UCLA's hire of Steve Alford as head men's basketball coach was about the best they could do. For years, UCLA has been searching for their program lifer. They've wanted their version of Tom Izzo, Jim Boeheim, or Roy Williams, while keenly aware that no one is the next John Wooden.
UCLA thought they had the right guy in Jim Harrick, who even won a national title, but it turned out he wasn't running the program the right way. They thought they had the right guy in Ben Howland, but he wore out his stay. I'm not sure if Steve Alford is ultimately what UCLA wants or needs, but he is a good coach who brings an excellent pedigree to Westwood.
After winning a national title while playing for Bobby Knight at Indiana, Alford was the hottest young coach in the country when he took Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16 in 1999, at just 35 years of age. That success took him to Iowa, where after eight seasons, he seemed washed up. A crushing loss to #14 seed Northwestern State in the first round of the NCAA tournament in 2006, followed by a lackluster 2007 season, led Hawkeyes fans to believe that Alford was a good coach, who wasn't good enough.
Sensing he was close to being fired, Alford bolted to New Mexico, where he completely remade himself as a head coach. The Lobos have been better than the Bruins for the past five years, despite recruiting less talented players. In an era when the Mountain West Conference has been as good, if not better, than the Pac-12 in basketball, Alford's teams have won the conference two years in a row.
It remains to be seen if Alford is a guy who is better suited to coach at a mid-major than an elite program, but I do believe that coaches can improve over time, which Alford has done. He understands what it means to be at a top-tier program, having played for Knight at Indiana, so he is keenly aware of the expectations he faces. And he also knows how to recruit in Southern California, since many of his top New Mexico players come from this area.
Last week, I wrote that Brad Stevens and Shaka Smart could wind up rejecting the UCLA job, which would leave Alford as one of the top candidates. I called Alford "a good choice, albeit not a perfect one." I think UCLA wanted to hire a young star like Stevens or a Smart, who could stay in Westwood for nearly 30 years, and wind up becoming Izzo, Boeheim, or better yet, Mike Krzyzewski. But despite its status as being one of the six premiere programs in college basketball (the others being Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky, and Indiana), UCLA has some considerable drawbacks. Not every coach wants to work at a school where Ben Howland can be fired, despite going to three Final Fours. Not every coach wants to compete with the Lakers, Dodgers, and USC football for attention in a crowded media market. And not every coach wants to be at a UC school with its extra regulations and financial problems.
The truth is that Alford was the best that UCLA could do. Other candidates like Jay Wright or Mark Gottfried have proven that they're not coaches who can compete for national titles every year. With Alford, there's at least a reason to believe that at age 48, he's hitting his stride, and in the right situation he could be what UCLA needs. I'm not sure if he'll realize that dream though.
The other coach that UCLA was reportedly looking at was Florida Gulf Coast's Andy Enfield. I thought there was a 50% chance that Enfield would wind up being a coaching star, and a 50% chance that he would wind up being a disaster. His style of play and his personality were perfect for Los Angeles. But making the astronomical leap from an Atlantic Sun team that lost twice to Lipscomb to one of the most storied programs in college basketball, seemed like too big of a jump for Dan Guerrero to stomach. We don't know if Enfield is for real, or if he's just a one-year wonder.
UCLA may get to find out soon if Enfield is for real, as USC is reportedly targeting him for their head coaching job.
In the meantime, they'll be thankful that they got a solid coach in Steve Alford, before they had to look at a lower tier of candidates.
Pauley Pavilion at UCLA: LA Observed