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Steve Alford embarks on make-or-break season at UCLA

UCLA coach Steve Alford is entering his fourth season as coach of the Bruins. Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES -- His mentors told him to flee each night, to get away from the busy campus in West Los Angeles so the job wouldn't tempt him to come back after hours.

So Steve Alford moved his family to Calabasas, 20 protracted Los Angeles miles from UCLA's campus, when he docked his boat next to John Wooden's Ark and accepted the Bruins' post in 2013.

The area's pleasant par-5s salved his golf obsession. The distance from the school offered a buffer of comfort when he absorbed a litany of missteps in a ghastly 2015-16 season, just the fourth losing campaign since Wooden retired in 1975.

Critics chided Steve's son, Bryce Alford, for his role in the team's struggles. Fans also complained about the recruits Steve Alford couldn't snag and the drama tied to his controversial $10.4 million (now $7.8 million) buyout. Plus, the Bruins lost to rival USC three times last season and failed to make a postseason appearance.

So it's not surprising that many Bruins backers want Alford out, and they point to his 65-38 record over his first three seasons -- the worst overall winning percentage by a UCLA coach in the post-Wooden era.

"I gotta get out of the office because you'll go stir crazy," Alford told ESPN.com in July. "Golf is a release and whatever it is, just getting away."

But he can't just blaze up the 405 North to elude the serious questions about his job status and its tie to a UCLA squad stacked with a top-five recruiting class and capable veterans.

Is Steve Alford's job on the line this season? If it is, can he save it?

"If you give a public vote of confidence, people will say it's the kiss of the death," athletic director Dan Guerrero said. "If you don't -- it is a Catch-22. The bottom line is Steve, in many respects, is still establishing his program. I'm certainly not going to publicly proclaim anything. But I expect us to compete. And Steve expects us to compete."

Fans do, too. So when the Bruins flopped last season ...

One disgruntled supporter flew a "UCLA deserves better! Fire Alford!" banner over campus in March, the second aerial critique of the week. The banner spoke for a frustrated fan base.

More than 1,000 Bruins backers had signed a petition seeking Alford's termination a few days after its creation. And a billboard truck bearing Guerrero's image and a "Wake up, Dan! Restore UCLA Basketball Now!" message also toured Westwood while influential boosters implored the school to make a move.

Alford tried to ignore the fray.

"I don't stay up until 3, 4, 5 in the morning worrying about this or worrying about that," Alford said.

His supporters say those skeptics don't speak for the masses.

"The people that are doing that really have no merit to what they're saying," said Bryce Alford, the starting point guard last season. "That's not the people that really matter. At the same time, that's hard to see. I'm in the barbershop and somebody asked me about [the banner]. You've gotta understand what voices matter."

Steve Alford said he made light of the "Fire Alford!" banner during an offseason Pauley Pavilion function in which the names of key boosters were etched onto a ribbon board.

"When it was my time to talk, I said, 'We appreciate everything you do and the money, but I got all you beat. ... My name is on a ribbon on the back of a plane,'" Alford joked. "So I think it just becomes humorous."

Within that perceived humor, we learn everything we need to know about the current chasm between the storied UCLA basketball program and the segment of its fan base that's not laughing with him. It's a breach only victory will repair, critics say.

"Steve Alford was rolled out really out of left field," said Aaron Michiel, a lawyer who started the petition to fire Alford through restoreuclahoopsnow.com after last season. "The athletic department thought Alford would impress the fan base. They couldn't have been more wrong."

In 2015-16, the team's pick-and-roll defense slipped. Two years after recording a 74.9 percent clip from the free throw line (No. 23 in the nation), UCLA made just 69.1 percent of its attempts last season, a mark outside the top 200.

Over the summer, sophomore Jonah Bolden (4.6 points per game) turned pro and Kobe Paras, a four-star recruit, withdrew from the school and transferred to Creighton because of academic issues. Prince Ali (3.9 PPG) could miss a portion of this season following offseason knee surgery.

Yet the influx of young talent, including projected lottery pick Lonzo Ball, who's averaging nearly a triple-double in the first two games, could guide UCLA back to a prominent perch.

Alford's critics say the fourth-year coach had talent in the past and still missed the mark. UCLA has produced four first-round picks and a second-round pick during his three-year run, but only one of those picks (Kevon Looney) was an Alford recruit. So why should those critics get excited now?

Alford said he's aware of the doubters but not deterred by them.

"No, I'm not going into it with the idea I gotta birdie every hole or I gotta eagle the 18th hole," he said.

Backlash and a buyout

After a lackluster losing season at one of college basketball's meccas, you could assume Alford -- whose eye-popping, eight-figure buyout becomes a more reasonable $5.2 million after April 30, 2017 -- is embarking upon a make-or-break season.

Last season, the Bruins beat Kentucky, Gonzaga and Arizona but missed the postseason after a 15-17 (6-12 Pac-12) season.

Alford apologized to fans through a letter and returned the contract extension that Guerrero proffered after Alford led UCLA to the first of back-to-back Sweet 16s in 2014. He escaped the first round of the 2015 NCAA tournament via a controversial goaltending call in a win over SMU and faced a 14-seed UAB in the second round. Alford said the gesture allowed him to preserve his staff.

"I didn't want any changes to be made," Alford said. "I feel very fortunate to have the staff that I have, and you know how a lot of these things go when you have a bad year and stuff, people on the outside think, you gotta change the O-coordinator, you gotta change the D-coordinator. Well, it's the same O-coordinator, the same D-coordinator that went to back-to-back Sweet 16s and got the program started. I didn't want to make staff changes."

This backlash did not commence in March, though. Over his first three seasons, Alford gradually lost support from some members of an impatient fan base who expected Guerrero to snatch a bigger name.

Alford has cited the school's 90 percent renewal rate for season-ticket holders as a positive sign, but the Bruins dropped from 45th in attendance in 2012-13 (9,549) -- Ben Howland's final season -- to 60th in each of the past two seasons (8,073 in 2015). Most nights last season, Pauley Pavilion fell below two-thirds of its capacity.

"Fans just gave up on the program," Michiel said. "They stepped away from the program."

Once UCLA chased and whiffed on Brad Stevens and Gregg Marshall in 2013, the school hired Alford from New Mexico, days after he'd agreed to an extension with the Lobos, to reboot a franchise that reached the Final Four in three consecutive seasons from 2006 to 2008. UCLA offered a Teflon contract that guaranteed Alford a $10.4 million payout -- four times his annual $2.6 million salary -- if the Bruins decided to fire him prior to April 30, 2016.

Guerrero justified the large buyout as a normal incentive to attract an elite coach.

"It is much more common if you evaluate contracts around the country," he said. "There's a ton of pressure that comes with coaching at a high level."

During Alford's introductory news conference in 2013, a reporter asked him how John Wooden would have handled the case of Pierre Pierce, the former Iowa standout who pleaded guilty to a sexual assault charge in 2002 and later served prison time for a separate domestic violence incident three years later.

"I did everything that I was supposed to do at the University of Iowa in that situation," Alford said then. "I followed everything I was told to do." Alford coached at Iowa from 1999 to 2007.

He omitted his support of Pierce and the "prayer meeting" he arranged between Pierce and the victim. Alford issued a statement of apology after the UCLA presser. But it was a tepid start for a tepid tenure.

Michiel's postseason petition, which argued another year of Alford would "permanently damage" UCLA basketball, caught fire.

Guerrero emailed a response to Michiel.

"Like I do with all our coaches, after every season, win or lose, I'll sit down with Coach Alford to review the year that was," Guerrero wrote to Michiel via email. "Together, we'll consider what we must do to improve. And make no mistake, we must improve. We must get better. We all know that we need to be moving forward as a program. And with an impressive recruiting class coming to Westwood [this] year, Coach Alford will have both talent and experience on the floor -- we are moving forward."

Alford blamed the team's youth and unexpected NBA departures for some of the program's challenges, but he also admits he has "missed" on several key recruits in the area.

"I think what happened this spring was probably a long time coming," Michiel said. "We're in the worst 10-year stretch of the UCLA basketball program since John Wooden retired. There is a growing frustration."

Hope and doubt surround UCLA basketball

This is not a soap opera, although a few miles from Hollywood, UCLA basketball sometimes resembles a reality show with its added layer of family drama.

Alford's critics believe his son stole minutes from better players while his father failed to add NBA-level talent the program craved.

Bryce Alford, who has adjusted his role this season as Ball plays point guard, said he wrestles with guilt over the team's challenges. Any son would. Some UCLA fans blame him for the turbulence.

During his freshman season, he shared point guard duties with Kyle Anderson, now a third-year guard with the San Antonio Spurs, while Zach LaVine, now one of the NBA's most promising combo guards, played off the ball. LaVine, citing concerns about his role with the team, left the program and turned pro after one season. That development didn't help Bryce Alford's image, although he only logged the minutes and played the role his father gave him.

Last season, he took nearly 13 shots per game and made 38.5 percent of his attempts, while leading the team with 5.2 assists per game. He finished outside the top 400 in KenPom.com's offensive efficiency ratings and made 40 percent of his shots inside the arc.

He's the easy target but not the only culprit on a 17-loss squad that finished 119th in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency ratings.

But he has caught the most heat.

"I think people say that because of Bryce's last name," Steve Alford said. "If his last name was Jones, people would be saying a lot different, [better] things about him. But it's good to get him off the ball with what Lonzo brings."

Bryce Alford said he does not feel an additional burden because of the scrutiny on his father and Bryce's position as the most important senior on the team. But Bryce said he and his father stomached the criticism together last season and hope to celebrate more often this season.

"I've always had pressure ... as a coach's kid. I don't think I feel any pressure," Bryce Alford said. "I've always dealt with it really well."

Added Steve Alford: "We're a competitive family. ... In mid-January, that was hard. That was hard on us."

After two games this season, Bryce leads the team in scoring (25 PPG) and is averaging three fewer minutes than Ball. After the team's Australian exhibition tour in August, Bryce said he enjoyed the lineups that featured himself and Ball on the floor together -- a shift that could help UCLA.

"Offensively, with a guy like Lonzo, a creator and a pace-driven guy, hopefully it'll create a little bit more pace with our offense," Steve Alford said.

Alford's hopeful attitude rests on the potential of the incoming crop of elite talent and the veteran standouts who can turn last season's troubles into a forgotten blemish on the coach's tenure.

Ball is a 6-foot-6 point guard prodigy. He leads ESPN.com's No. 5 recruiting class, which features two other top-100 recruits (T.J. Leaf at No. 13; Ike Anigbogu at No. 60). Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday all return.

"It's a group that cares," said Steve Alford, who suffered just the third losing season of his 25-year coaching career in 2015-16. "And the vets are like the coaches. We're upset about what happened."

This is college basketball in the one-and-done era. Year-to-year fluctuation is not just accepted, it's anticipated. And the Tom Crean Theory of Hot Seat Projections proves one good season can erase any doomsday scenarios. Alford's top-ranked 2017 recruiting class, which includes four top-50 prospects and Li'Angelo Ball (Lonzo's brother), could temper some of the scorn, too.

"The good thing I'm excited about is we're coming off a tough year," Alford said. "With what's happening in our 2017 class, we're almost assured of a top-five class."

All involved, including Alford and his players, recognize the significance of this season. Alford and the team's returnees who played in the team's back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances have to prove something this season.

After all, Howland landed RecruitingNation's No. 1 class in 2012 and won the Pac-12's regular-season championship, but he didn't keep his job.

"I think they're championship-driven," Alford said of his team. "They've gotten these two tastes, a bitter taste and a sweet taste. So they're hungry."

This is a UCLA program with, arguably, more potential than any team in the Pac-12. This is not a talent issue.

It's an execution problem for a squad that entered last season's conference play with legit NCAA tournament aspirations -- before the team's laughable defense and limited depth unhinged the trap door beneath the program.

"I think we just didn't come together the way we needed to," said Thomas Welsh, who's averaging 8 points per game and 9.5 rebounds so far this season.

But Welsh and the other Bruins understand and welcome this season's spotlight and opportunity.

"It was a little hard, obviously, watching the school do like that," said Ball, the No. 4 recruit in the 2016 class per ESPN.com. "Once again, it's just one year. You can turn it around. And the players we have now, I feel we can do that."

Don't waste any sanguine thoughts on a group of fans who've heard all of this before, though.

They're not sold.

However, Bryce Alford said his father and the players are determined to fix the issues from last season.

A 2-0 start comes on the heels of offseason pickup games -- some "bloody" -- between young players and veterans, which convinced Bryce that UCLA had regained its edge, something the veteran said the team lost last season.

"Once you step on the court, you kinda gotta be an a-hole, you gotta be a dude," Bryce Alford said. "You have to be out there and do what you do. And you gotta be mean about it. I think last year, we kind of lost that a little bit. Going to back-to-back Sweet 16s, we kind of got the feeling, 'Oh, it's just gonna happen.'"

Fans prefer to wait for results, however, before they hop back onto the bandwagon, uh, TMZ celebrity tour bus rolling through the UCLA campus.

Steve Alford said he doesn't fear the naysayers because he knows what went wrong in 2015-16, mistakes he won't make again this season.

Mistakes, perhaps, he can't make this season.

It all fell apart for the Bruins last season. Yet, Alford seems convinced the talent he has now will revive the program.

"Now, this is my job and, yeah, it's UCLA and championships are expected," Alford said. "I get all that. ... I just do as best I can, we work as hard as we can, we prepare our team as best we can and then we roll with it and see what happens."

Win or lose, Alford will return to those tidy courses penciled into his Calabasas neighborhood.

Perhaps to relax after restoring UCLA's name and its image among the faithful.

Or maybe he'll wander the fairways and wonder how it all went wrong.