Alford Talks About Pierce, Rest of Season

This was to have been the year without any off the court drama for the Iowa Men's basketball team. This season was about the 'NCAA Tourney, or Bust' in the eyes of some Iowa fans. Iowa has a very respectable 15-5 record, yet the Hawkeyes just lost one of their best players for the rest of his career. The dismissal of Pierre Pierce has a lot of people wondering what the rest of this season holds for the Hawkeyes. Steve Alford talked about that at his Thursday press conference.

Steve AlfordA brief opening statement with Pierre's situation. Obviously it's been a very difficult couple days for our program, and he being a very important part of our program, just like the other 13 guys. I would like to make that statement, and then get on and answer questions about Michigan State and what our team does from this point on. I guess my comments and just how everything took place, from our standpoint. Pierre is somebody, obviously through the recruiting process I got to know he and his family very (well) and just like the other 13 members on our team, I love him dearly, but he has to be accountable for the exact same set of standards that we have for everybody else. He is an outstanding basketball player, he lead is in about every category there was to lead our basketball team in. He was given a second chance, with that second chance, there was an awful lot of trust that was put into that. With his recent actions he has betrayed that trust, both coaches and team mates. Because of that betrayal of trust, I just felt, as the head basketball coach, that the best thing for Pierre and more importantly, the best thing for our entire team, was to remove Pierre from the team. That's very difficult, that's not something a head coach likes to do, I didn't have a lot of fun with that, there were a lot of sleepless nights because I care about each and every one of our guys. Thinking about the consequences and things that I had to try and digest, I think that was the only appropriate response that I had, and that was the hand I had to play. It had nothing to do with whether you're looking at charges being pressed or not, it had no bearing on my decision because obviously that has not taken place. It had to do with the betrayal of trust that was set up for him in getting the second chance and he was not able to continue that line of trust. Because of that, the only option I had was to dismiss Pierre from the team.

Q: When did you find out about it?

Alford: As I said, I would just as soon move on, that is my statement, there has been a lot written about things. Rumors are rumors. I had to deal with my share of rumors in the fall, that weren't a lot of fun. I think there's a lot out there that's just so unfair. That's why I want to make a statement, and move on. That's my statement, and I'd like to move on from this.

Q: Can you talk about how the team reacted to your decision?

Alford: I guess you would have to ask the team that. I was very impressed with how we practiced yesterday. There are going to be new guys that have to step up. Mike Henderson will probably be in the starting line up in place of Pierre on Saturday. That's a tall order for Mike. He doesn't have near the experience that Pierre has, but Mike has been working very hard and it's an opportunity for it. I think it's going to be a test, coaches have got to coach better, players have got to play better. When you lose a player the caliber of Pierre, that's a lot of holes to fill. I think it's a tremendous opportunity. I'm reading a book by John Ortberg right know, "If You Want to Walk on Water, You've Got to Get Out of the Boat" and I think that's kind of where our team is. We have a lot of individuals who have been sitting in the boat, enjoying a nice ride, now they need to get out of (the boat) and walk on water. They have to do some things, I think that's going to be a great challenge for both the coaches and players to see if that can happen.

Q: Defensively, is there somebody on the team that has the shut down defensive skills that Pierre had?

Alford: I think that's probably why we got with Mike out of the chute. Obviously Carlton has been playing very well as well, now you have a four guard instead of a five guard rotation. I think Mike is getting better, he's improving greatly with what he's doing defensively. Now we just have to improve with that. Maybe there's somebody new who's going to get a chance out of this whole process. I think initially we'll throw Mike in there and have all the confidence in the world that he can get the job done, especially at the defensive end. It's hard, one person is not going to come up with 18 points a game, 4-5 rebounds a game, 4-5 assists a game, so it's going to have to be a group effort that way. I think Mike is definitely capable of that defensively.

Q: With a four guard rotation, doesn't that mean you've really got to get some consistency out of the 5 spot?

Alford: Yea, obviously that would help. Erek has been practicing better, I think Erek has to perform at a higher level. Doug is getting more comfortable, playing Alex Thompson at guard maybe, just messing with things and doing some things so we can go bigger, and put him out on the perimeter where he is pretty comfortable anyway. I'm encouraged because I think there might be someone to step up and play that had not gotten the opportunity. That's always an exciting thing if that can happen to some young man.

Q: You lose a guy that can play 38.5 minutes, and lead your team in scoring, you were already fighting an uphill battle at 3-4 in the conference, how much steeper has that hill gotten now?

Alford: Well, it didn't. I think it's definitely gotten steeper with losing that kind of player, but we're optimistic. The team has practiced well all week, we're healthy, Adam's back, he practiced yesterday, we're pretty healthy going into this game. We know we've got a tremendous opponent, we've got a number 10 ranked team coming into our building on Saturday. It's a tall order, with or without Pierre you have a lot more question marks because you don't have the stability of knowing this what a certain individual is giving you. I have all the confidence in the world that this team will step it up to another level. If they do that, we're going to have a special year, if they don't, we're going to have a bad year. We have a third of the season left here to see what we can do with it.

Q: How difficult has it been to prepare for a good Michigan State team with these distractions?

Alford: I think that's why the decision had to come yesterday instead of waiting. We had practiced all week. If I remember right, Pierre practiced on Monday and then did not practice Tuesday or Wednesday. The distraction I think has been on the outside, what the guys have felt on the outside. When we have been in the locker room and on the floor, I don't know if you could tell any difference. Practice has gone on, the guys have been focused, the guys have worked hard, they've been a close knit group, and I think that's been a positive. Hopefully that shows a little bit of the resiliency and toughness that these guys have. This was a team captain, so that's not easy. This was a guy they were following, just with Jeff and Brunner, it was one of their captains, so that has a big impact. I haven't sensed anything on the floor with the way the guys practiced.

Q: Do you think maybe that's because maybe they've gone through adversity before down here?

Alford: Jeff and Brunner have been through a lot. These are a couple of guys that have been through a lot. I think that's part of their resiliency, that's part of their toughness, I think it's going to make them better leaders. They're just juniors, I think this probably isn't the opportunity they wanted, just because of their care for Pierre and their respect for him as a player but this is an opportunity that is given to them to raise their level of leadership to another level. There is going to be more asked of them offensively and defensively, Jeff is going to have to play some off guard, that's something we've been thinking about anyway, and with this situation he's definitely got to play some off guard. He won't be asked to only be the point guard, he'll have to learn that position as well. I think that can free him up for some opportunity.

Q: This year, you were hoping for a so called 'Quiet, normal year', and once again it didn't happen. Why is it so hard?

Alford: That's hard. My first eight years of coaching, I had no injuries, no academic casualties, no social problems, no nothing. The last 6 have not been that way. It's been a learning process, it's been a process of growth. I think our staff and team of players have gotten better. I think I'm better at what I do now that when I was at Manchester, when I was naive and didn't know a whole lot about coaching and things, other than just my experiences. This has been good growth, it would be nice to start a season and end a season with the same guys, that would be a nice thing to have happen, but it didn't happen this year, and it didn't happen last year. It hit us a little earlier last year, and we were able to win nine games and do some good things. Now we've got to see if we can do the same thing. If we can do that same thing, then we're in the tournament. If we can't get to 8 or 9 wins, then it's going to be difficult on us. I think the guys understand that, they know that. We've got to relax them, and that's not an easy thing to do because they're smart kids. They kind of know the job is going to get tougher here. I just want them to know how much confidence I have in them, we've got to relax and go about our business.

Q: Some people are holding you accountable for giving Pierre a second chance, does that make the seat a little hotter than maybe it was before?

Alford: The seat has always been hot. That's part of the profession, I'm not going away, I think regardless of whether it's Pierre, if it's the 13th guy on our team, or who it might be, I got into this business to teach young men. If it was all about no second chances, there would be a lot of us not being able to do what we're currently doing. Regardless of whether it's Pierre or somebody else, I hope I'll always give people second chances. Obviously on second chances, the guidelines are set up for you, then you have to abide by those guidelines. You have to understand what is asked of you, and you have to do it all the time. We've got a board in our locker room, "Do the right job, do it right, and do it all the time". That was very apparent in this situation that didn't happen, so I was forced to do what I had to do.

Q: Who were some of the outside people you talked to, if anybody?

Alford: Other coaches, friends of mine, family members, my coaching staff, players on my team. I've talked to all of them to kind of bounce things off of them, but ultimately no matter how tough it is, it comes down to me. There are times in this business that you have a lot of tough decisions to make, and this was. It's never easy to dismiss a player, I don't think that's easy, regardless of the circumstances, it's hard. I just felt like given the circumstances, that was my only thing to do.

Q: With second chances, as far as any player, not just Pierre, is it a gentlemen's agreement, or do you go as far as having someone sign a code of conduct, or an honor code type of feel?

Alford: I'm not sure what's set up. These guys go through an abundance of paperwork the first week of class with our compliance and everything. There's thousands of things they end up signing, I'm sure code of conduct of a student athlete has something to do with that. This has more to do with what we do as a team, it's not something that's discussed other than when things happen, you go about dealing with it, and you see where you go from there. That's what we've done in this situation

Q: You talked about Greg and Jeff being through so much in their career at Iowa, kids who dreamed of playing at Iowa. Have they expressed to you that they feel any resentment or any feeling of being shortchanged at the way things have gone?

Alford: No, because I think they know they're blessed. They're blessed in that they've donned one of these uniforms for three years now. They have each played 30 plus minutes three years. They've each gotten incredible opportunities that a lot of kids in their junior years don't get. Are they upset/frustrated in the way the ball bounced? Without question, and I think that's what makes them special. I'm upset and frustrated, this isn't the picture I drew out, and it's definitely not the picture they drew out. If I know Jeff and Brunner, and I think I do, they're going to fight. They're going to show up and give it everything they've got. They're not going to want self pity, they're not going to want to sit around a mope. I've seen it the last three days in practice, they're going to get after it. They're going to take this as an opportunity that they have to do more. They have to be better defenders, they have to execute better offensively, they're going to have to be better leaders, they're going to have to communicate even more now with younger players. A veteran is gone. Like Northwestern, not preparing those younger guys enough, telling them what they've faced in the past few years, what to expect, that was a valuable lesson in leadership they learned. Now really communicating with the young guys, how they communicate with Carlton, Alex, Seth, Doug, they've really got to spend a lot of time with them now, and a really good chance for them to grow.

Q: With 4 guards in your rotation, does that change the tempo you play at?

Alford: It might a little bit. We have to kind of wait and see, we're playing a team Saturday that loves to play up tempo, they average 80 points a game, they've been over 100 4 or 5 times this year. That will test our patience, they really get into you defensively. I don't think style of play is going to change much. I've said 4 guard rotation, but moving Alex back there could create a fifth spot, bringing in somebody who hasn't had a chance to play back there, those could continue to present a five guard rotation. I think we have to wait and see how that all goes. Practices have gone very well, and Carlton and Mike played very well, we've thought about for a long time, if we ever had the opportunity, not hoping this would be the way to have it, but getting Alex some time at the guard spot because he's so good facing the basket. He's not strong enough to understand how to play in the post yet, but I think that will come.

Q: Is going with Mike more a sense of his defensive ability, or more of an experience factor?

Alford: I say experience, but that may be hard to swallow, because he doesn't have a whole lot more experience than Carlton does. Yeah, older, more experience, he's been here at least got a half year longer than Carlton. I think when you look at playing time, Carlton is going to be in there just as much. Now we just have to wait and see how all that blends. It could change by Saturday. I'm just going on yesterday's practice. We've still got two days of practice here to find out, and that could rotate a lot. Erek and Doug could end up rotating a lot in the starting lineup, Carlton and Mike could end rotating a lot. Mike's been here longer, I think it's his opportunity first, when a starting spot comes open, so we'll give him the opportunity first, but I could see him and Carlton playing a lot together, and I could see their minutes being pretty similar.

Q: On Pierre's future, what level of pro ball do you think he might be able to play next year?

Alford: I think he could play at the highest level. That's what's unfortunate in the whole situation. We're in the business of people always looking at us. I've got three young children, we lose a game, and they're in tears. There are young Hawk fans everywhere, so you're always trying to emulate, and get to that situation. I think the lesson here is just what was given up. You're looking at somebody who was first team all Big Ten, possible MVP, not knowing how the season was going to end up, possible leading scorer in the big ten, possible defensive player of the year in the Big Ten. We've had a minimum of 5 to 8 pro scouts at every one of our games since Maui. He is definitely someone that people have high thoughts of for the next level. If you're asking me can he play at the next level? I think most definitely.

Q: Does this damage his chances?

Alford: That's hard to say, I don't know what's going to end up coming out from the law standpoint, so I think you've got to wait and see on that end of it. Obviously the professional level, you've got a lot of guys who have been in trouble, so I just wish the best for him, I hope that things work out well for him.

Q: Is he still in school?

Alford: Yes

Q: There was a report out that he was going to declare at the end of the year, for the NBA draft. Were you aware of that?

Alford: No. He hadn't shared that with me.

Q: How hard has it been trying to game plan for Michigan State, with all of everything squirreling around that you've known the last few days?

Alford: It's been different. It's not your typical preparation week. We're blessed that we didn't have to play Wednesday, because then it would really have been difficult. But I will say that we practiced Monday in preparation for Michigan State. It's no different than it's always been. It's board play, it's transition offense, it's toughness, if you don't do one of those three things against a Tom Izzo team, you don't win, and keep them off the foul line, they're the nation leader in foul shooting. You look at the Illinois game, the reason they're #1, they took care of the ball, they kept Michigan State off the foul line, they rebounded with them, they toughed them, they took away their transition. It's not easy to do, not a lot of teams can do it. Obviously our game plan is the same thing. Those are things when you play teams like this that you've got to be able to do, if you don't, you're going to get beat.

Q: Steve, I'm going back to something earlier in this situation, and you probably won't answer it. (Chuckle from Alford) Who made the initial effort? Did Pierre come to you or did you have to go to Pierre?

Alford: With this situation? Pierre came to me.

Q: Do you still enjoy your job?

Alford: That might be the toughest question I've gotten today. I do, because it's around basketball and young people. That has always been my passion. I grew up in basketball home, and I saw my father as a coach, then obviously playing for Coach Knight. Being a team mate in that, even being on an Olympic team that had the best of the best, I can remember players frustrating Coach. I can remember my Dad having players that frustrated him because of decisions that young kids make. That's not part of the business we like, but we can't be with them 24 hours a day, we can't make decisions for them. That's part of going from boy to man. That's the difficult part of the job. We'd like for it to be all about Xs and Os and go play a great game we love to play, but those decisions make the character of a man. That's the hard part of it, we've had our share of guys making tough decisions. That frustrates you when you work so hard in the locker room and in your daily communication with kids of what's expected. You get hurt. You literally get hurt and it's painful when they don't meet those expectations. It may have nothing to do with basketball, it may have nothing to do with wins. I think every coach wants to win. It's really about taking care of the life things, those are the things that have always mattered most to me. Those are the things that mattered most to the guys I've played for, and it's unfortunately when kids make bad, tough, careless decisions. That takes some of the joy out of it. I wouldn't be telling you the truth if I didn't tell you it didn't take some of the joy out of it. Winning is great, losing is always tough, but we've had our share. We're 15-5, had some great wins, some tough losses, but it's been a fun year because the guys have been fun. They've worked hard, they've made good decisions, and them boom, here's a careless decision to take the fun out of it.

Q: How have you been to hold up? No matter how much adversity, you never get used to it, how have you been able to?

Alford: I have great faith that gets me through good and bad, and I have an incredible family. Those are the things in weeks like this, when it's hard to go to work and put a smile on your face, I think my faith and seeing how blessed I am with the family I have, that's what matters. It's a lot easier to smile that way.

Q: Of all the things that have happened in the past 6 years is this the toughest one to swallow personally?

Alford: Probably. Just because it's a dismissal. I hope there's a relationship that continues. He's just like everybody else. I care for him very deeply, I care for his family very deeply. I want to help any way I can. I can't help now coaching collegiately. If he can grow through this, become a better man, and understand decision making, careless vs. not being careless, I want to do everything I can to help him with that. I hope it's a relationship that continues, just like we've had to discipline other players, and we've got kids that come back all the time now, that I've had to discipline. Six years ago, Joe Fermino and Rob Griffin were kids that I had to discipline. And yet Joe Fermino's been to half a dozen home games, and a half a dozen practices. Rob Griffin's in here yesterday, been here all week working out, getting ready to go to Dakota, to the CBA. I think they've understood some of the tough love that's happened, and it brings them back. It makes it hard because we recruited Pierre for the better part of 2 years, and he's been in college for 4 years, I've known him really since I came to campus here, it's been a six year relationship. When that ends, that's hard. I hope the relationship doesn't end, the coach/player thing did, I hope the rest of it can continue.

Q: Was there anything similar to this in your playing career that you went through that allowed you put yourself in the head of the players, and what they're going through and help them?

Alford: Maybe the only similar situation would be when we had a player who had repeated academic problems, attending class. Coach just made it clear that if you missed one more class, you're gone. He missed one more class, in the middle of the season, he was gone. He was a pretty important player to our success, and it had a dramatic impact on that season. But it was a life lesson that I really appreciated and it made me think about things. I don't know if there is any comparison there, maybe we're talking about two different things but Pierre fully understood what was expected of him, and he just didn't hold that up.

Q: There have been many examples of teams in the past who have lost their best player and sort of flourished because of that, and others have crumbled. Do you have a sense what's different in teams that come out of that OK?

Alford: Um, No, not really, not for sure. Ours seem to be the month of January. I don't know about the other teams. The month of January has just been a disaster month for us. I just about got through. It has just been an incredible month for us to endure. I don't know if I've really looked in to how other teams have tried to overcome things like that. We have to find a way to do it, I'm confident with these young men, and we have to stay upbeat and positive, and go forward. We're going to get a tremendous test. It's not like we're playing a team Saturday with an RPI of 300, we're getting a top ten team coming in here. I'm anxious to see how our guys respond.

Q: What's the strength of Michigan State?

Alford: Their experience. I think their experience is incredible. They've had a lot of pressure with them because of what happened in the first three years of the century, with win win win. This team has not had a share of the big ten title, so there's been a lot of pressure on them that way. Their experience is just incredible. They've won a lot of games, there's a lot of them, they're a big class. That junior/senior class is huge, they've been in a lot of tough battles, they're battle tested, I think they're just relentless. They play with great toughness, they're relentless with transition offense and board play. It's like a pressing team. Sometimes if you beat the press three times in a row, they take the press off. This team you have to rebound with for 40 minutes, play football with for 40 minutes, and you have to take away their transition for 40 minutes. That's not easy, and they're very good at it.

Q: Can Adam go for 30 minutes?

Alford: I hope so. (Laughs) He might have to. We spent a lot of time in film, he's learning. He's gotten into silly foul trouble. His ankle is fine. They wanted to hold him out of 5-on-5 yesterday, and he just went through it. I think his ankle's fine. He was up watching the Michigan State/Illinois game with me in the office, and he had his ankle in the bucket 3 different times. He's been doing a great job rehabbing it. It wasn't as bad as what he thought, it still was a turned ankle, but he didn't pop it, so I think he'll be full go by Saturday.

Q: No legal charges have been filed yet, as far as we know. Are you concerned that you already announced Pierre guilty?

Alford: No. I'm not really answering another Pierre question. I think that was covered in my statement. This really didn't have anything to do with whether charges were filed or not filed. That had no bearing on my decision.

Q: How do you deal with Paul Davis?

Alford: It's going to be by committee. I would assume they're going to come at Paul Davis early. Every time they come to him, good things happen. He's extremely talented, maybe one of the best legit centers in our league. It'll be by committee, whether it's Erek, Doug, maybe go a bit smaller, more physical with Brunner. We've got to mix things up with him because I would think they're going to come at him an awful lot, and we're going to have to defend the post. With that said, even if he gets away from us, it's the board play and transition part of it that we have to be most focused on.

Q: Do you play more zone now?

Alford: I don't think it's something that we've really gone in saying we've got to change our style. That may happen, foul trouble may dictate that, but we'll go into this with our same philosophy defensively.

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