Stevie Wonder?

11:05 PM, Apr 2, 2013   |    comments
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It goes without saying that ego is a pretty important component to athletic success.

Ego, though, takes on some negative connotations, so maybe the focus here is on having a true deep-seated belief in yourself.

The point here is on the subject of Steve Alford and UCLA.  And the new coach of the Bruins may be the perfect hire, because he'll need that foundational belief in himself where he's headed.

First, the school.  The folks in Westwood are still living off the memories of John Wooden, undefeated seasons, and consecutive national championships.  That was forty years ago, and the school still acts as if the basketball program still has Wooden on the bench.

Of course, the fan base was pretty spoiled when he was there.  The story goes that at the end of Wooden's last game, when the Bruins beat Kentucky for their tenth NCAA title in 12 years after losing in the semifinals the year before, a UCLA booster came up to Wooden in the oncourt bedlam and said, "Way to go, Coach.  This makes up for you letting us down last year."

No wonder The Wizard of Westwood had decided to retire.

Since then, a lot of coaches have tried to bring back the glory days.  Gene Bartow and Gary Cunningham lasted just two season apiece, finding it cold in the Wizard's shadow.  Larry Brown got as far as the NCAA finals.  Larry Farmer and Walt Hazzard were former star players who couldn't replicate titles as the head coach that they did as players.  Jim Harrick won a title in 1995 but couldn't build on it.  Steve Lavin followed with a flashy but title-less run, fired after his first (and only) losing season, and then Ben Howland came in and took the Bruins to three consecutive Final Fours.  (Uh, but Ben, you got there but didn't bring back a banner.)

Not even a conference title in 2013 was enough to save Howland from the hungry wolves wanting a return to the glory days.  Word began spreading that he had been fired one Saturday night.  How did the school respond?  Officials, exhibiting plenty of ego (not to mention chutzpah), came out with a statement the next day saying the coach hadn't been fired - it didn't say that he was going to be back -- just that he hadn't been fired.

The next day, they then fired him.  Classy.

Why would a coach want to get mixed up with self-righteous folks like that?

Enter Steve Alford.

Championships as a head coach:  Zero.

New Mexico earned a three-seed in the tournament this year, but lost in the second round.  In fact, his Lobos won four regular season Mountain West championships and two tournament titles, but couldn't make a splash in the Big Dance.   In eighteen years in Division I, he's seen the second weekend of the tournament exactly once.

But the same Steve Alford has a remarkable pedigree.  Indiana's Mr. Basketball in high school - interestingly, John Wooden was another product of Indiana - Olympic gold medalist after his freshman year in college, four-year survivor playing under Bob Knight, national champion with the '87 Hoosiers.  The hair, the looks, the deadly accurate shot:  Alford could still win the race for governor of Indiana, even if he announced his candidacy the day before the election - and he hasn't lived in the state in nearly twenty years.

There's a Jack Armstrong quality about him that made Jack Armstrong change his name to Joe Shlabotnik, because he didn't feel worthy of the name anymore.  But underneath the shiny exterior is a fiery competitor, a competitor who has had success recruiting right under UCLA's nose in California.  And if you can't beat him, hire him.

Yet Alford isn't perfect:  days after signing a ten-year extension with New Mexico, Alford did what so many coaches before him have done and bolted for greener pastures, leaving the Lobo program for the luster of UCLA's glorious past.  Everyone should get the chance to better their life with a better job, but there is something wrong with a situation where a coach can leave a program for another immediately, but the player(s) recruited by the coach can leave only by sitting out a year.  That's an argument for another time.

Still, a matinee idol heading to Hollywood; it's a screenwriter's dream.  But beneath the glitter, Alford is not entering paradise. The pressures of coaching underneath those 11 championship banners, inherent from a distance, become all the more real with "friends of the program" impatient for a return to those halcyon days.  And comparisons will certainly be drawn, now that  crosstown rival USC has made their own splash, hiring Florida Gulf Coast hotshot Andy Enfield.

But if anyone can handle it all, it would be Alford.  He had to learn how to handle pressure early on, what with the eyes of a high school hoops hotbed on him.  Players that successfully completed four years under Bob Knight gained a large measure of self-confidence.  New Mexico, with one of the most intimidating home courts in college basketball and a rabid albeit provincial fan base, is not a job for a shrinking violet.  But now, Alford is taking a quantum leap and everything he has grown to believe in himself is going to be put to the test.  And he's not shying away from that pressure:  today he referred to UCLA as "the premier basketball school in the country."  And now he begins to see if he can grant championship wishes to a proud program, like another coach from Indiana who became a Wizard.

Lots of impatient eyes will be watching.


Until next time...


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