UCLA hires Steve Alford

hired New Mexico coach Steve Alford on Saturday to replace Ben Howland, ending a process that had rapidly changed direction several times over the past few days.

"It's been a difficult morning to tell a team that I dearly love and a team and built last six years," Alford said in a Saturday afternoon news conference in Albuquerque. "I'm proud of my time and the opportunity given at New Mexico. I very much look forward to taking the helm at UCLA."

UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero said in a conference call that Alford will receive a seven-year, $18.2 million contract. Guerrero said Alford will be paid $2.6 million a year plus a $200,000 signing bonus and that Alford would have to pay a buyout to New Mexico but that UCLA would work with him.

New Mexico AD Paul Krebs said the buyout is still being worked out.

Alford will be introduced by the Bruins at a news conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

"Anyone suited for a pressure job like this it's Steve,'' Guerrero said. "He grew up dealing with pressure. Anything about Indiana basketball is pressure. In addition, the state of New Mexico and University of New Mexico takes their basketball seriously. He's not the kind of guy who will shy away from what expectations are about at UCLA. He'll handle this with dignity, class and he's ready for this.''

Alford replaces Howland, who was fired at UCLA last week after the Bruins lost to Minnesota in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Howland coached the Bruins the past 10 years.

Alford said his son, Bryce who is a top 2013 recruit, would come with him to UCLA. He also endorsed his top assistant Craig Neal to replace him at New Mexico.

"Nobody is more prepared to be a head coach more than Craig Neal,'' said Alford. "He knows the culture. He gives UNM the best chance to continue what we've done.''

Alford said this was one of the most difficult things he had to do, to tell his team Saturday morning he was leaving.

"We return everybody,'' Alford said. "We return the entire starting five of a 29-6 team. We've been one of the premier programs out West. It wasn't something easy to do, to look at the young men in the face. I think they understand. If anywhere else, this is not a decision that would have been made.''

Alford said he has been under pressure since he was 16, playing at New Castle High in Indiana where the gym sat 10,000 and would be sold out. He was an Olympian under coach Bob Knight, played in the NBA and has 23 years of coaching experience.

"You're not going to find anyone more competitive or driven,'' Alford said.

Alford said he wasn't sure on the numbers of his buyout and who would pay for it. He said his new deal didn't take into effect until Monday.

UCLA tried to make a run at VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens since firing Howland and entertained the thought of an NBA coach, too.

Guerrero made it clear that he wanted to have a coach who played an exciting style, would help fill the seats at Pauley Pavilion and represented the university and student-athletes well. Alford has a good chance to make all of that happen if he coaches in a similar fashion at UCLA as he did at New Mexico.

"Steve is the perfect fit for UCLA," Guerrero said. "He is part of the storied history of the game of college basketball and understands the tradition and uniqueness of UCLA. Yet he also connects with a new generation of players and brings an up-tempo and team-oriented brand of basketball to Westwood. We welcome Steve, his wife Tanya, and children Kory, Bryce and Kayla to the Bruin family and look forward to many years of success."

Alford, 48, led the Lobos (29-6) to the Mountain West Conference regular season and postseason tournament title but the No. 3 seed Lobos lost to Harvard in the round of 64 last week in Salt Lake City.

Alford had been given a 10-year extension by the Lobos just last week; he had signed a letter of agreement but not the official document.

"The 10-year contract was done prior to the postseason, we were working on the deal," Alford said Saturday. "I thought it was long-term. I love UNM. I love Albuquerque. This is truly a leap-of-faith decision. But it becomes a little bit easier at UCLA.

"You're talking about the premier basketball program in the country," Alford said. "This is an opportunity that doesn't come around every day. We've been able to put in place a program, with a high academic grad rate, APR and championships.''

Alford won or shared the Mountain West Conference title four times in his six seasons as head coach. The 1987 Indiana grad has been on a meteoric rise in the profession from Southwest Missouri State to Iowa to New Mexico and now to UCLA.

Alford has recruited Los Angeles well, including getting Kendall Williams away from UCLA when the Bruins didn't go through with a scholarship offer for him. Williams ended up being the MWC player of the year.

The Lobos experienced the most successful time during a six-year period under Alford with the NCAA appearances in 2010, 2012 and 2013.

The Lobos will name Neal as the interim coach. Neal could be a serious candidate for the job since he was a finalist for his alma mater Georgia Tech. If not, Neal would likely go with his close friend Alford to UCLA.

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall could also be a good fit for the Lobos if he were to entertain an offer. The Lobos will likely try to land a similar brand name to continue the success Alford had if it's not Neal. UNM has become, with UNLV and San Diego State, the anchors of the Mountain West Conference, which put five teams in the NCAA tournament.

Alford will go from one pressure situation to another. The head coach at UNM carries with it high expectations based on the focus in the state on the job. The Pit has consistently been one of the best home courts in the country and well attended as any other school.