A Perspective on Steve Alford

Dec. 31 -- Our basketball writer, Robert Carpentier, utilizes his long-standing Indiana connections to provide some insight into the UCLA coach...

I have the unique perspective, at least as a contributor to Bruin Report Online, of an admitted outsider to the UCLA basketball program and Southern California. I live in the Midwest, in Minnesota, and certainly don’t pretend to have the knowledge or experience of either Tracy Pierson or Greg Hicks with regard to UCLA basketball, or scouting and recruiting in the west. However, my knowledge and experience with basketball goes back many years. Further, having spent a great deal of my basketball formative years in Indiana and having continued contact with people truly tied-in to the Indiana basketball community, I have a specific knowledge of the background of the current UCLA head men’s basketball coach.

Again, this information is simply to lend understanding to the readers of the lens I have as I view the program.

The last two UCLA games have really brought many aspects of Steve Alford to the forefront, those that have been difficult to surmise up to now, except perhaps for those of us with some unique insight. Well, actually, it might have been readily apparent to anyone who reasonably did any research into Alford at the time of his hire.

So, let’s look back at Alford’s coaching history and some of the lingering reputation that has followed him.

Alford was a success at both Manchester College in Indiana and at Southwest (now just) Missouri State because he worked very hard at identifying those student athletes that could excel in the setting of the school. Further, he knew how to develop those players into solid or very good players in the time he had them.

Something changed when Alford got to Iowa. His recruiting and his player evaluations tailed off. He started relying on transfers and players with questionable character. He got a bit of a rep as being the coach for wayward basketball boys. His successful teams won because they were simply a more talented team.

However, Alford’s teams rarely succeeded when it came time for the NCAA Tournament. His time in Iowa City saw his teams win exactly one NCAA Tournament game. Although Iowa is not a recruiting hotbed, Alford’s predecessors, specifically Lute Olson and Dr. Tom Davis, were more successful than Alford both in the regular season and in the postseason. In short, it wasn’t as if it were impossible to recruit to Iowa if the coach and his staff were willing to work hard.

From what I’ve heard from sources close to the Iowa program, much of Alford’s limitations stemmed from arrogance. It was described to me as a “I’m-Steve-Alford” mentality. Alford operated as if recruits should flock to Iowa City simply because he was and is “Steve Alford.”

The Iowa situation was an interesting one, in a few different ways. Alford purports to be a disciple of Bobby Knight, obviously from Alford’s time at IU as one of Knight’s players. However, according to what I’ve learned, there was a falling out between the two when Alford took the Iowa job. Knight apparently didn’t want Alford to take the job, thinking Alford could possibly replace him at Indiana when he retired (we all know how that worked out). In short, Knight thought that Alford considering Iowa, a Big 10 rival, was a stab in the back and Alford felt Knight was trying to hold him back. Apparently their relationship is still a bit frosty.

Alford left Iowa after the 2006-2007 season to take the New Mexico job. There are many who believe that Alford was simply staying one step ahead of the posse. There were a decent amount of rumblings at the time that Alford was going to be fired at Iowa because of lack of results in the NCAA Tournament and the sense that the program was rotting from within, mainly because of Alford’s arrogance that he was in the right regardless of the situation.

Alford took that same recruiting style, bringing in transfers and those of questionable character, to New Mexico, and Craig “Noodles” Neal came with him as an assistant from Iowa. This is an important fact because there are many who believe that Neal was the recruiting guru behind Alford’s success at New Mexico as well as the true tactician.

Alford, Craig Neal
When Alford left New Mexico for UCLA, Neal was hired as the head coach at New Mexico, leaving Alford Neal-less for the first time since before his last three seasons at Iowa. As is the case many times with college coaching staffs, when an assistant leaves a staff there can be a profound impact on it, and if that assistant was responsible for recruiting, as was Neal at New Mexico and before that at Iowa, recruiting can be completely altered. In fact, it's another instance of Alford's arrogance, assuming he can accomplish the same things without the assistant coach that truly was responsible for it. It's essentially the same situation that happened with Ben Howland after assistant Kerry Keating left UCLA to coach Santa Clara in 2007. It's not coincidental that UCLA recruiting under Howland ran aground after that and, as Tracy Pierson has written before, Howland similarly was arrogant enough to believe he could do it without an ace recruiter like Keating. With Alford, unfortunately, it seems he has continued with his recruiting style from Iowa and New Mexico, but without Neal, and has eschewed what led to his success at his earlier coaching stops. In fact, sources have attributed much of the wayward-boys recruiting approach to Neal, and that it was Neal who was able to pull it off. The recruiting of actual transfers at UCLA has been a little different for Alford, using that tact only to fill in unexpected (on Alford’s part) roster gaps, i.e. Jon Octeus. But a closer look at the high schoolers he’s targeted since being at UCLA shows that many would fall under the category of wayward, or as we describe it on BRO, as having “fit issues.” It’s proven, pretty clearly, so far not to be successful at UCLA.

Among my sources, there are those that describe Alford in positive terms, but those same people, as well as others, have mentioned Alford’s arrogance. Let’s get something straight: I am from the school of thought that in order to be a good player or coach you need a healthy cockiness. After all, if you don’t believe you know what you’re doing, how can you expect those you are leading to believe it? However, Alford’s sense of self has been described as an inability to admit that he could possibly take another route to success than the one he’s on. Those that believe that they are infallible tend to become lazy and less concerned about being successful than about being right, which are two traits that have been used to describe Alford to me over the past several years.

At the time of UCLA’s hiring of Alford, Greg Hicks posted on the BRO message board about hearing of this narcissism. If Hicks, who is very west-coast based, obviously, heard about this then the question becomes: Why didn’t UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero or anyone in the UCLA athletic department hear the same? Not to discredit Hicks, but shouldn’t whoever conducted the UCLA coaching search have as much insight into college basketball as an Internet basketball writer?

Assuming for a moment that all of that criticism and opinion are true, then UCLA fans would expect to see a program with uneven recruiting, with gaping roster holes, no real sustainable recruiting plan for the future and lax teaching of the game. Essentially a program based on, well, arrogance.

Oh, wait…

Looking ahead, there are only three ways this changes. The first is Alford continues with the same tactical approach on the court while, against the odds, pulls out a good season, lands some of the big recruits this spring he's recruiting and gives himself a much better chance for success in 2015-2016 (Tracy Pierson did an in-depth analysis of this in his recent story Spring is Critical for Alford's Program). The second scenario would be for Alford to return to what made him successful at Manchester College and SW Missouri State -- the hard work and player evaluation that, quite frankly, has been espoused by both Tracy Pierson and Greg Hicks. Time, though, is also actually running out on scenario #2.

The third is for the high-end donors to call for change.

Unfortunately the second scenario doesn’t seem reasonably possible. Pierson and Hicks have been describing this year’s version of the Bruins in various terms that all say the same thing: AAU ball. Alford is, in short, trying to be John Calipari at Kentucky. Now, let me be clear, I fully believe that Calipari is one of the dirtiest coaches in the college game (remember he’s had not one but two appearances in the Final Four at two different schools vacated for rules violations, and I doubt he just suddenly “found religion” when he got to Lexington), but putting all that aside, Calipari has been a success at Kentucky because he has provided his players something Alford seemingly has not: Accountability. Calipari has gotten buy-in from his players or else he has benched them. Before you say it’s easy for him to do that because of the talent on his squad, remember, he did the same thing two years ago when his team probably lost 2-3 games they would have won had Calipari not wanted to send a message, and as such ended up a first-round loser in the NIT. The point is, Calipari holds his players accountable for effort. There is no indication that Alford does the same. It was evident throughout this season, even during the cupcake blowouts, but especially so in the Kentucky and Alabama games.

Perhaps Alford has a longer leash for his players because he recognizes that he has no depth to speak of and feels he needs to win, so he is willing to live with the lack of discipline. Perhaps he allows his son to play with little defensive effort because he knows that without him on the floor the offense will have no one to play the point. Perhaps this is a one-year thing until any “reinforcements” arrive next fall. Perhaps that’s what Alford is telling recruits.

What I think, based on what so many sources have told me about Alford’s personality, is that arrogance reigns here. Alford knows he has a monstrous, almost-ironclad buyout that he believes will keep UCLA from firing him, at least for a good long while. I think the arrogance has also bled over toward blindness about his son, and with the buyout he believes he can safely provide a showcase for Bryce with impunity. I think the coach’s ego will not allow him to change, which is a shame because he has proven he has it in him to get it right and he should know enough about the game to be a solid-to-good major D-I coach.

*****


True story: When my wife and I were in Austin almost two years ago for the Bruins’ NCAA Tournament game against Minnesota, we were watching the Thursday action in our hotel room when my wife brought up the subject of Ben Howland being fired. We engaged in a conversation in which she asked me questions and I told her what I felt I knew. All of this took place while we were watching Harvard beat New Mexico on TV. Having heard so much from all of my Indiana sources over the years, at one point I said to her, “I know one thing, it won’t be Steve Alford and I am very happy about that.” Somehow because of that I personally feel responsible; I should have kept my mouth shut.

So it’s very strange that so much of what I had heard previously about Alford – when I was detached from having any investment in him as a coach – is now coming home to personally roost. I’ve recently heard his arrogance has been a defining characteristic since coming to UCLA, and an offshoot of the arrogance is that Coach Alford has a history of deflecting blame whenever possible and even when it isn’t possible (think back to his first press conference). We’ve now heard rumblings out of the UCLA program that he is again deflecting blame for this current UCLA season. There is a pattern here and it didn't require much digging to see it.

Talking with my Indiana sources who know Alford's history, they personally are not surprised by any of this. They are surprised that anyone is surprised, and were only surprised when Alford was initially hired, like most UCLA fans were.

So much has been written about this but it needs to be repeated in this context: What was UCLA thinking when they made this hire and, to compound it, the monstrous and unprecedented buyout? As I said, I’m not a program insider, so on this point I’m speculating, but it doesn’t seem very complicated to conclude: UCLA either hired Alford without full knowledge of his background and personality or, perhaps, in spite of it. So it’s either a case that the UCLA powers-that-be were beyond remiss in doing their due diligence or they knew it all and they uncannily thought it was worth it because they believed Steve Alford was a homerun hire. Either way it was outrageously inept and a massive fail.

There is ample evidence to believe that the Bruins will continue to play in a manner that led to the defeat against the Wildcats and Crimson Tide. The Bruins have shown no mental toughness, which shouldn’t be a surprise when considering Alford's history since his time in Missouri. Without accountability used as leverage, the players could go off more on selfish, improvisational tangents offensively and neglect defense even more as the season progresses. In other words, it could get worse. One has to wonder if Alford is losing the team, or if he has done so already.

We’ve seen many times what arrogance unchecked can do to coaches and programs. It was a major factor in the demise of Ben Howland, who had it rolling at UCLA only to watch it all implode because of his own ego and stubbornness.

If this season – and the program -- does spiral, it seems that the Kentucky game has the potential to be the emblem of it. Here in Minnesota, before Kentucky, if I said “Steve Alford” to any random basketball fan all I would get back is a blank stare. This week, after that infamous 41-7 half, those same people now respond with a bit of laughter. A coach’s demise always seems to have a bellwether moment and the Kentucky game could be it.

While just asking random people in Minnesota their opinion isn’t a highly-scientific study, it does provide an example of the quickly eroding reputation of UCLA basketball outside of the program. It shows how the program that should rightly be among the college basketball elite, the program of John Wooden, has fallen from obscurity to absurdity.

Arrogance can do that.

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