Saturday, March 30, 2013

Steve Alford, The New UCLA Coach? Oh No

Steve Alford, the new UCLA men's basketball coach? You gotta be kidding.

This is who they dumped Ben Howland for? UCLA fans had visions of great coaching hires, like Billy Donovan and Rick Patino, dancing in their heads. Then the school settles for Alford? What a come-down. These days, UCLA is no Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas, but it deserves a higher-caliber coach than Alford.

And just last week Alford, who's been coaching at New Mexico the past six years, signed a letter of agreement for a 10-year extension. He was all smiles, saying he's looking forward to being a Lobo for the next ten years. But he didn't even last ten days. Real honorable. 

This is no big-time coach. He hails from the lower-tier Mountain West. His last game was last weekend, where his 29-6 team, picked by many for the Final Four, totally bombed. They didn't even make it out of the first round, stymied by modestly-talented Harvard, which won a NCAA tournament game for the first time in school history.

Harvard is small and slow and, in athletic ability, was totally outclassed by the Lobos' gazelles. But Alford was totally outcoached by Harvard's Tommy Amaker. Watching the game, it was clear New Mexico
didn't have a clue how to stop these smart but inferior athletes. That performance certainly didn't make you think the Bruins' hired the second coming of Coach K.

A new coach is supposed to be an upgrade but can you seriously argue that Alford is a step up? He has nothing close to an all-world resume, with tenures at Southwest Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico. He took SMS on a nice run in the 1999 NCAAs, won two Big Ten titles at Iowa and led New Mexico to the NCAAs in three out of the last four seasons. A laudable resume yes, but good enough to earn him a head-coaching job at a top-tier program like UCLA's? Don't think so.

UCLA was looking for a younger coach who could relate easier to players and media than crotchety Howland, and someone who could recruit the Los Angeles area more efficiently. Yes, Alford is more affable and personable than Howland and brings a more entertaining brand of ball than Howland's defense-oriented, grind-it-out style. But even factoring in Howland's downturn in recent years, you can't argue that Alford is a superior coach. At age 48, Alford isn't even significantly younger than Howland, who is 55. And what about the notion that the new coach should have ties with the NBA, a lure for recruits? Look at all those players Alford has funneled into the NBA. Yeah, right.

Many thought Howland got a raw deal. Though he has been slipping in many areas, this season he did win the Pac12 title and was barely nosed out in the conference championship finals. He finished with a noteworthy 25-10 record and might have gone farther in the NCAAs if he hadn't lost his second-best player, Jordan Adams, just before the tournament..

Howland's replacement was not even UCLA's first choice. They went after some more skilled, higher profile coaches but were rebuffed. VCU's Shaka Smart didn't want the job. Neither did Butler's Brad Stevens. The real big guns, like Patino and Donovan, were never really in the picture.

The problem is that the UCLA job comes with plenty of baggage. The ghost of super-coach John Wooden looms after all these years. Bruin fans, still thinking it's the late 1960s, have ridiculously high expectations, so anything short of league titles and Sweet Sixteens is unacceptable. With high academic standards, UCLA coaches are limited to recruiting only high-level students, putting many four-star and five-star athletes out of reach. Nor is the salary eye-popping. It's a relatively measly $2.6 million a year. With all these headaches, this is not really an attractive job to coaches who are happy where they are.

Here's an unsettling thought. Maybe the Bruins hired Alford because they couldn't attract anybody better.