LOS ANGELES -- UCLA men's basketball coach Steve Alford on Thursday apologized for the way he handled the Pierre Pierce sexual assault case while he was coach at Iowa in 2002.
At the time, Alford publicly defended Pierce, an Iowa player, before the case had run its course through legal channels.
"I instinctively and mistakenly came to his defense before knowing all the facts," Alford said in a statement released by UCLA. "I wanted to believe he was innocent, and in response to a media question, I publicly proclaimed his innocence before the legal system had run its course. This was inappropriate, insensitive and hurtful, especially to the young female victim involved, and I apologize for that."
Pierce, then a sophomore for the Hawkeyes, was charged with third-degree sexual assault in September 2002, and Alford immediately suspended the shooting guard. On at least three different occasions, however, the coach publicly proclaimed Pierce's innocence.
First, he was quoted as saying that the suspension was "not a suspension of guilt." After Pierce was arrested, Alford was quoted as saying, "By no means is there guilt." Then, at Big Ten media day, Alford delivered his most strongly worded proclamation when he said, "I totally believe he is innocent. I believed it from day one, and I still believe it."
Less than a week later, Pierce pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of misdemeanor assault.
Reached Thursday before his public statement was released, Alford said he had regretted making the public statements defending Pierce, who would later be imprisoned for a separate incident that included charges of intent to commit sexual assault. He said his emphatic assertion of Pierce's innocence at media day was particularly in bad taste.
"How I responded to a question in support of my student-athlete at that time, it was just inappropriate," he said. "I understand that it comes off being insensitive and can be hurtful in a lot of different ways. That was not my intent at all, but that particular comment was a vast error in judgment and something I'm very sorry for and will do everything I possibly can to make sure nothing like that happens again. I wish I could have that particular comment back because it was inappropriate."
Alford's apologetic tone is a far cry from the one he used only nine days ago when he was introduced as UCLA coach. He was asked about the Pierce incident and said his actions in 2002 were dictated by Iowa's administration.
"All I can tell you with that situation is that I followed everything that the University of Iowa administration, the lawyers that were hired -- I did everything I was supposed to do at the University of Iowa in that situation," he said. "I followed everything that I was told to do."
His statement Thursday was decidedly different.
"Today I would handle the situation much differently, with the appropriate regard and respect for the investigative process and those impacted by it," Alford said.
Athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a statement that he applauded and respected Alford's comments made Thursday. He said that he was well aware of the 2002 incident and how Alford handled it but did not find it worthy of impeding Alford's hiring by UCLA.
"Everyone has regrets in their past, but acknowledging them and learning from them shows true character," Guerrero said. "I was aware of this situation when we hired Steve and concluded that although he made an error in judgment 11 years ago, he had learned and grown from that experience."