Let's just recognize one thing -- UCLA is one of the great programs in college basketball, and they have been mired in what I would describe as marginal relevance since 2008. Back in the mid-2000's, UCLA went to three straight Final Fours but failed to win a championship,
or even get to the final game*. Fed up with the annual underachievement, the UCLA fans finally had had enough of Ben Howland, and the administration fired him a few days back to absolutely nobody's surprise.
Over the last few days, word came out that UCLA had been turned down by Shaka Smart of VCU and Brad Stevens of Butler, although I'm still not really sure if they were actually contacted by the school. The way these things are usually handled is through back-channel "friend of a friend" contacts, so we'll never know for sure. Today, though, it was announced that the Bruins had hired former Indiana University star and New Mexico Lobos coach Steve Alford.
I went over to Bruins Nation, our SB Nation UCLA brothers, just to gauge their reaction to the hire, and it seemed subdued but not negative. I tried to imagine how I would have reacted if Kentucky had hired somebody similar. Let's assume John Calipari left for the NBA this year and we were doing the same coaching search that the Bruins were. Would we be happy with, say, Travis Ford? I know that's not a great comparison since Ford is a UK alum, but it seems a fairly close match.
For that matter, why would you take Alford over Ford at all? Alford has been to the NCAA Tournament twice more, and Ford has yet to get past the second round. To be fair, though, Alford has only been past the second round twice, back in 1999 with Southwest Missouri St, and last year. With due respect to the Bruins, this is not the résumé that I would have expected. Alford looked to be ready to move up to somebody like Minnesota or a mid-level ACC school, maybe to somebody like Washington or Oregon. But UCLA is as big time as Indiana or Kentucky, and I'm not sure what the UCLA AD saw in him that screamed "Gotta have Steve!"
I'll break it down like this. First, the positives:
- Alford has won everywhere he's gone, and improved every single program he's coached;
- Alford knows recruiting out West, having recruited the mountain West areas pretty well;
- Alford has won with lesser talent than he's likely to get at UCLA;
- Nobody outworks Alford. He was known as a hard worker from high school on;
- Alford is relatively young and connected to the guys he is recruiting;
- Alford is clean of NCAA scandals.
Now, the negatives:
- Alford has never recruited at the level he'll need to at UCLA;
- Alford has absolutely no connection to the school whatsoever;
- Alford is an uninspiring hire for a team like UCLA, who's fans would have been expecting a much higher profile coach;
- Alford has never reached a Final Four, and there are a number of coaches available who have;
- Alford's teams play at a relatively slow pace, similar to what the Bruin fans have seen out of Howland up until this year;
- It is questionable whether or not Alford's style will endear him to the higher-level recruits. Just as Howland's recruiting began to suffer from his grind-it-out mindset, Alford may have the same difficulty convincing elite athletes to play at UCLA in his similar style.
I really don't know what to make of this hire. It can't engender much excitement because Alford isn't considered an elite coach. At the same time, it isn't a fail or anything, but it's the kind of hire you would expct of Minnesota or Kansas State, not UCLA, North Carolina or Kentucky. I'm sure that's not lost on the Bruin faithful, either. The relationship of their fan base with the UCLA Athletics Director, Dan Guerrero, could at best be considered restive, and at worst, abusive and close to outright mutiny. This hire may be solid, but it raises almost as many questions as it answers.
I wish Alford the best at UCLA. By all accounts, and his record, he is a fine coach, obeys the rules, and has won wherever he has gone. Now, he controls one of the most powerful programs in college basketball, one of what I call the Big Six: Kentucky, Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina, Duke, and Indiana. One intangible about this hire is that Tom Crean had a similar résumé when he was hired at (Indiana although he did have a Final Four to his credit which Alford lacks).
So what's your reaction to this hire?
[*Corrected: UCLA made the national finals in 2006]