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A few hours after news broke Saturday that he was headed to UCLA, Steve Alford went a little overboard when describing his new job with the Bruins.
"You're talking about the premier basketball program in the country," Alford said.
|Steve Alford will replace Ben Howland as UCLA head coach after six seasons at New Mexico.|
Coaches overstate things all the time -- especially when they're as giddy as Alford was Saturday. But Alford was wrong. UCLA isn't the No. 1 basketball program in the nation. Not anymore.
Heck, it's not even close.
A premier program wouldn't have missed the NCAA tournament twice in the last four years. A premier program wouldn't have to continually deal with a mass exodus of players. Even in down years, a premier program wouldn't routinely have 4,000 empty seats during home games. That was the case at Pauley Pavilion in 2012-13, and it's not like this was a bad Bruins team. UCLA won the Pac-12 regular-season title.
For the most part, the luster surrounding UCLA basketball has vanished.
Alford -- more than any of the other candidates mentioned to replace Ben Howland -- is capable of bringing it back.
I couldn't be more on board with UCLA's hiring of Alford, who either won or shared four Mountain West Conference titles during his six seasons at New Mexico. Alford was hired Saturday after VCU's Shaka Smart and Butler's Brad Stevens spurned overtures from Bruins athletic director Dan Guerrero.
Smart and Stevens are excellent coaches, clearly among the best in the game.
But I would have chosen Alford over either of them.
At least for this job.
UCLA needed to do more than hire a good coach. It needed to find the right fit.
The Bruins accomplished that with Alford, who in some ways is similar to Howland, his predecessor. Both men are excellent game tacticians who have proved they can win at the highest level. Howland led UCLA to three straight Final Fours from 2006 to 2008 and did an excellent job with his final Bruins team this season, guiding a squad that featured three freshman starters to 25 wins and an outright league title.
That Howland was fired after such a successful campaign says everything you need to know about the UCLA job. Coaching is a big part of the equation, but the intangibles are equally important.
Howland can be prickly at times, which damaged his relationship with some boosters and caused him to be alienated in AAU and high school basketball circles in California. He had strained relationships with many of his players and never seemed comfortable in the glare that surrounds UCLA's program.
Alford is just the opposite.
He has spent the last six years recruiting in the west and has strong relationships with some of the top AAU programs in California. Alford understands that schmoozing with boosters and getting to know former players is as vital to a program's long-term success as anything that goes on in a huddle. Howland shied away from those kinds of things. Alford will embrace them, along with the spotlight pressure that comes with being UCLA's coach.
"I'm very comfortable with pressure," he said. "I've been under pressure since I was 16."
Indeed, Alford played before sellout crowds of 10,000 or more at New Castle High School in Indiana. He scored 23 points to lead Indiana past Syracuse in the 1987 NCAA title game and was the Hoosiers' career leading scorer until Calbert Cheaney broke his record. Alford spent four seasons in the NBA and has 22 years of experience as a coach.
He's used to being "the man."
Alford can come across as arrogant. MWC coaches hated it when he would cut down the net after winning a league title and drape it around his neck for the postgame news conference. But that type of exuberance and fire is also infectious to both fans and players. It gives him a presence and has made him successful.
"You're not going to find anyone more competitive or driven," Alford said.
The same people who dislike Alford would probably say they would love to have him on their side. He is exactly what UCLA needs.
Smart has done a tremendous job with a VCU program he led to the Final Four in 2011. But would the top-20-caliber recruits he would be expected to sign at UCLA -- guys that would be in school for only a year or two -- really want to play Smart's full-court, Havoc defense? And does Smart have the same sort of West Coast recruiting ties as Alford? Of course not. Neither does Stevens, who would probably be more suited for a job in the Midwest if he ever left Butler. Stevens and Smart would seem out of place amid the bright lights of Los Angeles. They're not Hollywood enough.
Again, it's not just about finding the right coach. It's about hiring the right fit.
The one knock on Alford -- and it's a legitimate one -- is his lack of success in the NCAA tournament. He guided Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16 in 1999 but hasn't reached the second weekend of the event since. This year's New Mexico team received a No. 3 seed after winning 29 games and the outright MWC title. The Lobos were upset by No. 14 seed Harvard in their opening game.
I've never been one to judge a coach based solely how he finishes in the NCAA tournament. The Lobos' loss to Harvard doesn't change the fact that New Mexico was one of the best, most consistent teams in basketball this season. The lack of a Final Four appearance on Alford's résumé doesn't make me think any less of him as a coach.
Alford will have access to better players at UCLA than he has in his entire career. Alford is 48. His ceiling is still high.
He'll reach it at UCLA.