Pressure is on for Alford

LOS ANGELES -- Steve Alford arrived as the new coach of UCLA basketball with baggage in tow.

While preparing to hire a staff and beginning to install a new system, Alford faced questions about his handling of a 2002 sexual assault case involving former University of Iowa guard, Pierre Pierce. He issued an apology through the UCLA athletic department in April, but questions about his defense of Pierce have lingered.

Alford also had to address the concerns of Bruins supporters who were hoping, frankly, for a "bigger name" with a better NCAA tournament track record, such as Billy Donovan or Brad Stevens, to be hired to replace Ben Howland, who was fired after the Bruins' first-round loss in the NCAA tournament.

Alford says he understands the scrutiny.

He knows UCLA fans had high expectations for a coach after Howland was fired. He knows he wasn't on anybody's radar as a possible replacement here in Los Angeles. And he knows he initially struck the wrong note in response to questions about the Pierce case at his introductory news conference in suggesting that he had simply followed instructions from the administration at Iowa.

He has spent the past several weeks trying to prove he is deserving of the UCLA job, hitting the recruiting trail hard to try to bolster a depleted roster and hiring a solid staff of assistants, including Ed Schilling, a former assistant at Memphis, and David Grace, a former assistant at Oregon State.

"Our entire staff is excited about the move and the opportunities and the challenges at UCLA," Alford said. "But when you are at UCLA, you do have a different level of expectations, and we welcome that. It's part of the reason we came here. We also have high expectations as a staff and in our locker room for what we'd like to accomplish. We're working very hard here in the first month to try to instill that foundation of moving toward that."

Because he took over at UCLA after most of the country's top prospects had already signed with other programs, Alford's best chance to make a recruiting splash will come in the fall, gearing up for the 2014-15 season. But, although the 2013-14 team lacks a superstar player who can carry the program (Shabazz Muhammad declared for the NBA draft in April), it does have a solid nucleus, returning Kyle Anderson, Jordan Adams, Norman Powell and the Wear twins, David and Travis, and, if his coaching record is any indication, Alford should be able to squeeze some success out of this year's Bruins.

He has done such squeezing at just about all of his previous stops.

A college All-American and national champion as a player at Indiana, Alford has been climbing the ranks of coaching since his brief NBA career fizzled out after four seasons. In his first job, he took Manchester to the Division III national title game. At Southwest Missouri State, he guided his team to the 1999 Sweet 16. Iowa won Big Ten tournament titles in 2001 and 2006. And, at New Mexico, he revived a downtrodden Lobos program and broke into the top 10 last season. In fact, Alford, 48, leads all current NCAA coaches 48 and younger with 463 career NCAA victories. Donovan, the soon-to-be 48-year-old Florida coach coveted by many UCLA fans, is second on that list with 450.

"Obviously, we went out and hired an individual that we knew was going to be a real success for us here at UCLA," Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "The response obviously has been mixed, and we've had to address that as Steve has done everything he can to put things in motion here at UCLA."

Most of the negativity has focused on the fact that Alford proclaimed Pierce's innocence before the charges against him were fully investigated (Pierce eventually pleaded guilty to a charge of misdemeanor assault). Alford's comments at the time were, he said in April, "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."

Guerrero says Alford's character is, in fact, a big part of what made him a candidate for the UCLA job. He vetted Alford during the hiring process and discussed the Pierce incident with former Iowa athletic director, Bob Bowlsby, as well as with officials at the University of New Mexico.

"Any time there is a situation like that, you have to have a concern," Guerrero said. "But you look at it as a body of work over a long career. Given the situation was 11 years ago, and looking at his career as a whole, we felt that Steve was in a place now where we feel he will fit in here and represent UCLA with the culture, compliance and character that is so important to our community."

Alford's tenure at New Mexico suggests he has the ability to do just that.

The Lobos had fallen on hard times in the years before Alford's 2007 arrival in Albuquerque. After becoming a perennial NCAA tournament team in the 1990s, the Lobos made the tournament only once from 2000 to 2007. They finished eighth in the Mountain West Conference the year before Alford took over.

Alford took New Mexico to third-, first- and first-place finishes in his first three seasons and eventually won four conference titles in five years. He took the Lobos to the NCAA tournament three times and compiled a 16-7 record against Top 25 opponents during his time at New Mexico.

He also revamped the culture of the program. His Lobos squads set school records for grade point average and academic progress rate, and of the 14 players who stayed four years at New Mexico during his tenure, 13 earned their degrees.

"We really built something very special there in a lot of ways," Alford said. "It wasn't easy to leave there.

"I felt like I could have stayed in New Mexico for the rest of my career. There were probably only a few phone calls that I would have even accepted to start talking about leaving."

Obviously, UCLA was one of those. Although the Bruins have failed to live up to expectations in recent years, they are still considered by many to be one of the top programs in the country. It is a destination job for just about any coach, especially one who grew up in Indiana hearing about another local kid who made it big at UCLA.

Alford's father once coached at Martinsville High in Indiana, the same school John Wooden had attended many years earlier. Alford said his first experiences with basketball came in Martinsville, where, as it does in Westwood, Wooden's legacy pervades all of basketball.

When Alford accepted his first coaching job, his father gave him a copy of Wooden's "Pyramid of Success." Because he is well versed in the annals of Wooden, he knows all about the expectations for the UCLA coach -- and, he says, not just the expectations about winning basketball games.

Alford is well aware that he has a lot to prove to the UCLA community.

"I wish I could have some of those comments back," he said, reflecting on his handling of things in Iowa. "I think the thing I like most about UCLA is the commitment to excellence, and these past few weeks have just been an example of that."

Alford uses the term "excellence" a lot when talking about UCLA, and he says that, so far, the school and its program have not disappointed him in any way.

Now the pressure is on him to respond in kind.