Is this heaven? No, it’s Iowa
UCLA and Steve Alford.
A basketball program of unmatched pedigree led by a former prodigy who became a national champion and Olympic gold medalist before making a steady climb up the coaching ladder.
On paper, a harmonic convergence.
How they came together, a choreography of those themes, would make for a dazzling introduction, which UCLA held at center court in historic Pauley Pavilion last month.
The aura of John Wooden, his contributions to sports and society -- and those 10 national titles -- was thick. Alford mentioned Wooden three times in his first three minutes at the microphone.
“We found a coach that not only represents and honors the treasured history of UCLA’s place in college basketball, but also a coach who will bring a brand of unselfish basketball,” Athletic Director Dan Guerrero gushed.
What could go wrong?
When the news conference was over, what was supposed to be a breezy, feel-good event quickly turned sticky and uncomfortable.
During a one-on-one interview, Iowa came up. Alford, who coached the Hawkeyes for eight seasons, was asked about his staunch defense of Pierre Pierce, a player accused of sexually assaulting another student in 2002.
“I totally believe he’s innocent,” Alford had said at the Big Ten Conference’s basketball media day that year. “I believed it from Day One, and I still believe it.” Days later, Pierce, a star guard, agreed to plead guilty to misdemeanor assault and also sit out one basketball season.
Three years later, Pierce would go to prison after assaulting another woman. He pleaded guilty to two charges of first-degree burglary, assault with intent to commit sexual assault and fourth-degree criminal mischief.
Now, asked to explain his actions and comments so many years later, Alford took a defensive stance after the news conference last month.
He said he had handled the situation the way his bosses at Iowa had instructed him to. “I really didn’t do anything,” he said. “The university made the call on everything.”
So, they told him to say Pierce was innocent?
“When those comments came out, it was just about supporting your player,” he said sternly. “But you have no idea what’s going on.”
UCLA athletic administrators were stunned. They had signed Alford to a seven-year, $18.2-million contract with the expectation that his hiring would invigorate an apathetic fan base. They expected him to be greeted with open arms.
Guerrero was also questioned -- about whether UCLA had properly vetted its new coach and investigated what happened at Iowa. He said he “clearly discussed” the Pierce situation with Alford before hiring him.
However, when Alford was asked a similar question, he said the topic never came up.
Guerrero later amended his comment, saying he discussed Pierce with his staff and Alford’s representatives, but not with Alford.
The controversy prompted one group of UCLA fans to circulate a petition calling for Guerrero to be fired because he had “disregarded Mr. Alford’s history of defending a sex offender or did little to no research into Mr. Alford’s past.”
With little publicity, the petition generated nearly 2,000 signatures.
Alford has since offered an apology. It came more than a decade after his actions, and nine days after the comments he made after his much-anticipated introduction at UCLA had drawn criticism from Los Angeles to Iowa City.
And to at least one person closely involved in the case, it was too little too late. Jerry Crawford, an attorney who represented the victim, said it “seemed to be born of political necessity rather than a sincere change of viewpoint.”
So much for that perfect match getting off to a smooth start.
Alford, 48, grew up in Indiana -- and very much in the spotlight.
Basketball in the Hoosier state isn’t an elective. “You learn basketball before your ABCs,” Alford said.
And he learned it well.
His father, Sam, was a successful high school basketball coach. Steve worked, watched, listened, learned, and worked some more.
“He told us he was late for the prom his senior year because he was shooting,” said Cortney Scott, who played one season for Alford at Iowa. “I was like, ‘Man, you didn’t enjoy life.’ ”
Basketball was life. Alford worked on his shooting form by tossing ping-pong balls into a Pringles can, and he wore out nets on the hoop in his driveway.
He played for his father at New Castle Chrysler High and was named Indiana’s Mr. Basketball as a senior in 1983. That he would go to Indiana to play for Hoosiers Coach Bob Knight was an easy call.
Dan Dakich, who played for the Hoosiers from 1982 to ’85, said, “I came to Indiana hoping to contribute, start if I could. Steve came to Indiana to be an All-American.”
Alford started as a freshman and, the following summer, won a gold medal as part of the 1984 United States Olympic team coached by Knight. He was a consensus first-team All-American as a senior, when the Hoosiers won the 1987 national title.
After Indiana, Alford started three games in four NBA seasons with the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors, but at least one person believed he was postponing the inevitable.
“I told Steve after his senior year, ‘Stop wasting your time; go into coaching now,’ ” said Dakich, who was by then a member of Knight’s staff. “He was the kind of guy you get drawn to.
“Steve communicates and people listen. He was going to be a coach.”
Alford was an unpaid assistant for his father when Manchester College called partway through the 1991-92 season.
The tiny Division III school in Indiana was 0-8 and desperate for a change when Alford arrived. Three years later, its record was 31-1 -- the only loss coming in the national championship game.
Alford broke into Division I the following season, at Southwest Missouri State. And only three years later, the Bears were an NCAA tournament Cinderella story, reaching the East Regional semifinals.
They were driven there in no small measure by Alford’s competitiveness.
“Oh my gosh, he will drive you nuts if you let him get into you,” former Bears guard William Fontleroy said, laughing. “He’d let you know every week that he could beat you, whether it was a shooting contest or marbles.”
Fontleroy recalled that Alford and guard Kevin Ault “started talking trash who was the better shooter” during a morning shoot-around before a game against Illinois State.
“When they kicked us out of the arena, they were standing near midcourt matching shots,” Fontleroy said. “If you ask Steve, of course he’ll tell you he won.” As for Ault, he made a school record-tying eight three-pointers that night.
Iowa grabbed Alford in 1999, after Southwest Missouri’s run to the Sweet 16.
As with UCLA, it seemed a tailored fit. Eight years later, most fans were glad to see Alford go.
In Iowa City, loyal fans routinely strike a “We’re Iowa” mantra, but there is a notable lack of consensus about Steve Alford.
Supporters note that he bounced back from a 14-16 record his first year with seven consecutive winning seasons. Critics point out that the Hawkeyes finished better than fourth in the Big Ten Conference once.
Supporters note that Iowa went to three NCAA tournaments. Critics point out that the Hawkeyes won one game.
Supporters describe Alford as a devout Christian whose life revolved almost entirely around family and basketball. Critics describe him as aloof and say he operated with a sense of entitlement, asking fans and local businesses for free goods and services. He denies it.
In the early days at Iowa, a vast majority of fans supported him. Many worried he might go home in 2000 when Indiana’s job opened. But by 2006, there were plenty of empty seats at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and when the Indiana job opened again many hoped he would leave.
The flash point was Pierce’s arrest, which came just after school started in the fall of 2002 and set off a chain of events.
Jim Goodrich, a friend of Alford’s, may have tried to convince the victim to drop the matter, according to various media reports. Goodrich, the campus representative at Iowa for the sports ministry Athletes in Action, often traveled with the basketball team. He denied the allegation.
Crawford, the victim’s attorney, said the young woman was undecided about whether to seek charges until Goodrich spoke with her and left the impression that some people were more worried about basketball than they were concerned about her.
“It was the conduct of Alford’s friend that prompted her to do so,” Crawford said in a recent interview.
Then came Alford’s comments in support of Pierce at Big Ten media day.
Pat Harty, a columnist with the Iowa City Press-Citizen, had an additional concern but didn’t explain why until recently.
After Alford’s comments at UCLA’s news conference, Harty wrote a column that revealed Iowa coaches were given extra reason to doubt Pierce beyond his arrest.
About the time the sexual assault allegations arose, Harty said he alerted school officials in an email that a niece of his had felt threatened by Pierce.
The player “showed up in her dorm room one afternoon that same fall,” Harty wrote, “unannounced and uninvited -- closed the door and refused to leave” until his niece began screaming.
Harty said he sent the email to stop his older brother, a former Iowa football player, “from coming to Iowa City to confront Pierce himself.”
“I told my family I would contact the athletic department on their behalf, to help them take action,” Harty wrote in his column.
Instead, Harty said, he received a letter from an assistant coach extolling Pierce as a “good kid.”
Alford says he has no recollection of those circumstances.
Eight seasons after Alford arrived at Iowa, Dakich, as a favor to New Mexico Athletic Director Paul Krebs, contacted Alford about the Lobos job.
“I was the head coach at Bowling Green, so I wasn’t really paying much attention to what was happening in Iowa,” Dakich said. “I do know when I called Steve about the New Mexico job, he was ready to go.”
As much as Alford may have needed New Mexico, New Mexico needed him more.
The Lobos in 2006-07 had suffered through only their third losing season in 24 years, a 15-17 campaign in which they won only four of 16 Mountain West Conference games.
The program also had a woeful academic record, bad enough that the NCAA had docked the Lobos a scholarship.
Alford’s record in six seasons: 155-52. And even though New Mexico was bounced early from this year’s NCAA tournament -- upset by 14th-seeded Harvard -- the only problem anyone around Albuquerque had with him was the way he left.
His UCLA deal was struck a week and a half after he agreed to a lucrative 10-year contract extension. He had also left his New Mexico boss in the dark about the UCLA negotiations until hours before his appointment was to be announced.
Alford and New Mexico reached agreement Friday on a buyout of his UNM contract. New Mexico officials said in a statement released by the university that the school will receive a “net benefit of $625,000 buyout.”
The agreement ended a dispute between Alford and New Mexico. The school had said he owed a $1-million buyout under terms of the new contract, which was to take effect April 1. Alford said he owed $200,000, the buyout under the old contract.
At UCLA, he will have his work cut out for him. Before he can try to win over now-skeptical fans, Alford must bolster a Bruins roster that returns a strong core, but only six scholarship players.
UCLA had signed three high school players, but one has already been granted his release. The only recruit Alford has landed is his son, Bryce.
Alford says he is ready to meet his new job’s challenges and can handle the pressure that comes with the position.
“I hope I have evolved as a coach,” he said. “I got my first big job at Iowa, and I thought we did well. I was better prepared for New Mexico than I was at Iowa.
“I just hope I’m better prepared now to handle UCLA.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Steve Alford has posted a winning record at each school he has coached.
*--* Years School W-L Pct. ’95-'99 Missouri St. 78-48 619 ’99-'07 Iowa 152-106 589 ’07-'13 New Mexico 155-52 749 *--*