LOS ANGELES — The UCLA fan base wanted a big splash for its next basketball coach but instead got a small ripple.
Bruins around the country wanted someone that would deliver ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs,’ make them shout for joy and allow them to walk with pride. Instead, they got someone who delivered question marks and puzzled looks.
UCLA announced Saturday that it had hired New Mexico’s Steve Alford to be the next leader of the program with the most national titles in NCAA history, creating an almost universal reaction of ‘meh’ in the UCLA community.
Fans of this proud program wanted to land one of the country’s big names. Brad Stevens of Butler, Shaka Smart of Virginia Commonwealth, two of the most highly-sought up-and-comers, sat high on the wish lists. Billy Donovan of Florida, Rick Pitino of Louisville and Bill Self held a regular spot on the dream lists.
Alford appeared on no lists.
That’s not to say he’s a bad coach. He’s been on lists before, but not this time. Nobody mentioned him as a possible candidate for the job, but that had more to do with him agreeing to a 10-year contract with New Mexico just 10 days ago.
Heck, even UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero didn’t know Alford was available until Guerrero reached out to Alford earlier this week and discovered that Alford’s new contract doesn’t take effect until April 1.
“We weren’t sure whether he was available just in a general sense, but we made the contact and began the discussion,” Guerrero said. “We both realized that this was something that could be possible.”
The contract gave Guerrero the cover he needed to make this stealthy move. UCLA made overtures toward Stevens and Smart, but talks with Stevens broke off when it became apparent he wasn’t interested in leaving his current job, and Smart politely declined to be considered for the job.
At that point, Alford became the primary target, and Guerrero made it sound like there were no others.
“We kind of knew where we were focused,” Guerrero said. “Obviously, once you have a certain candidate in mind and you have an opportunity to engage and there is reciprocity of interest then you keep going down that path until you see if something can happen."
Although the hire is surprising, it’s not exactly out of left field. Had Alford not signed that deal 10 days ago, his name surely would have come up as a candidate.
After helping lead Indiana to a national title as a player and a brief, nondescript NBA career, he turned into a rising star in the coaching world. He led Manchester to the Division II national title game in 1995, then moved to Southwest Missouri State and took the Bears to the Sweet 16 in 1999.
After that, Iowa came calling, and while he didn’t have much success there, New Mexico still wanted him to come and help rebuild its program. He did exactly that, taking a team that finished eighth in the Mountain West the season before he got there to one that finished third, first and first during Alford’s first three years.
Thanks in part to Alford’s New Mexico teams, the Mountain West Conference has been on the rise for the past three or four years, and Alford has been coach of the year in the conference three times in five seasons. This is a coach who has worked his way up the ranks and appears to be on the precipice of making the jump to an elite level. UCLA is the place where he can do exactly that.
“I’ve known Steve and his capabilities for a long time,” Guerrero said. “I’ve certainly watched his teams play when I was a member of the NCAA committee. I watched a lot of games. I enjoy his style, I think the players will enjoy his style, and I just think he’s the right guy for us.”
Alford’s lack of success in his only major conference job might be a red flag for some, however. His lack of postseason success might be a turnoff for others. He went 61-67 in Big Ten games during his eight seasons at Iowa and has won only five NCAA Tournament games in 18 seasons coaching at the Division I level.
Just last week, in fact, his No. 3-seeded Lobos lost to No. 14 Harvard in the Round of 64 of the NCAA tournament. But Alford had New Mexico ranked 10th in the nation. His team won the Mountain West Conference in four of the past five seasons and won 30, 22, 28 and 29 games the past four seasons.
“I’m 23 years into this now,” Alford said. “The experience of building programs and sustaining programs -- I think I’ve got the experience that has really helped me at each stop. Each stop, I would hope that we bettered and not just [earning] wins.”
Alford will bring the reputation of a good recruiter with ties to some of the hotbeds in California. He’s also known as a players’ coach. Those are two areas in which Howland was lacking during the latter part of his tenure, so in that sense Alford will be a change of pace.
But he’s also a defensive-minded coach who isn’t known for lighting up scoreboards. New Mexico was No. 172 in the nation in scoring this season with 67.4 points per game, so if it’s an entertaining, wide-open style you’re looking for, Alford won’t be bringing it.
But he is bringing a résumé filled with wins during his six years at New Mexico, having averaged about 26 wins per season. More importantly, he wants to be at UCLA. He said he’s been under pressure since he was 16 and knows about the demands of a basketball powerhouse from his days at Indiana and welcomes the challenge.
There is no other school, he said, that would have gotten him to seriously consider leaving New Mexico after agreeing to a 10-year deal and a team that had all five starters returning after ending the season ranked 10th in the nation.
“It goes back to the four letters,” Alford said. “It’s UCLA. I think if it’s anywhere else, this is not a decision that would have been made.”
Saying things like that will help win the hearts of UCLA fans, but winning will do more. Alford will have to continue with the on-court success he had at New Mexico, and he’ll have to take it a step farther and improve upon his postseason résumé.
If he takes the Bruins to Sweet 16s, Final Fours and national championship games, nobody will remember that he wasn’t the flashy, sexy big-name hire. He’ll be adopted by the Bruins and take his spot in Bruin lore.
And if he doesn’t?
Well, they’ll say a lot more than ‘meh.’