Alford’s Big Ten Albatross

By Daniel Libit

Editor’s note: Amidst the rumblings about ex-Lobo coach Steve Alford’s potential return to Indiana, to lead the Hoosiers, one mustn’t  forget the last time he oversaw a Big Ten program. Alford’s coaching tenure at Iowa, from 1999-2007, included many missteps, but none more outrageous than his decision to stand by former star player Pierre Pierce, who was twice accused — and eventually convicted — of sexual assault. After Alford was hired at UCLA, I interviewed Pierce, in what were his first public comments about the matter since he went to prison. The following story was originally published on April 12, 2013 at ChicagoSideSports.com. 

After a few weeks of back-and-forth emailing, I finally received a telephone call today from Pierre Pierce. The former Westmont High School star is back in Chicago, for the moment, rehabbing his shoulder from an injury he suffered earlier this year while in France. While we spoke this morning, Pierce said was feeding his five-month old son, Jackson Pierre, who I could hear cooing in the background.

“Fortunately, I have a boy,” Pierce said. “I am very happy and very blessed and very fortunate to have a son.”

The photo above was taken two weeks after Jackson Pierre was born. Pierce met the mother while at the University of Iowa, where his name was carved into the cave walls of college basketball ignominy. She lives in Chicago. They’re not married but they are a couple, Pierce explained.

Anyway, of his son, Pierce told me: “I have learned from my mistakes and made costly mistakes and I point a finger at nobody but me. I have always taken responsibility and have learned from it, and it has helped me build a mature and stronger character and better moral values and now it is my responsibility to instill that in my young son. It definitely is a change. It changed my life.”

A corollary of UCLA’s decision two weeks ago to hire Steve Alford as the school’s head men’s basketball coach has been an excavation of the sordid scandal involving Pierce, Alford’s former star player-turned-albatross.

Alford was largely able to avoid this inconvenient history during his six seasons at New Mexico, where he coached following Iowa, but when he decided to make his ascent to UCLA, the school he termed the “pinnacle” of college basketball, he encountered a whole new round of questions.

So intense has this new wave of scrutiny been that yesterday, nine days after his introductory press conference – in which he   – Alford admitted his handling of the Pierce situation was “inappropriate, insensitive, and hurtful.”

His contrition, expressed through a sanitized press release, narrowly focused on initial public statements Alford made after Pierce was charged for sexually assaulting a woman during a party 11 years ago.

“At that time, I instinctively and mistakenly came to [Pierce’s] defense before knowing all the facts,” Alford said in the statement.

What Alford didn’t say is that he had recently received a congratulatory phone call from Pierce upon accepting the UCLA job.

“I heard the news when I was in France still and the first thing I did was give him a call and congratulate him,” Pierce told me. “We still speak form time to time. I just wanted to give him congratulations. Coach Alford is always someone I respect.”

I then read Pierce part of Alford’s statement from yesterday.

“I don’t have an issue with anything he had to stay,” Pierce said. “He has always been in my corner since he recruited me, so I have nothing – you will never find me saying anything about coach.”

Indeed, Alford was very much in Pierce’s corner. Not only did he publicly vouch for his players’ innocence, he helped to enlist Athletes in Action, an Evangelical Christian organization, to try to intercede with the victim.

In a recent interview with the Orange County Register, the former prosecutor in the case, J. Patrick White, said Alford’s constant public lobbying forced his hand in making a plea bargain with Pierce. Three years later, Pierce was charged with breaking into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment and assaulting her. This time, he was then kicked off the basketball team and eventually spent a year in jail.

Last Friday, a new allegation against Pierce emerged: Iowa City Press-Citizen sports columnist Pat Harty wrote a column alleging that Pierce also tried to assault his niece, when she was an 18-year-old college freshman at UI. According to Harty, he brought this incident to the attention of the school’s sports information department, but the basketball coaching staff stood by Pierce.  He wrote his niece decided against pressing charges so she could focus on her studies.

I read Pierce a portion of Harty’s column where he laid out the details of the accusation.

“I wish Pat Harty nothing but the best, but I can’t respond to everyone’s allegations or false allegations,” Pierce said. “I have moved on from my past. I am not calling it anything. If he wants to say anything about me, he can say it, and do with it what he wants to. At this point, I have moved on from Iowa, the writers, I have moved on from them all – far from them.”

So did he deny this incident?

“It couldn’t be more false,” he finally said. “If they wanted to press charges, why wait 10 years [until] Coach Alford has a job at UCLA to bring more negativity to it? My focus was about the future and nothing about the past because it has no merit.”

Pierce’s probation from the sexual assault conviction kyboshed any chance he’d make an NBA roster in 2007, despite a head-turning performance for the Golden State Warriors’ summer league team that year. But an Iowa judge allowed him to travel outside the country to play professionally, which he has done ever since.

He headed first to France, where he played for the club Hyeres-Toulon, then bounced around teams in Greece, Ukraine and Georgia. He broke his foot in 2010, has twice dislocated his shoulder, and suffered a blood clot in his leg last year. The latter requires him to where compression socks whenever he flies. He returned to Hyeres-Toulon for a brief stint this past December, replacing Daequan Cook, when he was signed by the Chicago Bulls.

Pierce turns 30 in June, and he thinks he still has a three or four more years of basketball left in him, “as long as the Lord blesses me with opportunity.”

I asked if he has ideas yet about his post-playing career, whether or not he ever thinks of being a coach.

“I do give it thought,” he said. “I do have knowledge. I would like to continue in some aspect. I wouldn’t be opposed to coaching or helping young kids. I feel like the things I have learned and coaches I have had and the experience has been a great teacher. I feel I could be able to give back.”

And, of course, he’s got a friend in Westwood.

“We have a coach-player relationship,” Pierce said of Alford. “And it was more than that when he was coaching me. From time to time, I check up on him and he checks up on me. He wishes me the best and I wish him the best.”

Postscript: During his NCAA Tournament press conference on Saturday, Alford was asked whether he regretted his handling of the Pierce situation by SB Nation’s Ellie Lieberman. Alford’s reply: “No, I talked about the Indiana situation on Thursday. So I have no other comment.” Pierce, according to his website, currently runs a basketball training company outside of Chicago. And Lobo fans dreaming that Alford will get the IU job and take Craig Neal off their hands, are indulging in some deeply wishful thinking.  

(Lead photo by Nkedan/Wikimedia Commons)