Miller: Fans Give Alford No Margin For Error

<p>Seven games. That's all it took for the ‘Hawks of War' to come out in full force this year, voicing their displeasure with Steve Alford as Iowa's head basketball coach. Seven games. Of course, Iowa won it's first six games, including a solid win over a then-ranked, Rick Pitino-coached Louisville team. But Alford's latest ‘sin' was losing to Northern Iowa on Tuesday night at the Dome. HN.com publisher Jon Miller weighs in on the state of the Iowa men's basketball program.

Two men enter, one man leaves

Sorry. Whenever I use or hear the word ‘dome', I can't help but think of Tina Turner's utterance of that phrase in ‘Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome'

It's not as though the Dome has kind to the Iowa basketball program. Since the Iowa-UNI series became an annual ‘home and home' affair back in 1990, Iowa has played eight games in the UNI-Dome, a building that did not have basketball games in mind when it was built.

Of those eight games, Iowa has won four and lost four. Iowa lost the first game back in 1990, then won four straight in Cedar Falls before losing again in 1997. Steve Alford is now 0-2 in trips to the dome. There are a lot of area high school football coaches that have a better record in the Dome than does the Iowa basketball program.

Iowa four wins at the dome have come by margins of 23, 5, 5, 8. So with one exception in 1991, even when Iowa has won in Cedar Falls, it has not been by much.

This was also Iowa's 7th game in 16 days and 4th game in 7 days. That is a lot of minutes, especially when you consider the ‘distraction' of final exams on the horizon. I know, basketball should be the distraction for finals, but that is not the world of major college athletics.

All of those excuses would normally be enough to cause even the hardcore critics to back away from their keyboards.

But Steve Alford has not built up enough goodwill or wiggle room in his personal account for that game to have been chalked up to ‘just another night on the road in college basketball'.

Before the season began, I wrote the following in my pre-season prediction game by game capsules:

The Panthers are a little more stocked at guard this year and they have several former Iowa schoolboy players on their roster this year, including rookies Grant Stout, Adam Viet and Brooks McKowen. McKowen was Iowa's ‘Mr. Basketball' last year and became the state's all time leading scorer. UNI has some solid front court players as well. This game scares me a bit, as the UNI Dome has been a trap for Iowa early on in games. Since this series became a ‘home and home' set in 1990, Iowa has played in Cedar Falls seven times. They have lost three times and in the four games they have won, the margin of victory has been eight, five, five and 23 points. Still, I think Iowa wins the game this year.

Then on Tuesday, I felt that Northern Iowa would win the game after seeing how well they played against Iowa State and Butler, even though they had recently blown a few very, very winnable games.

When you look at the number of Iowa kids on that team, kids that were not offered a scholarship by the instate bully, things can happen. We have seen it time and again. This is one reason why you don't see Illinois scheduling Southern Illinois. You have nothing to gain and everything to lose.

Through this early stage of the season, no fewer than 15 teams that were ranked in the preseason Top 25 have lost at least one game. Three teams have been ranked #1 to this point, and all of them have lost.

As an aside, this is a great example of why preseason and early season college basketball polls are quite possible one of the most worthless tools in sports. At least wait to rank the teams just before conference play begins.

But again, none of that matters as it pertains to Alford and the Iowa basketball program, because the Hawkeyes have had four straight losing seasons in Big Ten play. They have not been to the Big Dance in two seasons and had to win four games in four days back in 2001 at the Big Ten tournament to get there, otherwise Alford would still be seeking his first NCAA tourney bid. Of course, that team won 23 games, good for a tie for the third best single season win total in school history and they would have won more if Recker had not gone down 20 games into the season when Iowa was 16-4 after beating Indiana in Carver, but that matters little to many Iowa fans.

Last year's 17-14 team was a pleasant surprise, but Alford critics will tell you that the team never should have been in such a depleted state and they will point to transfers, academic casualties and the Pierre Pierce situation as taking place under Alford's watch.

Tom Davis played cream puff non-conference schedules at Iowa, but one of the things that he did with regularity was beat those cream puffs and take sparkling records into league play. But that is when Iowa showed its mediocrity, as Davis was just two games above .500 in league play over his last 10 years as Iowa's coach.

But Alford has not even approached that level of mediocrity in his four years.

Me personally, the loss at Northern Iowa does not bother me to much, as I somewhat expected it in a one game situation at this time of the year. Iowa could regain some respect with a win against Texas Tech and Bobby Knight in Dallas in a few weeks and they have a chance to do something special when they visit Columbia, Missouri on January 3rd to take on the talented and Top 5 ranked Tigers. A split in these games would be great, and Iowa would likely take an 8-2 record into Big Ten play.

The league has looked average over the past week and anything less than a .500 record this year will be unacceptable.

But even though I chalk the Northern Iowa loss up to being on the road in college basketball and finishing up a four games in seven days stretch, Alford has let people down too often in the past for some of them to cut him any slack.

The critics will say that this loss is symptomatic of Alford's tenure at Iowa, and point out the loss to UNI two years ago and the loss at Kansas State three years ago. They focus on these losses more than they do the wins over #1 Connecticut in 1999, wins over Top 10 rated foes Kansas and Ohio State in that same season, the 19-point win at Columbia two years ago, the Big Ten Tournament Championship of three years ago, two wins over Top 15 Illinois ball clubs in Iowa City, etc.

There have been some good moments under Alford at Iowa.

But there has been too much inconsistency for some fans to give any more ground, which is why this loss to UNI has so many in such a foul mood so early in the season.

Here is what I am going to do. I am going to sit back and watch how this season unfolds. I want to see if this team can play its best basketball in February, something that conference contenders do and something that Iowa has not done under Alford. I want to see if this team can string several complete games together where it plays solid offense and defense in the same night.

And once the smoke settles on the 2003-2004 season, I think all of us will then be able to make a fair assessment of the direction of the Iowa basketball program.

If Iowa can have a solid year this year, maybe the bleeding will have stopped and the program can at least get back to where it was five years ago.

And even then, that will not be enough for some Iowa fans who hold Alford accountable in some indirect way as being the poster child of taking Iowa to that ‘next level' that was not good enough to retain Tom Davis.

Steve, go out and win a regular season Big Ten title and then you have the trump card.


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