There was a great deal of chatter this weekend about the hiring of former New Mexico Head Basketball Coach Steve Alford to take over the same position at the prestigious UCLA basketball program. Eleven National Championships is nothing to sneeze at, UCLA has more history in just their basketball program than most school entire athletic programs combined.
But note the word “history”. The reality is that in the ten seasons that Ben Howland was Head Coach he led the school to the Final Four three consecutive seasons. There were those who disliked Howland’s recruiting or felt he wasn’t a “UCLA man”. Well congratulations, UCLA hired another guy who isn’t a former Bruin or a California guy. John Wooden isn’t coming back to coach anytime soon and Howland wasn’t the coach who delivered the results wanted.
Hiring Steve Alford was one of the best options for UCLA for many reasons, yet I want to start with why the other “popular candidates” would not have been the right choice. In order to have a successful basketball program at UCLA you need to be able to recruit the fertile region of Southern California while presenting a positive image of the school. Popular “Mid-major” coaches such as Shaka Smart, Brad Stevens and Andy Enfield all are excellent coaches but none of them have recruiting connections in California. This was the major problem with the hiring of Howland over a decade ago, he had to learn on the job; recruiting California is different than the northeast or Midwest. Basketball to California is like Football to Texas: it’s the king of all sports. And those kids and parents who have a crazy passion about basketball looked at a guy like Ben Howland as an outsider. Both Smart and Stevens are great at maximizing the potential of their players and finding diamonds in the rough, but neither guy is known for their recruiting ability. UCLA is about results, recognition, and headlines. Enfield is the best recruiter of the three “hot name” coaches but he doesn’t have the west coach recruiting connections. Also, Enfield just began head coaching a few years ago, he doesn’t have much of a resume except that he is a “basketball lifer”.
This is where Alford comes in and shines about the rest. During his tenure at New Mexico he did recruiting in Southern California and has familiarized himself with the area, schools and people. Alford also has the ultimate weapon in recruiting: championships. Alford was a starting player in the 1980’s winning a National Title under Bob Knight at Indiana and as a member of the Gold Medal winning basketball team in the 1984 Olympics. When recruiting big time players, being able to walk around with that kind of Cache means you got a hand up on many coaches.
Also important about Alford is his background as a coach. While he hasn’t had great postseason success at Iowa or New Mexico, he does have the ability to “resurrect” dying basketball programs. Before he got to those two schools neither one were known as “winning” programs. The truth hurts UCLA alumni and fans: your basketball program needs some “resurrection”. Somewhat apropos considering Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus this past weekend, UCLA basketball for some people is a religion (i.e. football in Texas). I am not saying Steve Alford is a “messiah” of any sort but he has the coaching and recruiting ability as well as the basketball acumen to take UCLA and make it great again. Only time will tell if his qualifications for the jobs add up to results. But one thing is for sure, he is definitely a very qualified candidate.