Steve Alford gets what Shaka Smart is missing.
Only in The Land of Oz can New Mexico or VCU become an elite program. By accepting the UCLA job – one which he described as “the premier program in the country” – Alford has positioned himself to become a Top 5 coach, masterminding a Top 10 program.
As admirable as Smart’s allegiance to VCU is, there are only a handful of gigs that can automatically take you from unknown to untouchable. Head coaching opportunities at diamond-studded basketball programs – like UCLA, Georgetown, Indiana, Syracuse, Michigan, Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, Kentucky and Louisville – don’t come often.
Alford wouldn’t let his emotional attachment to the Lobos, and a new 10-year contract, blind his reasoning. He’s perfect for the job.
Alford familiarized himself with the legend of John Wooden as a first-grader in Martinsville, Ind. His dad, Sam, coached the high school basketball team at Wooden's alma mater. Then he played at Indiana under no-nonsense icon Bobby Knight. So Alford is familiar with high expectations. Knight’s principles of hard work, respect for the game, discipline and personal accountability has rubbed off.
Since winning the ‘87 NCAA Championship as a player, Alford coached Iowa to Big Ten Tournament Championships in ‘01 and ‘06, and won his fourth MWC title this season with New Mexico. Alford can’t do any more winning at the mid-major level. He’s honed his craft and he’s ready to become an immortal like Knight, whose fiery, demanding style helped the slow, undersized, slick-shooting Alford become a six-year NBA player. Tall task, but coaching at an immortal program offers that opportunity.
The UCLA program will always get big-time props because of the legacy left by Wooden and themythical NBA players that emerged from the Bruins talent pipeline. Despite reaching three Final Fours under Ben Howland, the Bruins’ program lost its moral core and swayed from the beliefs that made it consistently elite.
He has the fortitude, attitude and confidence to handle the demanding job. He’s also not too far removed from the game to relate to his young stars and balance a disciplinary hand with uplifting and motivating coaching tactics. It’s a great bet that Alford will win a National Championship before Smart and the Rams sniff another Final Four.
Look at the miracles Alford’s already performed with low-profile programs. Leading perennial creampuff Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16 (’98) is probably his dopest accomplishment. So just imagine handing Alford a 25-win UCLA squad with H.S. All-America talent oozing out of the gym. It’s like pouring water on a Chia Pet. Growth is inevitable. Just chill and enjoy the show.