Alford leaves UNM for UCLA head coach post

When the players of the New Mexico Lobos woke up Saturday morning, they had no idea their head coach Steve Alford has already agreed in principle to become the next head coach of the UCLA Bruins. But they found out soon after, while in the midst of a community service event the team was participating at in Albuquerque – soon after the players were having an emotional final meeting with Alford.

UCLA announced the news by Twitter at around 10 am Saturday, just minutes after ESPN's Andy Katz broke the news – around the same time Alford himself was breaking the news to his former players.

"Obviously very surprised because basically we found out just by the Internet (when) we were out at the community (service) event," said junior Cameron Bairstow. "And he talked to us about it. We were obviously very surprised but at the same time we fully understand the situation and the opportunity he has moving forward so all the best to him."

Alford arrived at UNM six years ago to a program that was a shambles but rebuilt it, eventually running his record as Lobo head coach to 155-52 in his six seasons. Alford leaves as the only coach in the history of UNM to win 22 games in each of his first six seasons, and he has qualified the Lobos for the postseason in all six seasons, including three NCAA Tournaments in the last four seasons.

Addressing the media for the final time at The Pit Saturday noontime, he reflected on his decision to leave UNM.

"This has been a very hard 48 hours," said Alford. "The toughest decision I've had to make…maybe ever, and that's because of how much I love this place, UNM, Albuquerque, New Mexico, the fans.  It really came down to having an opportunity to go to UCLA, the pinnacle of college basketball.  It's one of those lifetime opportunities that is really difficult to pass up."

Sophomore center Alex Kirk was philosophical when talking to the media about Alford's departure.

"Obviously I'm so happy for Coach," said Kirk. "We've been talking about it as players, nobody would say no to UCLA. That's crazy. But yeah, it was an emotional meeting and we all agree with it. It's just tough because it affects us immediately. It affects our futures. But he made the right call for him. We all agree with it. It's just kind of ‘What are we all going to do now?'"

UNM Athletic Director Paul Krebs said a national search would be made for a replacement for Alford, though associate head coach Craig Neal was named interim head coach for the Lobos before Saturday's press conference was started.

"I think that the urgency (to get a new head coach) is self imposed," said Krebs. "We want to get someone in here as soon as we can for the sake of our student-athletes."

Neal reportedly addressed the team Saturday after Alford did and had a calming effect on the team.

"He just kind of did what he would normally do – he kind of calmed us down and said ‘Take a breath' –  and that's all we could do right now," said Kirk.

Reports surfaced early Sunday that Kirk had told a source that he would leave UNM if Neal was not named coach. Kirk confirmed details from the report – such as Kirk's ability to graduate from UNM In August, thus making him immediately eligible to play elsewhere as a graduate student. Namely UCLA.

"I guess that is a possibility," said Kirk of the no-transfer scenario. " Like I said, I'll have to see what's going on. But right now I can't promise anything."

Kirk and Bairstow both supported the idea of UNM hiring Neal as head coach.

"I think if Coach Neil got the job that there'd be a chance to keep everything together," said Kirk. "I'd say there's a chance but I can't promise anything obviously – I can't say that if Coach Neil got the job that we would all stay. But I can say it's a tough situation and we've all got to think about ourselves and our families in this situation."

Bairstow said he thought hiring Neal would be "the smoothest transition possible."

"We've obviously got to talk about it with our teammates," said Bairstow. "It's really confusing right now. I haven't had a lot of time to process it."

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