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For UCLA basketball, the easy part is over

For UCLA basketball, the easy part is over
Steve Alford and the Bruins went 31-5 during the 2016-17 season, including an early-season win at Kentucky. (Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Firing Steve Alford was the easy part.

Finding a marquee replacement for a once-proud program that has become ignored and irrelevant is going to be the hard part.

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UCLA axed its embattled basketball coach in a rare midseason change Monday, two days after a 15-point loss to Liberty in front of fans who filled Pauley Pavilion with boos. While the move mercifully ended Alford’s five-plus year tenure, one marked by consistent underachievement despite three Sweet 16 appearances, the Bruins’ real challenge lies ahead.

They have to convince a worthy candidate they can provide an environment that will empower him to restore glory to a championship culture that has clearly lost its way.

I never thought I would write this, but the stark reality is that coaching the UCLA men’s basketball team is not a great job.

Your bosses seem to care more about football. Your arena sits mostly quiet and half-empty. Your recruiting efforts rarely benefit from the legend of John Wooden because most of today’s prospects have never heard of him.

You don’t have the amenities of a Kansas or Kentucky, where every road trip is on a chartered plane and where the coaches recruit from private jets. You mostly fly commercial, which affects everything from practice schedules to body clocks.

You don’t have the national exposure of a North Carolina or Duke, where every game is played in a full arena. You play home games that are scheduled at 6 p.m. during the middle of the week because of the enduring embarrassment of the Pac-12 Conference’s TV deal, and your players are virtually unknown because of the sham that is the Pac-12 Network.

The ticket prices at new Pauley Pavilion are too high. The local perception of the program is shockingly low. The school’s support of the program has lagged such that when the Bruins traveled to Dayton, Ohio, for an NCAA Tournament play-in game last March, the pep band didn’t even make the trip.

In ways that stretch far beyond the current 23-year national championship drought — the longest since before Wooden stepped on campus — the reality is as chilling as the malaise that often runs through Pauley when the team occupies the floor.

UCLA basketball is no longer UCLA basketball.

The most important, yet trickiest, task of Dan Guerrero’s tenure as UCLA athletic director will be to find somebody with the coaching chops and public charisma to change all that.

They need a John Calipari type, but they don’t operate in John Calipari’s neighborhood. They need a Jay Wright clone, but they don’t run a Jay Wright-type program.

Stealing Billy Donovan from the Oklahoma City Thunder would be great, but why on earth would he leave the NBA for a job that isn’t even deemed the most important coaching job at that college? Gregg Marshall from Wichita State would be outstanding, but why would he leave his revered small-town status for a program that consistently exists in the shadows of its own campus?

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I thought I would also never write this, but UCLA needs to start treating the men’s basketball program with the same respect it treats the football program.

You want to hire a basketball version of Chip Kelly? Then you need to pay Chip Kelly prices, offer Chip Kelly-style control, and install Chip Kelly-style bells and whistles.

In hiring Kelly, Guerrero took the kind of big swing he had never taken before, broadening his vision with the nudging of booster Casey Wasserman and former Bruins quarterback Troy Aikman.

In this new hire, which UCLA says will be conducted with the help of another former Bruin, Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers, Guerrero needs to swing with the same launch angle.

In other words, he can’t hire a coach from New Mexico who, in 18 years of Division I coaching, had reached the Sweet 16 only once.

That was Steve Alford, and, let’s face it, his biggest problem was that he never should have been hired in the first place.

From his messy opening news conference in 2013, during which he made comments about a rape charge against one of his former players at Iowa for which he later apologized, Alford never seemed comfortable here.

It was like he took the job not because he wanted it, but because he felt he couldn’t turn it down. He never connected with the fans or alumni. He never sold the program through either entertaining regular seasons or deep tournament runs.

I supported him in this space because of his and his staff’s great recruiting — they had seven NBA first-round draft picks — and because of those three Sweet 16 appearances in five years, an underrated and difficult task.

But in each of those Sweet 16 games they were badly outclassed, losing by double digits. And then last season’s China shoplifting scandal was followed by the humiliating loss to St. Bonaventure in that play-in game where the Bruins barely showed up.

I thought Alford might be fired after that game. When he survived, I wrote that this year’s team was talented enough to save his job, if only he could coach it out of them. He couldn’t. The mid-December home loss to Belmont sealed his fate, and then Saturday’s loss to Liberty hastened that fate.

“While Steve led us to three Sweet 16 appearances,” Guerrero said in a statement announcing the change, “we simply have not been performing at a consistent level and our struggles up to this point in the season do not bode well for the future.”

Guerrero made the right move at the right time for the sake of a gifted but broken team that deserves every opportunity to mend and succeed. The 7-6 Bruins will need to dominate the mediocre Pac-12 if they have any hope of making the NCAA tournament, and the chances of that are slim, but if they pull it off under Gene Bartow’s son, Murry, wouldn’t that be a great story?

Yet the real story lies in Guerrero’s next move, which is actually two moves. Can he convince a bright and magnetic basketball personality to take on the burden of resurrecting a formerly great basketball culture that is in free fall? And, just as important, will Guerrero give the new guy the tools to implement that rebirth?

“This is one of the most important hires they can make,” said Don MacLean, former Bruins great who is a broadcaster. “It has to be a coach that really, really wants to be there and can inject life into the program and fan base. And that has to translate into tournament success, consistent tournament success.”

That coach is certainly somewhere out there.

The question is whether UCLA can transform itself into a great place for that coach to work, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get him.

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