Some of the loudest cheers inside Pauley Pavilion on Sunday went up midway through the first half. The public-address announcer asked fans to welcome Chip Kelly, UCLA’s new football coach, as a colorful graphic showing his likeness was posted on the scoreboard.
Kelly will be introduced on campus Monday afternoon as an airplane circles overhead with a banner reading, “CHIP KELLY WELCOME TO UCLA GO BRUINS!”
Given the football-infused pandemonium of recent days, it has been easy to forget that UCLA has always been considered a basketball school.
The No. 23 Bruins, even more shorthanded than usual with freshman point guard Jaylen Hands sidelined by a sprained foot, struggled for much of an 87-63 victory over UC Irvine in front of a crowd that appeared smaller than the announced 8,329.
UCLA lavished a school-record five-year, $23.3-million contract on Kelly that will pay him an average of $4.66 million per year. By comparison, Steve Alford’s original contract to coach the men’s basketball team called for him to make an average of $2.6 million per year. A recent amendment extended his contract through the 2020-21 season.
The hiring of Kelly was widely viewed as a we-will-win-now-and-we-will-win-big declaration by UCLA’s athletic department. Alford said the high-profile move did not make him feel any additional strain concerning his job.
“The pressure at UCLA has been there since 1976 and coach [John] Wooden raised the bar,” Alford said Sunday. “A football hire does not raise the bar in basketball at UCLA; coach Wooden put that bar at a very high level and you know that when you take the job here.”
Alford has taken the Bruins (5-1) to an NCAA tournament regional semifinal in three of his four seasons, something only a handful of other coaches have done in the same span. It hasn’t satisfied many fans with championship expectations spawned by Wooden having won 10 national titles over his final 12 seasons.
One fan, noting the banners that were flown over the Rose Bowl this month calling for the dismissal of Jim Mora as UCLA’s football coach, recently half-jokingly asked on a message board whether a drone could be used to fly a banner inside Pauley Pavilion targeting Alford.
An airplane banner flew over campus in March 2016 calling for Alford’s firing after UCLA completed a 15-17 season, but the Bruins rebounded to go 31-5 last season before losing to Kentucky in another regional semifinal.
UCLA opened this season with high expectations largely on the strength of a deep, talented incoming class that was splintered this month when freshmen LiAngelo Ball, Cody Riley and Jalen Hill were suspended indefinitely for shoplifting from a mall in China.
Their absences forced the Bruins to use an eight-man rotation even before Hands sprained his left foot Tuesday against Wisconsin. Hands had the foot encased in a walking boot for precautionary reasons and Alford said he did not foresee Hands being sidelined for long.
Sophomore guard Prince Ali started in Hands’ place Sunday and scored a career-high 21 points as one of five UCLA players in double figures. The Bruins were ahead only 47-43 midway through the second half when Anteaters coach Russell Turner received a technical foul that sparked a 26-9 run for UCLA.
Max Hazzard, the grandson of former Bruins guard and coach Walt Hazzard, led the Anteaters (3-5) with 18 points.
Alford said it was difficult seeing Mora fired because he considered him a good friend.
“I love Jim and I think Jim did a tremendous job here,” Alford said, “so you never like seeing a friend and a colleague get dismissed. … There’s a lot of football jobs open, so I know if I was an AD I’d be looking at Jim Mora right now.”
As far as his job goes, Alford intimated that no one could put more pressure on him than he already does.
“Like I’ve always said and I mean it in the most humble way, I’ve been doing this since I was 16 and being in the bright lights and this kind of attention and pressure,” Alford said. “You really honestly just put your best foot forward, do it as hard as you can, do it as nice as you can and teach and it’s about the kids.
“It’s always been about our young men and that’s what I do and then however the chips fall, the chips fall. Trust me, I’m going to sleep good tonight, I’ll sleep good a month from now, I’ll sleep good three months from now.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch