Steve Alford does not appear to be in imminent danger of losing his job after guiding UCLA to its earliest exit in NCAA tournament history.
Barring a departure of his own choosing, he’s expected to return for a sixth season coaching the Bruins after securing another highly touted six-man recruiting class.
However, another underwhelming season could make it a farewell tour.
UCLA’s tie for third place in the Pac-12 Conference made it five times in as many years that the Bruins have failed to win the conference’s regular-season championship under Alford. He’s won only 67.2% of his games, a worse percentage than immediate predecessors Ben Howland (73.7%) and Steve Lavin (70.8%).
Alford touts his three appearances in NCAA tournament regional semifinals since arriving at UCLA, but he’s the only coach to last at least five seasons at the school and not advance to a regional final since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
His contract, which runs through April 2021, stipulates that he will meet with UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero between April 1 and April 30 each year to discuss the option to extend Alford’s contract by an additional year. This time, the conversation will come in the wake of season in which UCLA was one of the last teams into the NCAA tournament and one of the first out. Tuesday’s 65-58 loss to St. Bonaventure in a play-in game left the Bruins with a record of 21-12.
“This is not the team we thought we were going to have at the beginning of the year,” Guerrero said.
A high-profile UCLA alumnus called for Alford’s dismissal Tuesday night when Atlanta Falcons defensive end Takkarist McKinley referenced the recent firing of football coach Jim Mora on social media.
“If Dan Guerrero really had the audacity to fire Jim Mora after all the guys he sent to the NFL,” McKinley tweeted, “that Steve Alford dude need to be gone tonight … ASAP.”
Guerrero said during his recent interview that his evaluation of coaches goes well beyond their win-loss record. It helps Alford’s cause that his players and assistant coaches have not been implicated as part of the corruption scandal engulfing college basketball that has ensnared Arizona and USC, the only Pac-12 teams to finish above UCLA in the conference standings.
Alford also has proven capable of a quick turnaround. Only one season after the Bruins finished 15-17 and an airplane banner was flown over Westwood calling for his ouster, UCLA went 31-5 and Alford was awarded a one-year contract extension.
That reversal of fortune was sparked by the arrival of a highly touted recruiting class featuring Lonzo Ball and TJ Leaf that Alford might have surpassed with his current six-player haul ranked No. 3 nationally by 247sports.com.
Combined with the debut of forwards Jalen Hill and Cody Riley, who sat out this season while serving suspensions related to the shoplifting incident, the newcomers could more than offset the departures of at least two rotational players. Seniors Thomas Welsh and GG Goloman have exhausted their eligibility and junior Aaron Holiday is widely expected to declare for the NBA draft. Freshman forward Kris Wilkes might accompany Holiday to the professional ranks.
The freshman class will be headlined by center Moses Brown, a strong rebounding and shot-blocking 7-footer; Shareef O’Neal, a versatile power forward who is the son of Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal; point guard Tyger Campbell, an unselfish, pass-first distributor; shooting guard David Singleton, a hard-nosed slasher who was the Gatorade player of the year in California; and shooting guard Jules Bernard, a dynamic athlete who can finish around the basket.
Some fans have pondered on message boards whether the influx of talent should justify Alford keeping his job. Others have paid for another banner reading “Final Fours not First Fours #FireAlford” to be flown over campus Thursday afternoon following a season that started with embarrassment in China and ended with embarrassment in Dayton, Ohio.
Alford could also depart under another scenario in which history repeated itself. In March 2007, after his team completed a 17-14 season at Iowa, Alford left the Hawkeyes for New Mexico, a coach with small-town roots leaving behind the glare of the Big Ten Conference.
Iowa center Seth Gorney told reporters at the time that Alford said in a meeting with his players that he “wanted to get his family out of this negative environment.”
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch