Betting the Come On Steve Alford

By Daniel Libit

Having spent much of the last 12 months writing stories that augured Donald Trump’s political annihilation, my predictive abilities leave a little something to be desired. So I’m probably doing myself an added disservice by even bringing up Steve Alford, but I suppose this is my chance at small redemption. Anyway, here goes:

On that fateful day in March 2013, when Alford announced his decision to abandon his contract and his word at New Mexico, for a head-scratching offer from UCLA, it seemed almost too easy to claim this wouldn’t work out in the end.

With a few too many turns of phrase, that is more or less what I proclaimed at the time in a Deadspin piece titled, “Meet Steve Alford, UCLA’s Future Former Basketball Coach”, which, to this day, remains one of the most well-received things I’ve written. (Turns out, there’s a strong field of Alford cynics, particularly in the greater environs of Johnson County, Iowa.)

If history is a guide — and, as this election has shown, it is one until it isn’t — Alford should be Googling his next destination right about now: after all, auspiciously getting out of dodge has been one of the hallmarks of his professional life. Quoteth me, circa 2013:

Alford’s climbing up the coaching ladder is nothing remarkable, except maybe to certain climbers in the media. What is remarkable is that his careerism is totally at odds with the central lesson of his career so far. He could’ve been something like the Brad Stevens of the high desert if he didn’t also think like his generation’s answer to Larry Brown.

Needless to say, Alford still owes his professional life to the Lobos, who threw him a flotation device just as he was about to sink in a sea of mediocrity (and a rape coverup controversy) at Iowa. (The Lobos certainly did well with him, too.) That he looked this Albuquerque gift horse right between the teeth seemed to be a craven act of self-unawareness.

It was quick karma that Alford, on the day of his introductory press conference for the Bruins, was pilloried for his role, a decade before, in obfuscating the crimes of Pierre Pierce, his star player at Iowa. The lovely thing about coaching in the New Mexico “fishbowl” (get it?) was never having to be asked  about this ugly episode.

Of course, what I didn’t know was that UCLA would be giving a man who had repeatedly failed to get past the second round of the NCAA tournament the most “unprecedented”  (read: insane) contract: a seven-year deal with a $10.4 million buyout — a payment so rich, even UCLA would have a hard time affording it. Nor could things have gone any more charmed for the perma-charmed former Mr. Basketball, who, thanks to a most “controversial”  (read: stupid) goaltending call in the 2015 NCAA Tournament, reached back-to-back Sweet 16s with the Bruins.

And yet, despite that, a mutinous battalion began forming last year around the hills of Westwood  — accompanied by some arresting air support — as the team finished a dismal 15-17. Many UCLA fans thought that record was much more indicative of Alford’s abilities than the previous years’ March Madness runs.

Last week, ESPN.com’s Myron Medcalf wrote a lengthy story that set the stage for Alford’s current make-or-break season. Appropriately, Medcalf’s opening scene-setter neatly captured the escapist theme:

[Alford’s] mentors told him to flee each night, to get away from the busy campus in West Los Angeles so the job wouldn’t tempt him to come back after hours.

So Steve Alford moved his family to Calabasas, 20 protracted Los Angeles miles from UCLA’s campus, when he docked his boat next to John Wooden’s Ark and accepted the Bruins’ post in 2013.

At the end of last season, facing a moment of fan-base anarchy not experienced since his Hawkeyes days, Alford decided to “give back” the automatic extension year of his contract, a high sign of diffidence. At the very least, it momentarily muffled the cries of detractors, so he could unveil his most heralded recruiting class ever.

On the heels of his worst season in the last decade, Alford now seems primed for his best. Or so the polls and pundits would have you believe. Yes, it would appear that I may have gotten this dead wrong, too. And yet I’m not so inclined to back off. Lucky ducks and black swans may indeed float by, occasionally, but I’m still a believer in history’s transcendent guidance. And so I stipulate, once more: The man who came to New Mexico before the Big Ten ax fell on his neck; who choked against Harvard; and then bailed to Los Angeles; will be the man who is not coaching UCLA in 2017-2018.

Quod scripsi, scripsi.

Update #1 (12/3/16): Black swan rising 

(photo credit: SD Dirk/Flickr