For Better or Worse, Steve Alford and UCLA Are Now Tied at the HipPosted by Chris Johnson on July 10th, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
The merits of college coaching hires take years to assess. Coaches need time to develop their players. Recruiting strategies need to be overhauled. Fans need to buy in. Alumni need to be convinced their monetary contributions are being funneled to the right man with the right vision and the right process to lead their program to future success. All of these things require variously large stretches of time to take hold. For the black sheep among new hired coaches, maybe it never happens.
But everybody at least deserves a chance, right? No matter how putrid a coach’s first few games are, no matter how many fans are calling for his head, no matter how many disparaging internet memes are created to popularize his dishonor, one can typically find reason to give him (or her) the benefit of the doubt. UCLA fans will have to do more than just that with new coach Steve Alford, who had the contents of his contract publicly explored by the Los Angeles Times Monday night. College basketball coaches at blue-blood programs make gobs of money, which Alford does. He also, thanks to a $10.4 million buyout clause (four times his annual pay, according to the Times), isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
By saddling Alford with such a large buyout — more than 10 times what it would have been had he stayed at New Mexico — UCLA is essentially making it impossible for him to do to Westwood what he did to Albuquerque.
Financial commitment is a noble concept in a college sports world where coaches are thrown by the wayside far too often for failing to meet the unrelenting results-now demands most programs harbor. Athletic director Dan Guerrero clearly believes Alford is the right man for the job – so much so, apparently, that he’s willing to stake a huge chunk of the athletic department balance sheet (as well as other curiously large financial provisions baked into Alford’s deal), and quite possibly his entire reputation, to prove it. That is a strong vote of confidence for any program to make. At UCLA, where a man who took the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours and won a league championship in his final season before being shown the door, it could wind up being one of the the most regrettable (and financially punitive) athletics-related investments Guerrero has ever made. Ben Howland’s demise didn’t come exclusively as the product of an unacceptable wins-loss record or the virtual plateauing of the once-nationally contending outfit he oversaw earlier in his tenure – there were more persasive, perhaps unresolvable systemic hindrances afoot – but the standards of success at his former employer are plain all the same. National championship or bust. Alford might never meet those standards; he will have the security and the financial resources to do so. Results are expected to follow.
The other interpretation, one that implicitly demeans UCLA’s decades-long preeminent hoops prestige, is that Guerrero is so insecure Alford might pull a New Mexico-redux, ignoring financial commitments for the shortsighted glory of a shiny new high-major job — that he might bolt at the first signs of trouble in Westwood — he needs Alford to sign on for $10 million-plus just to make sure. UCLA needs Alford’s commitment just as much as Alford needs UCLA’s, in other words. If that idea doesn’t compute, it shouldn’t, because it’s sort of insane. We’re talking about UCLA! Is it even remotely possible UCLA is worried that its newly hired coach, whose higher-seeded New Mexico team saw its NCAA Tournament run derailed by an academic scandal-gutted Harvard team, would leave for another job in the midst of his (unfathomably well-compensated) tenure? How many jobs out there are better than UCLA nowadays, anyway? Apparently enough to make Guerrero preempt his newly minted coach’s departure.
The buyout figure wouldn’t look so bad were the optics surrounding Alford’s hire – a bumbled press conference, an embarrassing mix-up in communication between Guerrero and Alford regarding the latter’s involvement in the Pierre Pierce scandal at Iowa, a not-gunshy Los Angeles media already dropping nuclear-level column hate – not already coloring Bruins fans’ expectations of a coach who, despite his oft-maligned past, still really hasn’t been given a chance to prove whether he belongs. Alford at least deserves that much.
Winning the press conference is the metaphorical description for premature judgments of coaching hires. UCLA’s press conference defeats run two fold: Alford really did make a mess of his first public appearance as the head coach of a legendary basketball program, and UCLA has for all intents and purposes already “lost” by hiring Alford – as if to say, whether UCLA fans or anyone else wants to give the coach the time he probably deserves (and will get), Alford is preemptively being declared a failure. The contractual specifics revealed Monday extended those fears: The Bruins’ not-so-popular new coach is sticking around for the long haul.
The first battle for public acceptance was lost, but Alford will have plenty of time, and money, with which to validate his hire. Like it or not, Westwood will be Alford’s home for the foreseeable future.