May 29, 2013
By Bob Holtzman, UCLABruins.com
Steve Alford can still remember being recruited to play basketball at Indiana University by coach Bob Knight, and that experience is something he intends to reciprocate to his players as UCLA's new head men's basketball coach.
"I remember Coach Knight telling me in his home visit, I will get my degree at Indiana, always play with good people, play for championships and have a friend for life," Alford said. "All four came true."
Alford plans to deliver the same promises to student-athletes who join him in Westwood. His success in more than 22 seasons as a head coach at Manchester College, Missouri State, Iowa and New Mexico have established his credibility, but he knows all those jobs have simply prepared him for his ultimate challenge - leading the UCLA program - one that demands accountability and sustained success, both on and off the court.
In less than two months on the job, Alford has already developed a strong appreciation for what makes UCLA a rewarding destination for student-athletes and coaches. Moving forward, he intends to deliver the four cornerstones that Knight promised him as a young high school player from New Castle, Ind.
"It's all part of showing student-athletes how much you care," Alford said. "It's not just how a stat line looks on a Wednesday or Saturday night. Performance dictates when you have a basketball scholarship, but you're a student first, a student-athlete.
"UCLA is such a great fit for me. It's about putting the student first."
Keeping student in student-athlete
Alford took over the New Mexico program during a particularly rough time for its academic standing. The team's Academic Progress Rate (APR) was so low the NCAA took away one scholarship from the men's basketball team. During each of Alford's six seasons at New Mexico, the team's APR steadily improved and his program graduated 15 of 16 players.
Duane Broussard witnessed the turnaround at New Mexico first-hand. Broussard had been on staff with the Lobos since 2002 and worked on Alford's coaching staff during his final five seasons in Albuquerque. The only coach from New Mexico to join Alford in Westwood, Broussard knows Alford's leadership was essential to the improved academic standards.
"He cast a vision of what the expectations will be," Broussard said. "Working from that vision, he applied strong attention to detail to make sure those things get done. Our academic support services [at New Mexico] and our staff, under his philosophy and vision, executed his plan over the course of two years to get our kids in the right frame of mind and emphasize getting a college degree and retaining them through graduation. He helped maintain and retain student-athletes from the time they were freshmen all the way to when they graduated. That's how it changed. We retained student-athletes who got quality degrees at a decent GPA."
Broussard and Alford have already tweaked their academic plan for UCLA, making sure any NBA-ready players would be able to leave Westwood in good academic standing and on track to return later and complete their degree requirements.
"It's about finding a balance and not changing who you are or what you believe in," Alford said. "You're going to attract the elite players in the country and have situations where players are staying in college for one or two years before jumping to the NBA. You're not going to see a whole team of that, but you have to recruit those people because if you don't, you're playing against them and they're the best of the best."
Good people make good things happen
Ask Alford about his coaching staff. You'll hear his excitement. Ask the assistant coaches about Alford, and it's clear they are passionate about working for Alford and helping UCLA compete for championships.
Building a coaching staff isn't just a matter of assembling the best or the brightest, but it's also about giving each coach a chance to shine and grow. UCLA's coaching staff looks poised to do both.
Broussard, David Grace and Ed Schilling each fill a specific need for the program. Grace joins the Bruins' staff after having recruited and coached for Oregon State. Schilling has earned a strong reputation as an individual skills guru, having worked with dozens of players in preparation for the NBA Draft Combine. Additionally, Schilling served as Wright State's head coach for six seasons (1997-2003). Broussard is known for his organization and best understands what Alford expects from his team and coaching staff.
"This was a chance for me to lock arms with one of my best friends in the world," said Schilling, who co-wrote a book with Alford in 1998. "This was just one of those situations where you'd be crazy not to do it."
And while Broussard was particularly proud of being part of this staff, Alford's leadership as a family man and winner stand out.
"When I first started working with Steve, I had 14 to 15 years in the business," Broussard said. "And part of me was like, `What else could I learn?' But he's showed me a different level of professionalism at the college level, a different level of excellence and concentration in terms of basketball. He reinforced the idea that it's a process in order to win. I know that because of previous coaches I worked with but for some reason, it all made sense, it all came together for me with Steve."
Broussard said he's never worked with a coach who mastered the work/family balance like Alford, who has three children, and noted Alford embraced having family members in the office and at practice.
"When your kids and your wife feel a part of it, they're more accepting of those times you have to be away," Broussard said. "That is where it has really helped me."
Playing for championships
Alford brings a winning pedigree with him to Westwood. During his collegiate career, he helped lead Team USA to the gold medal at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. Playing alongside all-time greats Michael Jordan and Patrick Ewing that summer, Alford was a part of the last U.S. amateur basketball squad to win the Olympic gold medal. Three years later as a senior at Indiana, he helped lead the Hoosiers to the 1987 NCAA Championship.
"Coach Alford will do a good job as far as really unifying the team," rising senior Travis Wear said. "He comes off as a guy you want to work for. He's been in the trenches himself, playing for Coach Knight at Indiana and playing in the NBA. He's a guy you listen to."
At each of Alford's previous four coaching stops, his players certainly listened and success followed. Alford has compiled a .663 winning percentage with a 463-225 record in 22 seasons as a head coach with seven trips to the NCAA Tournament. He leads all current college coaches of 48 years and younger with 463 all-time NCAA victories.
Since taking the job at UCLA, Alford has retained every returning player with the exception of future NBA talent Shabazz Muhammad, a likely first-round pick in next month's NBA Draft. Alford has also assembled a dynamic coaching staff and maintained a strong incoming freshman class, including PARADE All-America selections Zach LaVine and Bryce Alford, the head coach's second-eldest son.
He has continued to gain familiarity in the athletic department, and his early work with UCLA's returners has been encouraging. For a team that won the Pac-12 regular-season title yet endured an early exit from the NCAA Tournament, motivation for the returning players remains high.
Leading the Bruins' program, Alford not only hopes to continue his winning ways, but also wants to make sure his players understand their greater role in UCLA's community and student body.
"I try to set them up to be successful when they get to our program," Alford said. "I want them to be successful in the community and learn what it's about. My teams have done a lot of community work before. The amount of hours our kids work in the community and academically - it's about caring about them and making sure they're doing what they need to do and keeping them accountable."
The players are already learning that Alford and his staff care about their well-being, which has them buying into the program's national championship aspirations.
"Every time I see them, whether it's out on campus or in their office, they're asking how I'm doing and if everything is all right," rising junior Norman Powell said. "They wanted to know what we wanted changed immediately and when we made a list, everything we wanted has changed. We wanted a new shooting gun and they got it for us. We wanted more gym time and they found it for us. When we asked for more 5-on-5 to get up and down on the court, it happened."
Alford wants to maintain an up-tempo style of play, a free-flowing and fast-paced offense that will allow the Bruins to attack the basket in transition.
"I'm excited because I like to run," Travis Wear said. "As far as our other guys, too, I think it benefits our personnel and it's to our advantage to get out and push the ball. We have bigs that can run."
|Steve<!> Alford (right), with son Kory, and John Wooden|
Friend for life
Schilling played against Alford in high school and coached against his father as a high school coach in Indiana. Their friendship is an example of Alford's belief in building trust and remaining loyal to those who have earned it.
Schilling has served as an assistant coach in the NBA and a head coach at the college level. But even he understands how special this opportunity to coach at UCLA has been. Schilling and his longtime friend are reminded of some giant footsteps in more ways than one each day.
"We walk right past John Wooden's statue outside Pauley Pavilion," Schilling said. "It's almost like he's looking at us Indiana guys saying, 'Hey, you can do it.' You can make it here from Indiana. I'm fortunate, and he reminds me every day that if you treat people right and do things right, amazing things can happen. Legacies can be left here even if you're from small town Indiana."