddly type himself. Having played under Bobby Knight at Indiana, it is safe to say that plenty of Knight’s personality rubbed off on his former student. He famously cussed out BYU player Jonathan Tavernari in the postgame handshake line and looked significantly less mature than the brash college kid in the process. He’s never enjoyed a great relationship with the media in Albuquerque; his relationship with former beat writer Mark Smith devolved to the point that Smith was taken off the Lobo beat (Smith’s sins included asking Alford about his name being connected to the Oregon and Missouri jobs and voting for Jamaal Franklin over Drew Gordon for 2012 Mountain West Player of the Year). Just this past week at a defensive postseason press conference, he bristled over questions about his team’s early loss in the NCAA Tournament. And he certainly didn’t make any friends in Albuquerque by professing his devotion to the program last week and then bailing today – and taking, at a minimum, his incoming recruit and son, Bryce Alford, along with him.
So, yeah, make no mistake, there are plenty of reasons to look at this hire and wonder why. But then there is reality. Again, this isn’t a home run – that would have been Brad Stevens or Shaka Smart. And this isn’t the most inspired hire in the history of the world. But, while UCLA fans dreamed about guys like Bill Self, Billy Donovan and Rick Pitino, those things were never going to happen. Still, with potentially gettable hot names like Buzz Williams and Gregg Marshall still making news, the Alford hire feels like settling a bit.
Nevertheless, Alford is an excellent coach. He’s shown his ability to take programs in rough straits and get immediate improvement out of them. He took a middling SW Missouri State program to its best season in history. He led Iowa to six straight postseason appearances and they haven’t been back since he left. He took New Mexico to three NCAA Tournament appearances – all with five-seeds or better – and helped them to three conference championships in four years. He’s probably done a better job recruiting Southern California in recent years than even Howland has – UNM’s 2012-13 roster had five players from California’s Inland Empire on the roster, including stars Kendall Williams and Tony Snell.
And in one area that Howland earned plenty of criticism – player discipline – Alford earns high marks. Howland notoriously struggled in recent years to keep the inmates from running the asylum, but Alford has a good record of holding his guys to a high standard. As talented as Williams was for him, Alford suspended him for a game this season and six times in the last two seasons has publicly disciplined him through benchings. Drew Gordon was a famous malcontent under Howland, but Alford got through to him, even if it took a benching or two as well. And this season, Alford cut ties with reserve guard Demetrius Walker when his complaints over a lack of playing time became a distraction.
And while on that Walker topic, we might as well mention that Alford is definitely more trusting of his players; UCLA players are not going to have to live in fear of getting pulled from the game for missing a shot. This season Walker struggled horrifically from the field, at one point missing 25 of 28 field goal attempts over the course of nine games. But Alford kept trotting him out there and kept encouraging him to shoot, even as the bricks piled up. In this way, and maybe also in terms of the often-controversial Howland timeout, perhaps Alford differentiates him from his predecessor, but in a lot of other ways, Guerrero has made a very similar hire.
The first challenge for Alford in Los Angeles, aside from connecting with a stubborn fanbase, is to work on making sure talented youngsters like Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams and Tony Parker remain in the program rather than transferring or entering the NBA Draft, while he’ll also need to make sure the incoming recruits already committed to UCLA stay locked into the program. And, with Parker and the Wear twins as the only Bruins with any height whatsoever, it sure wouldn’t hurt if he were able to find a player or two of some size between now and the start of school next year.
Lastly, as a guy with one foot firmly in the Mountain West world, what’s next for New Mexico? Craig “Noodles” Neal has been Alford’s right-hand man in Albuquerque for the entirety of the last six years and is the strong favorite to move from Associate Head Coach to just plain old Head Coach. Alford came out strongly in favor of that move in his goodbye press conference, and boosters and players themselves have joined in as well. Alex Kirk went the furthest, threatening to graduate this summer and transfer alongside Alford to UCLA if Neal is not promoted to head coach. Further, Snell is rumored to be ready to stick around rather than entering the NBA Draft should Neal’s services be retained. And, frankly, if Neal is not the choice, there is a good chance that the bright short-term prospects for a talented Lobos team could darken substantially. In short, expect Neal to stay. There is still the question of which other New Mexico assistants join Alford in Westwood (as well as who else Alford targets) and which stay in Albuquerque, and Neal will need to prove his ability to be a lead recruiter and tactician for his own program. But if Neal remains, there will be continuity in Lobo land.