Getting Alford to Bloomington may prove tricky

Indiana is facing a coaching search similar to what North Carolina went through three years ago.

The choice is obvious, but getting there could be dicey if not handled correctly.

The most-recognized selection to succeed Mike Davis is one of Indiana's own in Iowa coach Steve Alford. ESPN.com obtained Alford's contract and nowhere in the deal does it state a buyout or any specific reference to Indiana or any other school.

A source with direct knowledge of the negotiations with Alford and Iowa told ESPN.com that Alford is free to go to any school. The source said Iowa never tried to lock him in and prevent him from going to a rival school. For comparison, when Illinois hired Bruce Weber, athletic director Ron Guenther didn't want Weber coming from Southern Illinois with a stopover in Champaign and then going to Purdue whenever Gene Keady retired. It was clear up front that he wouldn't go once he made a commitment to Illinois.

The source said that Alford has always looked at Indiana as his dream job and has constantly dealt with the negativity in recruiting, thinking he would leave for the Hoosiers at some point. But Alford will have to balance staying above any coaching search talk with an Iowa team (20-6, 9-3 Big Ten) that is pursuing a Big Ten title in the final four regular-season games. The good news for Alford could be that this is a veteran team; four of its top six players are seniors who will be leaving anyway.

The similarity with the North Carolina search is that Indiana could begin and end its pursuit with Alford. North Carolina made statements that it wanted a nationally recognized coach and was going to go through a nationwide search in replacing Matt Doherty, just like Indiana did Thursday. But there was only one choice for the Tar Heels -- Kansas coach Roy Williams. The Tar Heels bounced Doherty on April 1, 2003 while Kansas was at the Final Four. It became a big distraction for Williams, who ultimately chose to go to Chapel Hill.

Indiana athletic director Rick Greenspan said during Thursday's news conference that he wouldn't hire a coach until after the Final Four. But how does an athletic director conduct a search while his present head coach is a lame duck?

Apparently, he'll have to tread very carefully.

Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley had to do that last year when he bounced football coach Ron Zook, but allowed Zook to finish out the final month of the season.

"It's a unique situation," Foley said of the circumstances. "Obviously it causes a lot of awkward situations and it's not ideal. But I do think it helped with the search."

Foley said he never contacted a candidate or an athletic director during the season. But the time allowed him to conduct background checks and talk to those familiar with a host of candidates. That way, he was ready to zero in on his choice -- in this instance Utah's Urban Meyer -- once the season was over.

"That way when it's time to hit the ground once the season is over, you're already off and running," Foley said. "The timing is never ideal in a coaching change. I talked to former coaches, NFL GMs, television folks. I picked people's brains and checked out the Internet to find out as much as I could. Indiana has time to do that. I didn't talk to any school or coaches but did hire a consultant to gauge the interest for us."

That's probably what Indiana will do -- find out the interest from Alford and others, like Marquette's Tom Crean or ESPN analyst Rick Majerus, before honing in on a top choice.

Davis made it known that Indiana should hire one of its own. If that's the case then there is only one choice in Alford. And, according to multiple sources, if Alford gets that call at the appropriate time, he will go. His father, Sam, was a high school coach in the state, so that would be another feather for Alford to connect with the local coaches. Alford probably doesn't need any other help, though, as a Hoosier who led the program to a national title in 1987. Alford would also answer Davis' call to unite the Indiana basketball family from the Bob Knight era.

No decision will be made in the coming weeks, but expect plenty of moves to be made behind the scenes inquiring into the real interest with candidates. If they talk to the right people with Alford, they'll find out he would be willing to go at the right time -- after Iowa's run is complete. And, if Alford can maintain balance, that could come well into March or, who knows, even into April, making the Hoosiers wait just like the Tar Heels did for their native son to come home after the Final Four.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.