Steve Alford after history at UCLA

LOS ANGELES -- Down on the Pauley Pavilion court, the man most recently hired in UCLA's perpetual effort to replace "the man" is chatting with local reporters.

Steve Alford has intentionally chosen the date, Oct. 14, for media day and intends to keep it that way every year so long as he is head coach. Oct. 14 is John Wooden's birthday. He would have been 103 this year.

Not far from where Alford stands, a year-old statue of the Wizard of Westwood stands outside the Pauley doors. Arms crossed, program tightly rolled up in his right hand, it is a perfect replica of the coach who is now literally and figuratively larger than life on the UCLA campus.

Just inside the doors is a display case devoted to Wooden, complete with a video that loops continuously. It sits halfway down the northeast concourse, which is designated Wooden Way.

In truth, 38 years after he retired, everything at UCLA is Wooden's Way.

And that is both the program's blessing and its burden.

In March it will be 50 years since Wooden captured his first of 10 national titles, a pyramid of success that will never be duplicated. Yet that is the unreachable bar for which every UCLA team must aspire, to which each is measured.

Eight coaches have followed in Wooden's footsteps. Few have exited Westwood gracefully. Only one, Jim Harrick, has put up another national championship banner, and he was fired amid NCAA allegations.

The most recent, Ben Howland, took the Bruins to three Final Fours in 10 years and last season won 25 games and the Pac-12 regular-season title.

He also won just two NCAA tournament games since 2008.

He was fired in March.

Wooden is not the only legendary coach to have walked a gilded path along a sideline. Adolph Rupp at Kentucky, Dean Smith at North Carolina, Phog Allen as well as a certain Doctor at Kansas all left equally impossible loafers to fill. Yet none of those schools seem as besotted with their past as UCLA.

But at what point does devotion become quicksand, miring a program so much in its past that anything in the present fails to live up to the standard? How, in a day and age of instant gratification and short-term memory, can a school build to the future when it is so enamored by its history?

To say the game has changed since Wooden blew a whistle would be a criminal undersell. The rules, the players, the stakes have all ratcheted up substantially, perhaps no place more obviously than in Los Angeles.

Wooden didn't have to contend with a monstrous NCAA rulebook or mid-major parity or facility wars or one-and-dones or Twitter.

Today's UCLA coach has all of that, plus 450 registered sports agents within California's borders (more than any other state in the country) and a number that doesn't take into account the countless unregistered runners who work for them.

There, then, is the conundrum of the job.

Every coach is asked or expected to follow the Wooden Way, but the Wooden Way today is as relevant as a cobblestone street.

Onto this potholed path waltzes Alford, the latest successor to Wooden's monarchy. He left New Mexico, where he had a winning program, manageable expectations and a 10-year extension as of March 20 for the far-more-difficult, if not impossible, job at UCLA on March 30.

So perhaps the most logical question is a simple, "Are you out of your mind?"

Alford laughs. He doesn't necessarily disagree.

"It was definitely a leap of faith," he says. "I don't know if anybody else could have called and gotten my attention. I've always been a guy who has to feel something in his gut. When you feel something in your gut, you either pass or jump both feet in. I jumped."

Alford was not UCLA's first choice. Or its second. The school's flirtation with Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart is well documented.

Maybe, though, Alford will be the right choice.

Really, who other than a man who spent his childhood playing biddy ball in the Martinsville (Ind.) High School gym, who played for the demanding Bob Knight and amid fan fervor at Indiana, and who remains a living deity in Indiana, could understand what in the world he's gotten himself into?

Who else could look at the insane expectations at UCLA and say simply, 'I wore No. 12 all my life. I want that 12th banner"?

Before he moved to New Castle, Ind., Alford lived in Martinsville. His father, Sam, coached there, and a young Steve grew up running around that old barn of a gym.

Just inside what once served as the front door is a trophy case stuffed with memorabilia, including a team photograph of players in old-school silk shorts and simple sneakers. The guy kneeling in the lower-left corner is John Wooden.

Alford's dad tried to explain the significance of the place, but this was in the mid-to-late 1970s, and Alford was more caught up in Bob Knight and Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, the guys who were coming into the game, not the old coach whose career was ending.

So the 48-year-old coach in him certainly appreciates UCLA's glorious past and its importance to the alumni and donors who back the school. But the kid in him remembers what it's like to be a kid, to wonder why the old guys keep talking about the past. He gets why that glorious past means little to the 18-year-olds he needs to build UCLA's future.

"We try to explain it all to them, but I'm not sure how much of it they really grasp," Alford said. "Social media has changed a lot of it. When I played there wasn't Twitter, so I wasn't practicing at Indiana and going on Twitter the next three hours to figure out who loves me. Oh, I lost a follower or I gained five. It's amazing what kids find important to them. We constantly sell the history, but they have to know there's a future."

The tricky balance is evident on campus. The school just refurbished Pauley Pavilion, shining it up with open and spacious concourses, new seats and a new scoreboard. The rafters even have 11 national title banners. When Alford arrived, there were only six. Inexplicably the university had stitched the title announcements back-to-back.

The school also cleverly excavated untapped earth off the Pauley court to create a new locker room, lounge space and a weight room.

But there is no practice palace for the basketball team, like so many other schools have. Athletic director Dan Guerrero said a site survey to determine feasibility to add a practice facility to the landlocked campus is in the works, but it is little more than a vision right now.

"Kids don't know Pauley from Assembly [Hall] from the Pit," Alford said. "It's a visual. They have to see it."

What kids do see, or at least comprehend immediately, is the inordinate pressure that comes with wearing a UCLA uniform, a pressure that only a handful of other players can relate to.

"It's hard. I realized that as soon as we lost to Cal Poly [last year]," sophomore guard Jordan Adams said. "This is a school that is known for winning. I didn't understand exactly what that meant until I got here."

The expectation of winning creates its own problems.

Howland eventually ran headlong into some of them. Yes, he took the Bruins to three Final Fours, but at some point they became the Buffalo Bills of college basketball, unable to win the Big One. In a place where winning the Big One is the only thing that matters, that's a problem.

He's always been a deliberate coach, more dictatorial and strident than free-flowing with an open offense. That was never an issue until the Bruins' results stopped coming in.

Then suddenly it was a big problem. The natives started getting restless after the 2012 season, when UCLA failed to make the NCAA tournament and the petulant Reeves Nelson threatened to undermine his leadership.

Plenty thought Howland would be gone after that. Instead, UCLA stuck by him, and he answered by landing the nation's top recruiting class.

It didn't solve a thing. Instead, the Bruins started the season 5-3, Tyler Lamb and Josh Smith transferred (the seventh and eight players to leave since the 2009 season) and the team was a disconnected mess, evidenced by Shabazz Muhammad's selfish reaction to Larry Drew II's game winner -- Muhammad just walked away instead of celebrating with his teammates -- against Washington.

A day after UCLA lost by 20 to Minnesota in the second round of the NCAA tournament, Howland was fired.

"We did have a good year last year," Guerrero said. "But I had to look at it from the filter of what the future would look like. It's about the inner workings of your program. You have to read the players' eyes and see how they're responding. We needed a fresh start. At a place like UCLA you can be patient only to a certain degree."

Guerrero immediately turned his attention, as everyone did last year, to Stevens and Smart.

There was a time when the former Butler and/or VCU coach would have been publicly flogged for turning down UCLA.

That isn't the case anymore. It's not that the UCLA mystique has been tarnished so much as its been revealed as an Ozian sleight of hand. There are good jobs everywhere. So-called mid-majors charter flights, pay good money and win in the tournament without a quarter of the headaches.

It is not just the expectations that turn off coaches. It's what a coach has to deal with on the periphery. Several basketball insiders referred to Los Angeles as a "cesspool." To recruit and win in L.A. you not only have to beat out all of the other national programs knocking at a player's door; you also have to shove away the agents lining up to get his advances.

Last season, Muhammad missed three games because of an NCAA violation and Kyle Anderson endured a lengthy investigation before eventually being cleared.

Yet UCLA is expected to land every good player in Los Angeles and somehow do it cleanly and win national championships.

So the question many coaches ask isn't why stay, but why leave?

Alford left because in his heart he is still a sucker for all that UCLA represents. Kids in Indiana are taught to worship three things -- basketball, Bob Knight and John Wooden.

Alford played basketball at the highest level, winning a national title and an Olympic gold medal. He played for Knight, and now here was a chance to walk where Wooden made his mark.

He didn't know whether the chance would ever come again. He's 48, hardly old, but old enough not to be the hot young coach on the rise anymore.

"It is as comfortable and relaxing and less stressful than what I had? No to all of those," he said. "I didn't have to make this move, but I was totally driven by the chance to win national championships. I know that bar is there."

Already Alford has learned that the spotlight in L.A. is a little different from the one in Albuquerque. In his first weeks on the job he apologized for mishandling a sexual assault involving one of his players in 2002 when he was at Iowa, and more recently, he's had to listen as critics and cynics wonder why Andy Enfield is scooping up local recruits at USC and he is not.

He only asks for one thing -- see us before you judge us.

Alford used the same pitch on his players -- give me a chance first. To gain the trust of a disenfranchised and disenchanted team, he started with the little things.

Office staff members know that, regardless of what he's doing, he's to be interrupted if a player needs to see him. He's sat down and asked the Bruins individually what they need and what was missing, careful to stress that they use the opportunity constructively, not just to gripe about the previous coaching regime.

Some wishes have been granted -- they have longer beds in their dorms now, for example -- and others haven't.

Last weekend the entire team took a retreat to Lake Arrowhead, a mountain resort about two hours outside of Los Angeles. There they mixed business with pleasure, talking about X's and O's, the expectations, media attention and pressures that go along with being a UCLA player, but also taking time for a players-versus-coaches softball game.

"He talks to us about why he's doing something and what we're doing," Jordan Adams said. "He's someone you can talk to and can trust. He's definitely more of a players' coach.'

No one described Wooden that way.

Remembered now through the sepia-colored haze and fog of nostalgia as a sweet, old man,Wooden was a tough coach who would no more survey his players for their opinions, wants or needs than wear a muscle tee on the sideline.

Wooden was, after all, the man who memorably told a long-haired, bearded Bill Walton, "Well, you're right, Bill, I don't have the right to tell you [how to wear your hair]. I just have the right to determine who is going to play, and we're going to miss you."

So already Alford has detoured slightly from the Wooden Way.

And maybe, just maybe, that's a good first step.