Most people agree that although Ben Howland had a very successful run at UCLA, it was time for him and the school to part ways. The hope was that we could get a young, hungry coach who could led the program back to Final Fours the way Howland did during the early parts of his tenure. But after being turned down by Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens, the Bruins turned to New Mexico coach Steve Alford as the answer.
It’s hard to be pleased with the decision. This a downgrade from Howland.
Alford agreed to a seven-year, $18.2 million contract with the Bruins, including a $200,000 signing bonus. UCLA also has to pay the Lobos for stealing their coach — a figure that may come out to around $1 million. New Mexico was blindsided by the move; Alford agreed to a 10-year extension with the school last week, probably well before he knew UCLA would have any interest in him. It reflects poorly on him for leaving a week after affirming his long-term commitment to the school, but it’s understandable why he would leave for this opportunity. I just don’t understand why UCLA decided on him.
Alford’s appeal is that he is a recognizable name for Bruins fans. He played college ball at Indiana and won a national championship under Bob Knight. He played on the Olympic team. He has been in the coaching game for over 20 years. He is 48 and has a pretty good image. He should be a lot more affable than Howland, and he should be able to recruit well. My issue with him is he doesn’t cross me as a very good coach. He is a good coach. UCLA needed someone who had the potential to be great. We needed someone with upside.
Alford’s New Mexico team went 29-6 this season and won the Mountain West Conference with a 13-3 record. That looks great on the surface, but it’s terrible when you realize his team lost to Harvard in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Last year his team went 28-7 and lost to Louisville in the second round of the tourney 59-56, which isn’t bad when you consider that the Cardinals reached the Final Four. Three years ago his team went 30-5 and won the Mountain West. After beating Montana in the first round of the tournament, they were destroyed by Washington in the next round. Are you noticing a trend?
Alford’s eight-season run at Iowa from 1999-2007 wasn’t all that special. The Hawkeyes were generally a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team with him as coach. They were 61-67 in conference during his career. His best season was when the Hawkeyes went 25-9 in ’05-’06 and won the Big Ten conference tournament. They were a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament, and then they lost in the first round to Northwestern State. I remember that disappointment well because I liked their team and thought they would make a tourney run, but they were upset. Greg Brunner, Adam Haluska, and Jeff Horner were good players and they never won a tournament game. In fact, Alford only won one NCAA tournament game at Iowa, which is why they got rid of him.
Why would UCLA want a guy who not only doesn’t win in the tournament, but has a reputation for coaching his team to bad losses? I think he has a chance to improve on his postseason disappointments because he should have better players at UCLA, but don’t you want a guy who has proven he can win in March? Why hire a guy who underachieves in the postseason?
I would have much rather had a coach on the upswing. Once UCLA couldn’t get a proven young stud like Stevens or Smart, I would have loved to give a hot coach like Andy Enfield a shot to see what he could do. I would even have taken Buzz Williams from Marquette or Gregg Marshall from Wichita State over Alford. At least those guys have won in the tourney.
It was time to get rid of Ben Howland, but at least replace him with someone who has upside. I will be shocked if Alford ever takes UCLA to a Final Four. I don’t see him doing better than Howland did over the past five years, and those were Howland’s down seasons. To me, Alford is even a step below Sean Miller and Dana Altman in the Pac-12. What’s worrisome is that Alford will do well enough at UCLA to keep the job for several years before people realize he’s not going deep enough in the tournament. It looks like we’re tied to Alford for probably five-six years.
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