Will Steve Alford be successful at UCLA?
Of course, it's impossible to foresee. But there are some indications that Alford has a very good chance to do well in Westwood.
First, it's not that difficult to be successful at UCLA as a coach. The school sits on a huge Southern California recruiting base, and it's the premiere destination in the west coast for recruits. It has upgraded its facilities with the renovation of Pauley Pavilion, so it's an impressive sell for recruits. And despite what the in-the-dark national pundits say, for an elite college basketball program, UCLA has fairly manageable expectations (we've detailed out this phenomenon so many times and refuse to do it again here).
For the last 17 years, UCLA has gone to three Final Fours and five Sweet 16s with one coach that was a fraud and another who nobody wanted to play for. It took a good coach just three seasons to go to the Final Four. The first five seasons of Ben Howland's tenure (before he took some major mis-steps and then the misery of playing for Howland pervaded the program) are a good example of the level of success a good coach can have at UCLA.
So, again, you have to emphasize, as a coach, you don't need a great deal to be successful at UCLA. Really, if UCLA is a place where recruits recognize they can be well-coached, the coach doesn't make playing at UCLA a miserable experience, and you avoid any kind of scandal, most coaches would succeed in Westwood.
So, the criteria for Alford to have success actually isn't that challenging. There are a few elements here, too, that lead you to believe he could actually be a very good fit for UCLA.
One of the primary aspects of Howland's tenure that brought his demise more than any other was the fact that players were miserable playing for him. Very simply, if the players that went through the UCLA program in the last ten years had liked Howland, and liked playing at UCLA under him, he'd almost certainly still be the coach. So many of the players that left the program, either by leaving early to the NBA or transferring, did so because they just couldn't tolerate being there. Now, of course, you're always going to have transfers, and you can't blame Howland for every player personnel problem. But generally we can safely say that there was an inordinate amount of players who didn't like playing under Howland, and he lost talent that could have saved his program because of it.
Alford, on the other hand, has shown a history of being a player-friendly coach. Everything we've heard about him while he was at New Mexico indicates that his players liked him, respected him and enjoyed playing for him. The current New Mexico team was apparently a tight-knit group that legitimately was very sad to see Alford leave.
You could assert, however, that it's far more challenging to manage the elite high-major issues at UCLA than at New Mexico. Alford, though, showed a penchant for being able to manage problem children at New Mexico. He rehabilitated the problematic UCLA transfer Drew Gordon and made him a productive player, which was no easy task. UCLA backed off its scholarship offer to Kendall Williams a few years ago because of some behavior issues; Williams went to New Mexico and Alford managed him so successfully that he earned Mountain West Player of the Year this last season. There were a number of other players who had earned reps as being tough to manage that Alford seemed to be able to guide and manage successfully at New Mexico. This ability, to be able to manage tough personalities, could serve him very well in managing all of the issues that come with the high-major level of players he'll get at UCLA.
It helps, too, that he's hired assistant coaches that have reputations for being very player-friendly. Ed Schilling is a consensus well-respected guy. He has coached at Adidas Nations, the events that bring together some of the most talented recruits in the country, and he's gotten rave reviews from players and their families. Alford's other two assistants, David Grace and Duane Broussard, also have reps for being player-friendly coaches that have reps for being very good at managing the player dynamics that go on within a college basketball program.
Criteria #2 – Will players get good coaching at UCLA, and will recruits perceive they are going to get good coaching if they go there? Alford has a reputation as being a good coach. If you talk with people who were close to both the Iowa and New Mexico programs they will consistently attest to Alford's coaching abilities. Schilling has a rep for being a great workout coach, and is already getting rave reviews from the current players on the team as they go through spring workouts, which started late last week. Alford's playing style might be a question; as we've analyzed previously, his style of play at New Mexico wasn't a fast, running style. He has a reputation, though, for being a defense-first type of coach, and Howland's first five seasons are an indication of what merely a good defensive coach can do at UCLA with good athletes. We've been told, too, from people close to Alford, that he intends to play at a faster offensive pace at UCLA, recognizing that, if you have a more talented team, you want to have more possessions in a game. This is what we're hearing; we'll see if it comes to fruition. Even if UCLA isn't running up and down the court with Alford, if players and recruits like playing in Alford's system, don't perceive it as restricting like they did Howland's style, like how they're utilized offensively and they improve defensively, that could be enough.
Perhaps a big issue of why Alford could be successful at UCLA is timing, in terms of recruiting. Alford arrives in Westwood at a very well-timed moment for recruiting, with the 2014 and 2015 classes being among the most talented on the west coast in some time. It's an advantage he will have over Howland, actually, because when Howland arrived, the west coast went through a random downswing in west coast talent overall (and, again, he got UCLA to a Final Four in three years). Alford, theoretically, wouldn't have to leave the west coast to populate his roster over the next couple of years with enough talent to take him to a Final Four. If Alford merely gets perimeter players like Jordan McLaughlin and Namon Wright in 2014, and just a couple of posts from among Stephen Zimmerman, Chimezie Metu, Brodricks Jones, Chance Comanche, Ivan Rabb or Chase Jeter in the 2015 class, Alford is on his way. And that's just being conservative; there's enough elite talent available on the west coast over the next two years for Alford to get quite a bit more than that. If he can get McLaughlin, Wright, and perhaps Stanley Johnson, and throw in a couple of solid post players for 2014, combined with the returning players, the talent on the UCLA roster for 2014 – just one season away – should be among the most talented in many years. Then, throw in the loaded 2015 class, and Alford should be rolling. In other words, if Alford can take advantage of the upswing in talent in the west over the next couple of years, how quickly he could turn around UCLA could be startling.
Like with Jim Mora, how Alford does initially in recruiting his first class, in this case 2014, will be a big indication of whether the direction of the program is a positive one.
So, really, with so many UCLA fans dwelling on issues relating to the hiring, the bigger and more relevant aspects of Steve Alford being the head coach at UCLA, actually, indicate that he has a good chance at succeeding, and it could come fairly quickly.