Steve Alford, who spent the last six seasons at New Mexico, will take over the basketball program at UCLA less than two weeks after saying how happy he was to be signing a contract extension to remain coach of the Lobos.
The hiring came at the end of a hectic week in which two other mid-major coaches — Butler’s Brad Stevens and Virginia Commonwealth’s Shaka Smart — said they weren’t interested in the job, according to a person close to the situation who was not authorized to speak on the matter.
So Athletic Director Dan Guerrero turned to Alford, who agreed to be the latest coach to have John Wooden’s hefty legacy placed on his back.
Alford has agreed to a seven-year, $18.2-million contract.
Alford was 155-52 at New Mexico, though his Lobos teams never made it past the first weekend in three NCAA tournament appearances. He had signed a 10-year contract extension, worth more than $20 million, earlier this month, but opted to take on the UCLA job.
“This is truly a leap of faith,” said Alford, 48. “It’s a little easier when it’s UCLA. An opportunity like this doesn’t come around every day.”
With the opportunity comes expectations.
Guerrero said that Alford had the pedigree to handle what has crushed other coaches at UCLA. Alford was Indiana “Mr. Basketball” at New Castle Chrysler High. He played at Indiana, under Bob Knight, and won a national championship in 1987.
“I don’t think there is anyone better suited for the pressures that come with the job than Steve,” Guerrero said.
Alford won three Mountain West Conference titles with New Mexico. But he has taken a team beyond the first weekend in the NCAA tournament only once in his career — Cinderella Southwest Missouri State, which reached the Sweet 16 in 1999.
The Lobos were 29-6 this season and were seeded third in the NCAA West Regional, but lost to 14th-seeded Harvard in their first tournament game. UCLA’s first-game loss to Minnesota of the Big Ten was unacceptable to many Bruins fans.
Alford had a 61-67 record in the Big Ten during eight seasons at Iowa. His teams placed higher than fourth only once and reached the NCAA tournament three times. It was a learning experience, he said.
“I learned the difference, where schools are and how they are tiered at the BCS level, to use an old term,” Alford said.
Putting UCLA on a tier Bruins fans expect will require re-establishing the program’s recruiting muscle in the Los Angeles area. Alford had success recruiting the area at New Mexico, landing Tony Snell (Riverside King) and Kendall Williams (Rancho Cucamonga Los Osos).
UCLA officials were looking for more than a coach. They were looking for a marketing campaign.
Selling season tickets, which can include a hefty donation to the Wooden Athletic Fund, has been difficult. The Bruins had only five crowds of more than 10,000 at Pauley Pavilion this season, when the arena reopened after a $138-million renovation.
“He’s a very personable guy,” Guerrero said. “When you sit down and talk with him, he’s very engaging. I think he’ll hit on all cylinders.”
Alford’s new deal with New Mexico included a $1-million buyout, according to the Albuquerque Journal. That deal was to take effect April 1. There was a $200,000 buyout in his previous contract; the UCLA deal includes a $200,000 signing bonus.
“I know it’s not April 1,” Alford said when asked about the buyout. “The agreement I signed starts April 1. I’m not a lawyer. I’m an Indiana graduate who likes basketball. The lawyers will get together and figure that out.”
Alford’s chore is shoring up the UCLA program. He will meet with UCLA assistant coaches and Guerrero has assured him that pay for assistants will be increased.
Alford said he will reach out to players. UCLA forward Shabazz Muhammad is expected to declare for the NBA draft, while center Tony Parker said he is considering whether to transfer.
Alford has already picked up one recruit. He said Bryce Alford, his son, will come to UCLA. He is a guard from Albuquerque La Cueva High.
Another player might be on the way. Alex Kirk, a 7-foot redshirt sophomore at New Mexico this season, will graduate in August and said he will consider coming to UCLA as a graduate student, according to CBSsports.com.
“UCLA does not want one winning season,” Alford said. “UCLA wants a basketball program that breathes consistency every year.”
Yes it does.