UCLA and the art of self-inflicted backlash

Here's how a completely self-inflicted backlash begins: Last weekend, the Los Angeles Times ran a feature story about new UCLA coach Steve Alford.

The story, written by Chris Foster, was an entertaining and informative read largely centered around Alford's career and rise to one of the most coveted positions in college sports. It covered most of the bases devoted college basketball fans are already all too familiar with: From his successful career under Bob Knight at Indiana to his resurgence at New Mexico to the much-discussed shame of his behavior during the 2002 Pierre Pierce sexual-assault ordeal.

But there was one wholly new, eyebrow-raising detail. As Foster writes, after Alford's introductory news conference, which featured his dismissive quote about merely following administrator instructions during the Pierce mess, athletic director Dan Guerrero and the rest of UCLA's athletics staff were caught entirely off guard:

UCLA athletic administrators were stunned [by the questions about the Pierce situation]. They had signed Alford to a seven-year, $18.2-million contract with the expectation that his hiring would invigorate an apathetic fan base. They expected him to be greeted with open arms.

Guerrero was also questioned -- about whether UCLA had properly vetted its new coach and investigated what happened at Iowa. He said he "clearly discussed" the Pierce situation with Alford before hiring him.

However, when Alford was asked a similar question, he said the topic never came up.

Forget for a moment that UCLA athletic administrators expected Alford to be greeted with open arms; we'll get to that below. For now, let's focus on the fact that after Alford flubbed his opening news conference, Guerrero assured reporters he had asked his new coach about something the coach later said never came up. Whoops.

As unfortunate as that anecdote is, it was just one slightly embarrassing detail in an otherwise not-unflattering story more about Alford's overall life in basketball than his hiring at UCLA. It gained steam among understandably grumpy UCLA fans in no time, but would have likely gone away shortly after that. Guerrero was caught out. It happens. It's over. You take your lumps and live to fight another day.

Here's how a backlash really starts to take form: That's not what Guerrero did. Instead, he issued a statement. No, seriously! He issued a statement! That really happened! Let us bask in its glory:

"It is unfortunate that Chris Foster's Los Angeles Times article on UCLA men's basketball Coach Steve Alford focuses only on issues and opinions from long ago and ignores what he has accomplished since arriving at UCLA. In addition to assembling a phenomenal coaching staff, every student-athlete chose to remain a Bruin and play for Steve. I should also note that despite an exclusive interview with Chancellor Gene Block on the subject of Coach Alford, Foster failed to mention any part of the interview, including the chancellor's repeated and unequivocal support for Coach Alford and his firm belief that Steve is committed to being a Bruin and embracing the values of Coach John Wooden. Finally, contrary to the impression left by the story, Steve has been warmly welcomed by the Bruin family and the Los Angeles community. We are all excited to have Steve as our coach and are looking forward to the new season. Go Bruins!"

Yep, that's right: Not only does Guerrero apparently not understand that reporters are under no obligation to include specific portions of their reporting in any given story, he also wants everyone to recognize what Alford -- who hasn't coached a single game at UCLA -- has already accomplished at UCLA.

Far as I can tell, Alford's two accomplishments since arriving in Westwood are:

  1. Managing to keep UCLA's talented young corp from transferring, and

  2. Settling his outstanding contract dispute with New Mexico.

The former is no small thing. The latter is good too, I guess.

As The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy wrote this week: By issuing that statement, Guerrero "chose to make a featurized profile of his new basketball coach into a significant news story."

Self-inflicted backlash: complete.

Perhaps the silliest part of all of this is that UCLA expected Alford to be greeted with open arms. Forget the Pierce story. Alford had just lost to Harvard. He's been to one Sweet 16 in his career; the Bruins had just fired a coach who went to three consecutive Final Fours. Worst of all, his name wasn't Shaka Smart or Brad Stevens. Where does this whole open-arms idea even come from? DeCourcy nails it:

OK, so maybe Guerrero was expecting “open arms.” Maybe that’s what he has deluded himself into perceiving. But it’s not what has occurred at UCLA since Alford became the fallback choice to run the Bruins program. And the only thing that will change the mood will be an NCAA championship the Bruins seem a long way from achieving.

That's exactly right. Unless Alford builds a consistent national title contender in Westwood, Bruins fans' sky-blue-adorned arms will remain leerily folded across their sky-blue-adorned chests. In a weird way, this should be freeing. What matters for Alford and Guerrero now is whether UCLA wins or loses, and how. It's really just that simple. Little else matters.

In the meantime, maybe write fewer angry, backlash-inducing news releases? I'm just spitballing here.